In contrast to the US, the differences between a counsellor and a psychotherapist aren't always so clear-cut here in the UK. You might come across some psychotherapists who refer to themselves as counsellors, and vice versa. Similarly, some therapists will talk about integrating both counselling and psychotherapy techniques in their sessions. These kinds of blurry lines can make things a little confusing when you’re trying to decide between the two.
To dispel any confusion, we’ve laid out some general rules and key differences you can expect when choosing between either a counsellor, a psychotherapist or a psychologist:
A counsellor generally puts their focus to what’s happening to you in the present. This could be difficulties at work/home, one specific traumatic event such as a bad break up or losing your job, or even just feeling more stressed than usual. A counsellor will look at your immediate presenting symptoms and behaviour (e.g. feeling more anxious than usual) and how that’s impacting your life, rather than delving deeper into your childhood or past.
Looking at these symptoms, the counsellor will focus on equipping you with workable, short-term tools that can help you break out of negative thoughts and habits. This means that counselling normally has a shorter duration, lasting anywhere from just 6 sessions, and rarely more than 6 months of treatment.
Counselling can be carried out individually, as a couple or even in groups - depending on your needs and what you feel most comfortable with.
Whilst there are lots of different approaches to counselling, the most common ones you’re likely to come across are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Couples Counselling and Person-Centred Therapy.
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them” - Albert Ellis, often referred to as the “Father” of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Similar to a counsellor, a psychotherapist will also provide a safe environment for you to share your thoughts and concerns, and work towards helping you manage challenging emotional patterns and habits. However, the angle they take will be slightly different to that of a counsellor.
Generally speaking, a psychotherapist’s approach is more in-depth. This means that a psychotherapist will turn their focus to emotions and experiences you encountered growing up - as a child or young adult - as well as your presenting symptoms and issues, in order to shed light on how these experiences have shaped who you are today.
A psychotherapist will place an emphasis on creating a space for you to feel comfortable to open up and share experiences from your past. The idea being that once these buried experiences (and their accompanying emotions) are brought to the surface, they can be fully processed, and ultimately, released. For this reason, psychotherapy is normally a frequent (anywhere from 1 - 5 times a week) and long-term process (6 months to several years), allowing you the time and space to fully open up.
Whilst a counsellor might be more focused on helping you with symptoms (anxiety, stress, difficulties sleeping etc.), a psychotherapist also deals with mental health conditions that have developed over a longer period of time. This means a psychotherapist will work with more complex mental health conditions too, such as PTSD, OCD, and long-term anxiety disorders. Also, depending on their approach, a psychotherapist might choose to use counselling techniques alongside psychotherapy as part of their treatment plan.
Whilst there are lots of different forms of psychotherapy, the most common approaches are, Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, Jungian Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy.
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes” - Carl Jung, whose ideas formed the basis of Psychoanalytic Psychology.
A counselling psychologist differs from a counsellor or psychotherapist primarily from an educational standpoint. A counselling psychologist is someone who has studied psychology at university, and afterwards made the decision to move out of a research role and into counselling. From there, they will have chosen to complete a postgraduate qualification in counselling psychology to allow them to practice.
As a result, a counselling psychologist is likely to come from a slightly different perspective to a psychotherapist or a counsellor. Having studied psychology at university, they’ll have researched the mind and human behaviour in more detail which usually makes their approach more science-focused. For this reason, you’ll typically find counselling psychologists working in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and rehab units, alongside working privately with clients.
There’s a lot of overlap when it comes to a clinical psychologist and a counselling psychologist. Both will have completed their undergraduate degree in psychology, and then chosen to complete the three year doctorate (in either counselling psychology or clinical psychology, respectively). Both are also employed in similar settings like hospitals, schools, universities and different health establishments - with many also working privately.
The main differences can be found in the types of issues they work with. A counselling psychologist will tend to work with healthier clients (those experiencing more surface-level emotional and social issues), whereas a clinical psychologist will normally work with people suffering more complex mental health conditions, such as personality disorders and major depressive disorders.
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Or for more tips, read our guide on how to choose the right therapist.