Counselor Vs. Psychologist: Understanding The Differences

Updated May 04, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Psychologists and Counselors perform similar work. The primary goal of both is to provide mental health counseling to those who need it. Much like you would go to an orthopedic specialist if you broke your leg or arm, or you would go to a neurologist if you had chronic migraines, people go to a counselor or psychologist if they need help with the inner workings of the mind. When you are troubled with emotions, hallucinations, stress, or inner voices that interfere with your daily life, you will seek out the help of a psychologist or counselor. However, if you needed to choose between who to see for mental health counseling, you should know the difference between career counseling specialties and psychological counseling.

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What Is A Psychologist?

A psychologist is a person who attends college and earns a four-year degree in psychology before moving on to a master’s or doctorate program. There are different kinds of psychologists, so colleges and universities have students choose a particular school psychologists program. The types of psychologists you can become typically include:

  • behavioral psychology
  • organizational psychology
  • general psychology
  • child and adolescents psychology
  • counseling psychology
  • educational psychology
  • clinical psychology
  • psychological research
  • forensic psychology

While each major has the same core classes, the specialty track classes vary since they are specific programs. Many degree programs will require you to get a master’s degree in psychology to find work as a psychologist, regardless of the field of study.

Behavioral Psychology

This program focuses on a school psychologist job or works as a behavioral psychologist after graduation.

Organizational Psychology

Organizational psychology is excellent for those who want to understand how people’s brains work regarding marketing and sales. Those who have an eye for business but also psychology tend to focus on the organizational psychology program.

General Psychology

A general psychology degree program is for those who do not have a specific program they want to enter. They may opt to declare a specialty field for their master's degree. These students will graduate with a bachelor’s of science in general psychology degree.

Children And Adolescents Psychology

People who want to work specifically with young children and teenagers study children and adolescent psychology.

Counseling Psychology

Counseling psychology is one path you may choose if you want to learn how to provide counseling services to those with mental health issues. Many times those who take counseling psychology end up going for a master's or doctorate in psychology. During their master's and doctorate programs, these people choose specialty paths to study.

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Educational Psychology

This program is geared towards school psychologists or those who want to study the way people learn. There is potential to work in a school setting with children and young adults.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology is the type of education you would want if you were looking to work in a group or private counseling center or practice.

Psychological Research

A psychological research background provides students with the tools needed to research and study psychological patients and treatments.

Forensic Psychology

This curriculum helps students understand why and how the brain controls emotions, actions, and reactions.

A psychologist is trained to look at the behaviors of people and the mental problems they are experiencing. Psychologists typically look at their patient’s past and present behavior. They also use counseling psychology techniques to understand the patient’s feelings and their problems to determine the cause of their symptoms or issues. They provide psychological services rather than talk therapy.

Counseling psychology utilizes behavior patterns and mental correlations. Having psychology degrees gives the provider more tools than are being used by a family and marriage counselor. While you do not need a psychology degree to provide counseling, you need psychology degrees to practice as a psychologist.

Psychologists typically go to school for at least six years, if not eight years. While they may earn a doctorate in psychology, they cannot provide prescription medications to a patient. A psychologist can recommend that the patient’s primary caregiver give the patient medication or refer the patient to a psychiatrist, who can provide prescriptions to their patients.

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Counselors and psychologists differ in many ways. As a counselor, there is no specific degree in counseling needed to start working as a counselor. However, there is a two to a three-year-long training program to properly be a counselor to patients. There are a variety of counseling programs.

Each of these programs encourages the patient to direct the treatment, where a psychologist uses more of a behavioral approach to direct the patient's treatments. This is the main difference between a psychologist and a counselor: how they provide treatment.

Sometimes counselors are supervised by a psychologist, especially in a clinical setting.

There are many realms of counseling work. These include:

  • Family counseling
  • Mental health counselors
  • Educational counseling
  • School counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Clinical mental health counseling
  • Grief counselor
  • Rehabilitation counselor
  • Social works counselors
  • Workers counselors

Family Counseling

Family Counseling is a sector of counseling that provides a counseling program with licensed counselors. These professional counselors help children, parents, and adults work through any familial issues that may exist. While they are considered a professional counselor, they are not the same as psychologists because the therapy is patient-led. Typically counselors have master’s degrees.

Mental Health Counselors

Mental health is a broad subject, as is the term mental health counselors. A mental health counselor is a licensed counselor who provides talk therapy services to mental health issues. This includes people with bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and other mental health counseling programs.

Education Counselors

These folks tend to work in a specific niche to help people reenter the workforce after either a long stint out of work or a mental health issue that prevented them from working prior. Education counseling offers a counseling program for people who want to get a job and earn an income. Education counseling is typically for adults.

School Counseling

A school counselor is typically a guidance counselor or school social worker who helps students struggle academically. School counselors and psychologists tend to work hand in hand to help the students earn the best education possible under whatever circumstances they face. Many school counselors provide mental health counseling programs to children and teenagers in a school setting.

Substance Abuse Counseling

Substance abuse counselors are often found at in-patient treatment centers or out-patient group therapy sessions for those with an addiction problem. A substance abuse counselor not only dives into why their patient used drugs or alcohol but helps them to find out what brought them to self-medicate or use drugs in the first place. These counseling programs follow a curriculum that allows them to carry their patients through their recovery stay. Substance abuse counseling is more than helping a patient to stop using drugs. Substance abuse counseling is about treating the whole individual, from past to present.

Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Professional counselors typically work in clinics or hospitals to help people with mental health issues. Counseling clinical patients are different from any other work because the people being treated are concerned for their social-emotional well-being. Clinicians have a master’s in counseling and work with the same group of patients for a few to several weeks at a time.

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Grief Counseling

Grief counselors help a patient manage a loss. Whether the patient lost a parent, a spouse, or a child, grief counselors work with delicate people and try to get them back to a place where they can function in society.

Rehabilitation Counselor

Rehabilitation counselors are typically found either in a drug rehab program or a physical rehabilitation program. Patients who had a life-changing experience, such as losing a limb, can benefit from rehabilitation counseling.

Social Workers Counselors

Social workers are utilized in a vast range of capacities. Some work with children and families where a child was removed from a home or placed with a foster family. Others work with the elderly to ensure that their medical needs are being met. Either way, a social worker can be an instrumental change for all of those in their caseload.

Workers Counseling

Workers counselors are sometimes found on the job and are utilized by employees struggling with personal or professional issues.

While education makes up a big part of the differences between psychologists and counselors, the type of work they perform is also somewhat different. Psychologists work with patients to find biological or physical causation for their mental health problems. At the same time, counselors utilize more of a talk-therapy approach, which is patient-driven. The more a patient wants to open up, the more successful their treatment will be overall.

The area in which counselors work also differs. The list of specializations of psychologists and counselors is quite different.


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