Psychotherapy vs. Counseling: Similarities, Differences, and How to Get Started

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 children live with mental health conditions. With millions of people daily impacted by mental health conditions, understanding available treatment options are essential to helping you choose the best provider and approach. 

Psychotherapy and counseling are therapies used to improve mental health and well-being. While people may use the terms interchangeably because they have similarities, there are also differences.

Counseling is a short-term therapy focused on addressing specific concerns. Psychotherapy is a longer-term therapy that helps people identify and explore recurring themes and issues.

This article highlights the similarities and differences between psychotherapy and counseling. Keep reading to learn more about what to consider when choosing an approach and what to expect when connecting with a mental health provider. 

Young woman sitting on a couch, visibly upset, speaking with a mental health provider.

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What to Know About Psychotherapy

Also known as "talk therapy," psychotherapy is a term used for various treatment techniques and can occur over the years or intermittently over time. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and psychoanalytic therapy are some commonly known forms of psychotherapy.

In psychotherapy, mental health providers and clients work together to identify recurring issues and examine how they impact their present life. This long-term treatment allows clients to explore their thoughts, emotions, and experiences of the world. Clients can develop healthy patterns and make long-lasting changes in their lives by uncovering and talking about core issues. 

Psychotherapists use different therapeutic modalities (techniques) to treat mental health conditions, including addiction and substance use disorders, eating disorders, anxiety and mood disorders, phobias, traumas, and more. 

What to Know About Counseling

Counseling is shorter-term therapy that helps clients resolve specific issues. Someone might seek counseling to work on a particular issue or stressor. Once the counselor and client identify the issue, treatment focuses on how to manage it. This might be through challenging thoughts, modifying behaviors, or learning coping strategies. 

Individuals engaged in counseling may expect to spend anywhere from six weeks to six months in treatment. The role of the counselor is to offer guidance and support as the client creates solutions that work for them. Types of counseling include grief counseling and marriage and family therapy

Similarities and Differences

Counseling and psychotherapy are both used to treat mental health concerns. Psychotherapists and counselors work in various settings, such as schools, hospitals, community centers, private practice, and inpatient facilities. Mental health professionals offering psychotherapy or counseling have roles and titles such as licensed mental health counselors, licensed marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, professional counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists

Similarities between counseling and psychotherapy include:

  • Open, safe, non-judgmental, and empowering atmosphere to explore issues and problems 
  • Collaborative, therapeutic relationship as the foundation for growth and change
  • Both can be utilized by adults and children
  • Acknowledge thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  • Both can be used in various settings (community centers, private practice, schools)

A major difference between the two is the mental health provider's level of training. Clinicians who practice psychotherapy receive extensive training to treat mental health conditions. Other differences include:

  • Psychotherapy tends to be long-term, while counseling is short-term
  • Psychotherapy focuses on problems, and counseling is geared toward solutions
  • In psychotherapy, past concerns are often explored, while counseling focuses on the present 

What Type of Therapy Is Best for You?

It can be difficult to know which type of professional you should see. It’s essential to consider a few factors, including your concerns, what you hope to accomplish in therapy, and how much of a commitment you can make to treatment to determine your best option. 

You might consider seeing a counselor if you are:

  • Struggling with addictive behaviors
  • Interested in learning new coping skills
  • Having difficulty dealing with a transition or change
  • Trying to develop healthier habits
  • Dealing with grief

You might think about seeing a psychotherapist if you are: 

  • Diagnosed with a mental health condition
  • Noticing changes or worsening of mental health symptoms 
  • Experiencing unresolved issues that continue to manifest themselves in your daily life
  • Enduring a traumatic or another significant event 
  • Having trouble resolving a concern in counseling

Finding a Mental Health Provider

So, you know you want to talk to a mental health provider but are unsure how to find one. A good first step might be speaking with a healthcare provider you're already established with, like your primary healthcare provider. They may be able to provide you with a referral. Other avenues you can try include:

Mental Health Resources

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health concerns, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

Getting Started

Research shows that a positive therapeutic relationship is one of the best predictors of positive therapy outcomes and improvements in quality of life. So, before you embark on a journey in therapy, it's crucial to choose a provider you trust. 

Once you've narrowed it down to a few potential providers, ask for a consultation. Many providers offer this as an opportunity to share a little about their education, training, experience, and style. You can also use that time to share your concerns and what you hope to accomplish in therapy and discuss how you might work together. 

You can talk to a few mental health providers before making a decision. Questions that might be helpful to ask when getting to know a provider include:

  • What can you tell me about your education and training?
  • How would you describe your therapy style?
  • What kind of approaches or modalities do you use?
  • What are your specialties?
  • What are the risks and benefits of therapy?

Determine what feels important for you to share about yourself. Give them a general sense of your concern and ask about their experience treating clients with similar circumstances. Having this conversation before committing to a provider can offer a sense of what therapy might look like with them.


Counseling and psychotherapy are types of therapy a mental health provider may offer to clients seeking to address mental health concerns and daily challenges.

Counseling tends to be short-term and focused on addressing a specific problem, like developing coping strategies. Psychotherapy tends to be longer-term and examines thoughts, feelings, and experiences throughout a person's life and how they currently impact them.

Understanding the distinction between the two can help individuals decide which kind of therapy they want to pursue. 

A Word From Verywell

Starting therapy is a big step. Engage in self-exploration and consider your concerns and what you'd like to accomplish by working with a mental health provider. Researching therapy modalities, mental health providers, and available resources can help you feel more empowered and prepared.

5 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. Locher C, Meier S, Gaab J. Psychotherapy: a world of meanings. Front Psychol. 2019;10:460. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00460

  3. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Psychotherapies.

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By Geralyn Dexter, LMHC
Geralyn is passionate about empathetic and evidence-based counseling and developing wellness-related content that empowers and equips others to live authentically and healthily.