What is the Difference Between Counseling and Psychotherapy?

What is the difference between counseling and psychotherapy? Is there a difference? This answer can be a bit confusing at times, but put simply these terms have similar meanings among individuals in the helping profession and are often used interchangeably. There are some subtle differences among the terms, however most of the time they may be referring to the same concept or idea.

The nature and purpose of psychotherapy is to promote growth and self-discovery in an interactive and safe environment. Psychotherapists are specially trained to use therapeutic techniques and interactions in order to treat psychological conditions. Psychotherapists use a wide range of different techniques based on theoretical concepts to increase an individual’s overall sense of well-being. The American Psychological Association defines the term psychotherapy as, “Any group of therapies, used to treat psychological disorders, that focus on changing faulty behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, and emotions that may be associated with specific disorders” (APA, 2014). Essentially psychotherapy is a term used to describe a therapeutic process that occurs between a therapist and a client; this process is interactive and collaborative, and aimed at improving emotions and behaviors.

Counseling has a broader meaning and is defined as, “the act of consultation, exchanging opinions and ideas from a knowledgeable or specialized person”(Merriam-Webster, 2014). Typically counseling refers to a specific consultation regarding a particular problem or symptom. Therefore one can receive counseling from an individual who is educated or skilled in any specified topic, for example legal counseling, finical counseling, or psychological counseling. In the mental health profession a counseling psychologist is defined as, “A psychologist who specializes in providing guidance in specific areas” (APA, 2014). These specialized areas can include substance abuse, marital conflict, school problems, vocational selection and more. Counseling psychologists may also use a wide range of therapeutic techniques to help treat a variety of psychological problems.

Psychotherapy is generally a longer process that usually focuses on chronic emotional or psychological problems, where as counseling is typically shorter in duration and focuses on a specific problem. Counseling often involves giving advice and directive guidance regarding an issue that is currently taking place, while psychotherapy may aim to explore past events, thoughts, emotions and the impact these have on thoughts and behavior. There is a lot of overlap between the two terms and there meaning. Individuals who are trained to provide psychotherapy may also provide counseling, such as Psychologists and Marriage and Family Therapists, a Counselor may or may not be trained to provide psychotherapy, such as a Vocational Counselors.

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How Do I Select the Right Psychotherapist?

The process of selecting a psychotherapist is very important.  A psychotherapist is someone who needs to be trusted, and the client must feel comfortable establishing a relationship with them. While selecting a psychotherapist is a very personal and individual process, there are several helpful guidelines that you can follow.

When selecting a psychotherapist, make sure to consider the type of license, qualifications, and specialities of that person.

While there are a specific set of criteria for licensing, some psychotherapists will choose to specialize in a particular area, such as marriage and family counseling or children and adolescents, and may be able to help provide you with alternative ideas that a general psychotherapist may not be as familiar with. Make sure you understand their approach to psychotherapy and how a typical session will run.

It is perfectly fine to interview several different psychotherapists. It is important to establish trust and a comfort level with your psychotherapist, so if you decide that this is not possible, it is best to look for a new psychotherapist, as both you and the psychotherapist will be wasting time, energy, and money. When interviewing a psychotherapist, it is important to know if communication will be easy or forced, and if you think that you will be able to build the foundation for a successful working relationship.

Selecting a psychotherapist can be a difficult, time-consuming task, but it is important to put forth the effort in order to find someone that will be able to provide you with proper, supportive help. While following up on recommendations is a good way to start the process, a face to face interview will be the best way to tell if you will be able to have a successful relationship with the psychotherapist. Do not be afraid to speak you mind, especially if there are certain traits that you are looking for in a psychotherapist. Finding what you want and need is the foundation for a successful, mutually beneficial relationship.