How to Choose Between a Counselor and a Therapist

Therapy, also called psychotherapy or talk therapy, is a conversation-based service provided by a mental health professional to assess, diagnose, and treat patterns relating to maladaptive thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

When seeking mental health support, choosing a provider can be confusing. The roles of therapists and counselors overlap, and the terms "counselor" and "therapist" are sometimes used interchangeably. Even so, there are differences between the two professionals that may impact which one would be a good fit for someone seeking care.

Learn more about what counselors and therapists are, their differences, and things to consider when choosing a provider.

counselor and client

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Counselor vs. Therapist

Counselors and therapists are both mental health professionals. Depending on the therapist and counselor and the training and qualifications of the individuals, both can provide talk therapy. For example, a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist may both provide talk therapy. However, there are differences between counselors and therapists.

What Is a Counselor?

A counselor is a specially trained mental health professional who evaluates, provides information, and guides clients in problem-solving, decision-making, and changes in attitude and behavior.

What Is a Therapist?

A therapist is a specially trained mental health professional who is educated in psychotherapy techniques and treats mental health conditions such as major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

Differences

Therapists often focus on diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. Counselors, on the other hand, tend to help with life challenges. However, there is overlap. Therapists can support life challenges and counselors can work with people who have mental health conditions. Additionally, therapists and counselors often work with the same populations who experience similar challenges.

In general, the differences between therapists and counselors include:

  • Counselors tend to offer short-term care, while therapists tend to offer long-term care.
  • Therapists can be more past focused and counselors more future focused.
  • Counselors often have a set number of sessions, and therapists often work on an ongoing basis.
  • Therapists are more likely to treat mental health conditions.
  • Counselors are more likely to support life challenges such as relationship difficulties, job changes, or adjusting after a move.
  • Therapists tend to do more in-depth mental health work.

Qualifications

The qualifications for counselors and therapists often depend on how they work and their specializations. Requirements may also differ across the United States. In general, licensed counselors and licensed therapists are both required to complete formal education programs to obtain degrees, commonly master's degrees, and meet licensing requirements, such as passing exams.

Licensed counselor qualifications include:

  • Earn a master's degree in counseling from an accredited program
  • Log 2,000–3,000 hours of supervised experience
  • Pass a comprehensive licensing exam

Licensed therapist qualifications include:

  • Earn a master's or doctorate degree in therapy from an accredited program
  • Log 1,500–3,000 hours of supervised experience
  • Pass a comprehensive licensing exam

What About Psychologists?

A psychologist is a mental health professional in the field of psychology who may specialize in a subfield, such as counseling, development, education, forensics, health, or industrial and organizational psychology. Like counselors and therapists, there are professional licenses for psychologists. However, psychologists have a doctorate level of education with a degree in philosophy (Ph.D.), psychology (Psy.D.), or education (Ed.D.).

Here are some things to know about psychologists:

  • They are mental health professionals.
  • They have earned a doctorate degree.
  • They diagnose and treat mental health disorders.
  • They can provide counseling, therapy, or other services.
  • They specialize in subfields.
  • They may work in industries such as business or education.

Things to Consider

When choosing a therapist, counselor, or another mental health professional, it is important to consider your compatibility with the provider and their personality or way of practicing.

It is important to find a provider who is trained in or who specializes in the area of the topic or problem to be addressed. However, it is just as important for each patient or client to be comfortable with the provider. This offers a more positive and effective experience. It is OKto switch to a different provider after the first couple of sessions.

Questions to Ask When Choosing a Therapist or Counselor

  • Do I want ongoing support or a set number of sessions?
  • Am I looking for support for a specific mental health concern, a life challenge, or general support?
  • How do I feel when I am talking with the provider?
  • What are their specializations and what kind of training do they have?

Long Term vs. Short Term

Some people only need support for a short period of time to address a specific issue or challenge. Others benefit from ongoing support or self-examination. In general, counselors tend to work on a short-term basis, while therapists tend to provide long-term care. However, each professional is different, and the length of treatment partially depends on the patient or client and what they need.

What They Address

There is a lot of overlap between counselors and therapists and the issues and topics they address. For example, they can both help romantic partners with their relationships, and they can both provide support for people living with mental health conditions. However, therapists tend to support more with mental health conditions while counselors tend to help you through general life challenges.

Additionally, therapists and counselors can differ in how they provide support and the type of support they provide. For example, therapists are more likely to provide talk therapy. Counselors, on the other hand, are more likely to provide education and guidance.

Issues and topic areas commonly addressed by counselors include:

  • Behavioral and emotional challenges
  • Communication challenges
  • Daily life challenges
  • Life events and transitions
  • Relationship challenges

Issues and topic areas commonly addressed by therapists include:

How to Start

Making the decision to try therapy or counseling is the first step toward getting help. Services may be covered by insurance plans, and insurance companies may be able to provide a list of professionals covered by the plans. Healthcare providers such as primary care physicians may be able to recommend providers. You may also wish to ask trusted friends and family members for recommendations.

People seeking support from a counselor or therapist can call the offices of providers for more information about specializations and what issues or topics the provider may address. You may also be able to have a session or two before deciding if that provider is a good fit.

Summary

Therapists and counselors are two different types of mental health professionals. Depending on the qualifications and training of the specific professional, they may both provide psychotherapy (talk therapy).

There is a lot of overlap between the two fields, but there are also differences. For example, counselors tend to work with life challenges and on a more short-term basis, while therapists are more likely to treat mental health conditions and work on an ongoing basis.

A Word From Verywell

There are many hardships that people can face throughout life, such as relationship challenges, stressful events, and mental health conditions. If you think you could benefit from working with a counselor or therapist, reach out to a mental health or medical professional for more information. Seeking support can be intimidating, but help is available, and there are many options between counseling and therapy and the different specializations of both fields.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much does therapy cost?

    The cost of therapy depends on the provider, their qualifications, and the location you live in. Costs can range from $65 to $500 or more per hour, but the average is about $100 to $200 per hour.

  • What do you talk about in therapy?

    What is discussed in therapy depends on the person receiving the therapy, why they chose to go to therapy, what they want to discuss, and the provider. Some common topics addressed are past experiences, current challenges, future plans, and relationships.

  • How much does a counselor make?

    Counselor income ranges from about $25,000 to $80,000 per year.

  • How much does a therapist make?

    Therapist income ranges from about $30,000 to $150,000 per year.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Psychiatric Association. What is psychotherapy?

  3. American Psychological Association. Counselor.

  4. American Psychological Association. Therapist.

  5. Northeastern University. Counselors vs. therapists vs. psychologists.

  6. American Psychological Association. Psychologist.

  7. American Psychological Association. How to choose a psychologist.