Counselors Vs. Psychologists: Understanding The Differences

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated November 14, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Psychologists and counselors perform similar work and are both licensed mental healthcare providers. As you might see an orthopedic specialist if you break your bone or go to a neurologist for brain-related concerns, you can go to a psychologist or counselor when experiencing a mental health or stress-related concern. However, there can be a few differences between the two titles, so understanding each may help you make an informed decision on the type of care you’d like to receive.

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What Is A Psychologist?

A psychologist is a doctorate-level professional who has gone through a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate. There are many types of psychologists, and not every psychologist pursues the same type of career. For example, clinical psychologists practice therapy, whereas research psychologists often perform clinical studies and do not offer direct client support outside the studies.  

Below are a few of the psychology specialties: 

  • Behavioral psychology
  • Organizational psychology
  • General psychology
  • Child and adolescent psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Educational psychology
  • Clinical psychology
  • Psychological research
  • Forensic psychology

While many psychologists take the same core classes, they may take different classes for electives or have an internship in their specialty. On the master’s level, many psychologists receive a master’s in counseling, psychology, or social work before moving on to a Ph.D. program. 

Behavioral Psychology

The behavioral psychology program may involve teachings on school psychology, child or adolescent behavior, adult behavior, or behavioral counseling. 

Organizational Psychology

Organizational psychology allows psychologists to learn how the brain works regarding marketing and sales. Those with an eye for business who want to work in the psychological field may focus on the organizational psychology program.

General Psychology

Often, those getting a Ph.D. in psychology who do not have a specialty may study under general psychology and decide on a career after school. 

Child And Adolescent Psychology 

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

Educational Psychology

Many individuals studying educational psychology may go on to become professors in psychology or work in an educational setting like a university as a school psychologist. 

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychologists are psychologists that offer therapy and direct clinical support to clients. They are licensed to provide therapy in their state and may also provide psychological diagnostic testing, therapy groups, or other services. 

Psychological Research

A psychological research background gives students the tools to research and study psychological treatments. They may write in psychological journals or lead clinical trials. 

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychologists learn to understand the motives, emotions, and thoughts behind crimes and how they are solved. They might help legal professionals solve cases by offering professional guidance. 

How Do Psychologists And Counselors Differ? 

Psychologists offer many of the same services as counselors. However, they differ because they do not always offer counseling, and they have a higher education in many cases. Psychologists often have a doctorate and can perform clinical research, teach lectures, perform psychological testing, and provide clients with a wide range of treatments.

Psychologists go to school for six to ten years and may spend some time practicing under clinical supervision or an internship. Although they earn a doctorate in psychology, they cannot provide prescription medications to a client in most states. Psychiatrists are medical doctors that can provide prescription medications. 

Counselors are licensed mental health providers with at least a master’s degree in counseling, social worker, or psychology. Counselors often go to school for less time and may have lesser requirements for licensure. Often, these providers offer counseling, talk therapy, and short-term support. They might be unable to offer psychological testing or specific specialties of care.

Sometimes counselors are supervised by a psychologist. When a counselor first partakes in supervised clinical work, a psychologist may oversee their learning. 

A few specialties in the counseling field include the following: 

  • Family counseling
  • Mental health counseling 
  • Educational counseling
  • School counseling
  • Substance use counseling
  • Clinical mental health counseling
  • Grief counseling 
  • Rehabilitation counseling 
  • Social work 
  • Career counseling 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Getty/AnnaStills

Family Counselors

Family counselors are licensed mental health providers that work with children, adolescents, and adults to develop a treatment plan for family goals. They may have extra marriage and family therapy training and be licensed as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT).

Mental Health Counselors

A mental health counselor is a licensed counselor who provides counseling for anyone seeking mental health support. Many states use the following abbreviations for the licensure of mental health counselors: 

  • LCPC: Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
  • LMHC: Licensed Mental Health Counselor
  • LCMHC: Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
  • MFCC: Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor
  • LPC: Licensed Professional Counselor 
  • NCC: National Certified Counselor 

Education Counselors

Educational counselors often work in an educational setting to offer academic-based advice, counseling, and support. They may help high school students apply for colleges, set goals, and discuss challenges in school. They can also work in universities or elementary schools. 

School Counselors 

A school counselor is similar to an educational counselor and may be called a guidance counselor. They often offer academic support, bullying advice, and mental health resources to children, teens, and young adults. School counselors and psychologists may work together to help students earn the best education possible under whatever circumstances they face. 

Substance Use Counselors 

Substance use counselors may work at in-patient treatment centers or outpatient group therapy centers for those struggling with substance use. A substance use counselor may help their client discuss their reasons for using substances and how to replace their urges with healthier behaviors. 

Clinical Mental Health Counselors 

Professional counselors often work in clinical settings to support clients. They may work under a psychologist for a supervised internship or work as a one-on-one practice therapist. 

Grief Counselors 

Grief counselors help clients cope with loss. Whether the client lost a parent, a spouse, a child, or another loved one, grief counselors work with them where they’re at to feel in control of their situation, validate their emotions, and remember the person they loved. 

Rehabilitation Counselors

Rehabilitation counselors often work in rehabilitation centers to help those experiencing detox or recovery from a substance dependency. Clients who have experienced a life-changing event, like losing a limb, may also benefit from rehabilitation counseling. 

Social Workers

Clinical social workers can offer counseling and be licensed like counselors to guide clients. They may work in foster situations, as an adult therapist, or in humanitarian or non-profit settings. Many social workers also offer case management and resource services. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
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Career Counselors 

Career counselors guide those seeking career support, aptitude testing, or employer-mandated personality testing. They may offer mental health support or focus primarily on career goals and insights. 

Counseling Options 

There are many types of counselors and psychologists available to support their communities. When looking for an individual that meets your needs, research their job title and the types of populations they often serve in their career. You can also contact professionals to schedule a short consultation to ask questions about their approach to therapy. 

You can also consider online counseling or therapy if you face barriers to finding a professional that meets your needs. Online therapy can be more cost-effective, convenient, and flexible than many in-person options, and you can reach thousands of therapists instead of those only available in your area. If you’re looking for a specific type of specialist, online therapy can help you find it more efficiently. 

Studies also back up the effectiveness of online therapy. One study found that online mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was as effective as in-person therapy for treating symptoms of anxiety and depression. You can find many other online modalities through platforms like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. 

Takeaway

There are a few differences between psychologists and counselors; knowing these differences before you seek support can be beneficial. If you’re ready to get started, consider contacting a mental health provider in your area or online for further guidance.

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