The differences between counselors, therapists and psychologists can be confusing, and finding the right professional is essential to finding the right care. You may be looking for group therapy with your family, spouse, or peers, individual therapy to address obstacles in your life, or clinical therapy to address a disorder through medication. When it comes to counselors vs therapists, what’s the difference and which is best for you? This information can help you decide.
Counselor vs Therapist: What’s Different? What’s Similar?
Professionals who provide guidance, support, and treatment for mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders or obstacles are generally classified under three terms: counselors, therapists, and psychologists. Some of these terms are used interchangeably in conversation, though they are not technically the same. The main differences between counselors vs therapists are in their licenses, experience, education, and approaches to treatment.
Since licensing and education significantly contribute to the differences between counselors vs therapists vs psychologists, their roles and definitions may vary from state to state. In Michigan, each professional’s unique role is best defined by the relevant regulatory body, such as the Michigan Board of Counseling for counselors or the Michigan Board of Marriage and Family Therapy for therapists.
In other areas, requirements and licensing may be set by different regulatory bodies. These are usually State Boards of; Certified Counselors, Social Work, Marital and Family Therapy, and Psychology. If you’re wondering about the education and experience of professionals in your state, this is a good place to start.
Who is best for you?
Though different counselors, therapists, psychologists and other experts may have different levels or types of education, this is not necessarily the best indicator of a good therapy relationship. The best way to find a professional who is best for you is to ask about their experience and treatment approach. One therapist or counselor might simply have a personality or treatment approach that works better for you, regardless of their credentials or title.
Remember that it is okay to stop therapy or counseling if you don’t feel that the relationship is right for you, but keep in mind it may take time to find a good fit. With a phone consultation or with your first or second session, you’ll usually know what to expect and you’ll be able to gauge whether or not the therapist, counselor, or psychologist is right for you.
Counselor vs Therapist: Who They Treat
In Michigan, a counselor refers to a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). An LPC must have a master’s or doctoral degree in counseling, including classes in counseling techniques, counseling theories, group techniques, research, multicultural counseling, and more. An LPC can provide many types of therapy and work with individuals and groups. An LPC can obtain additional certifications to provide treatment for other disorders such as addiction treatment programs.
A counselor can treat any of the following issues, among others;
- Family and marital problems
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Uncontrolled anger
- Low self-esteem
- Life transition obstacles
- Loss and grief
- Behavioral issues in children and teens
Some counselors and therapists use these terms interchangeably for the comfort of their patients. A patient may be more comfortable with the word “counseling” over “therapy.” The title “therapist” may refer specifically to a marriage and family therapist. In Michigan, this professional would be certified by the Michigan Board of Marriage and Family Therapy. Marriage and family therapists must also obtain either a master’s or doctoral degree, however their studies focus more on family and group therapy and methodology.
A marriage and family therapist may provide;
- Couples therapy
- Marriage counseling
- Family therapy for parents and children
- Therapy for truant or struggling teens
- Group therapy for work situations
- Group therapy for children
A therapist might also refer to a psychotherapist or psychoanalyst. This professional works with individuals, but uses a slightly different type of treatment compared to a counselor, which we’ll discuss more later in the post.
Psychologist or Psychiatrist
A psychologist is similar to a therapist and counselor, but generally works with more serious conditions. Licensed by the Michigan Board of Psychology, psychologists must have a doctoral degree in psychology from an approved institution. Psychologists may also be specialized in research or academia. Psychologists must have a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy degree) in psychology or a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology degree). There are slight differences between each of these degrees. Counselors, therapists, and other professionals might also hold these degrees.
A psychologist requires an additional Medical Doctor (MD) degree to prescribe medication to treat mental or emotional disorders, and in this case may be called a psychiatrist. While a psychiatrist can prescribe medications themselves, counselors or therapists without an MD may make a recommendation to your general practitioner instead, or another medical expert you see. Either of these methods can be effective for you.
A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) may also provide counseling and therapy similar to the previous occupations. A LCSW may work with individuals, families or children, and generally works as a liaison between them and a government agency. A LCSW may be particularly concerned with the welfare of children or another pressing issue. This occupation requires similar licensure, training, education and experience as a therapist and counselor.
Counselor vs Therapist: Treatment Approach
When comparing a counselor vs therapist in their treatment approach, counselors generally treat each person and their situation individually, and provide coping strategies that best suit their needs and personality. For example, a counselor may help a client practice cognitive behavioral therapy to treat anxiety, depression, anger, and other disorders or difficult emotions. If group therapy is a constructive option, such as for families or couples, the counselor may mediate role-playing situations.
Though this is not always the case, a counselor generally places more emphasis on treating or coping with negative behaviors, and developing strategies for living a constructive and positive lifestyle. Unless it is essential to the treatment or a patient has asked to discuss it, a counselor will probably not delve into childhood experiences or how a mental or emotional challenge began. A counselor generally does not practice psychoanalysis, though counselors use other treatment approaches and strategies that therapists might also use.
A marriage or family therapist focuses more on group dynamics and interpersonal relationships. Though individual obstacles such as anxiety or depression may be addressed, the therapist will likely focus on treating these struggles in the context of the relationship. For example, a couple working through issues with trust may have to address one or both partners’ anxiety first.
A psychotherapist, by contrast, generally works with individuals, and may place more emphasis on getting to the root cause or start of a problem. While a psychotherapist also focuses on treating and coping with problematic mental or emotional challenges, this type of therapist might also explore childhood events, upbringing, and parenting to see how the challenge began.
A psychologist or, with an MD, a psychiatrist generally focuses on the individual’s needs and care in order to achieve a safe and comfortable lifestyle. Since psychologists and psychiatrists often treat serious disorders, there may be special focus on preventing potentially dangerous behaviors and integrating successfully with peers.
A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) generally works with the government, and is concerned with harm to an individual, usually a child. This professional may use talk therapy and other techniques that counselors and therapists use, however their goal will most likely be to determine the welfare of the patient. They may also look into an individual’s or family’s lifestyle and home environment, and speak with multiple family members.
Counselor vs Therapist: Which Should You Choose?
When choosing between a counselor vs therapist for yourself or a loved one, it’s important to consider your goals and expectations for therapy. If you want to strengthen your relationship with a loved one or work through a specific problem, it’s best to work with a professional who specializes in couples or family therapy, and this may be a counselor or a therapist. If you are seeking individual therapy to cope with stress, grief, anxiety, depression, or similar obstacles, a counselor specializing in these disorders will likely be the best fit for you. If you or a loved one is struggling with a disorder which seriously affects their lifestyle or endangers themselves or others, a psychologist or psychiatrist may offer the best type of care.
At Michigan Counseling Centers, we are the experts in resolving any issue that might be causing you discomfort. We currently offer counseling services in Bloomfield Hills and Taylor, and plan to expand our services to other communities.
To inquire about or receive treatment, please contact us and we will follow up with you to schedule an initial consultation.