Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/21/2021
Counseling vs. therapy: Years ago these terms could mean the same thing. Even depression, anxiety and panic are sometimes used as catch-all descriptions which are sometimes interchangeable with one another.
Mental health support, however, has come a long way in the last few decades—and both the stigma behind treatment and the processes involved have been reduced and refined respectively—for the better.
Of course, when it comes to mental health support and counseling vs. therapy, more clarity can be helpful—which is why the below information can help explore the differences between the two, to help you determine which might be best for you. We also have a guide on the differences between a therapist vs psychiatrist, in case you're curious.
It’s fair to say that the many types of counseling and therapy available today result from an increased frequency in mental illness diagnoses—not to mention a reduction in stigma when it comes to needing mental health treatment and support.
According to 2019 data, more than a fifth of all U.S. adults were suffering from mental health issue, and a significant portion of those diagnosed experienced a serious mental illness—which could impair, interfere with or limit one or more major life activities.
In other words, there are a lot of people suffering from mental illness at a variety of levels, and across a variety of demographics.
To put it simply, counseling deals with the here and now. It’s common to misconstrue counseling as a shallow level of therapeutic practice, because the end goal of counseling is to look at today’s problems, and then apply and coordinate today's solutions.
Counseling or rather the counselors conducting sessions have a few primary differences from therapists.
For starters, a counselor doesn’t always need a master’s or doctoral degree to practice.
Counseling might also be considered day-at-a-time therapy, because in many ways, sessions relate to the short term, and often employ incremental goals to help shape a solution to problems.
It’s helpful to note that counseling can be employed both alongside and in place of traditional therapy depending on an individual’s needs.
The focus simply relates to current behavioral issues at hand, to help provide more immediate solutions to problems.
When it comes to counseling vs. therapy, therapy by comparison can have a more rigid, academic or institutional way of approaching problems.
And rather than dissect today’s issues for tomorrow’s resolutions, a therapist may employ a variety of tactics to look at underlying disorders—over a much longer period of time.
The term “therapists” can sometimes include psychologists—which you can learn more about in this article on the differences between therapists and psychologists.
The biggest difference between a therapist and counselor typically relates to their education. Therapists don’t necessarily need to be doctors, but to perform certain therapeutic roles they may need a master’s degree or more.
For example, a psychiatrist holds a medical degree, and in. almost all cases, a therapist must be licensed.
Therapists need at least a master’s degree in order to practice, and many states won’t issue a license to a psychologist without a doctoral degree.
Therapists must also maintain their license through continuing education, and may specialize in disorders and/or therapeutic techniques.
They may also undergo supervised practice for 1-2 years in a given specialty.
In terms of counseling vs. therapy, here’s another potential point of overlap: While therapeutic techniques are structured and well-defined academically, many of the same techniques are also employed by counselors.
Yet therapy is less of a “cure” than counseling. Rather, it’s a structured safe space to talk about and understand ongoing issues with emotions, cognitive functions and other impairments you may be dealing with.
One of the most commonly embraced therapeutic styles is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps patients recognize disordered patterns and systems of thinking that may be leading to depressive, anxious or other negative thoughts.
Numerous studies have shown that CBT is effective as a treatment framework.
You can explore CBT in more detail in this guide: What Is Psychotherapy and How Does it Work?.
CBT is best known as a form of talk therapy commonly used by both counselors and therapists.
While counseling and therapy aren’t the same, they’re both mental health treatment options that work toward the same goal: helping you talk through and understand your problems, and become better equipped to handle them on your own.
The major differences are time, approach and the rigor required to obtain a practitioner’s title.
It’s important to note that only a psychiatrist or medical doctor can prescribe medication, and this can be done in conjunction with therapy.
What seems to matter most when it comes to mental health treatment, however, is connection.
Therapists and counselors are humans helping humans, and while they shouldn’t be thought of as your friends, the one you choose should make you feel comfortable, free to speak and heard.
As such, you may need to meet with more than one professional before you find the right one.
None of this is to say you should expect miracles, and like much else in life, both therapy and counseling can take time.
Your journey to mental wellbeing may start with understanding your personal issues more clearly. Here are some resources to help, including this guide to depressive symptoms. You can also read about the benefits of therapy for men in our blog.
If you’re ready to take the next step, consider online psychiatry for accessible therapy and possible medication, or take a look at other mental health treatment options to see if they’re right for you.