Counseling vs. Therapy – Key Differences You Should Know

Medically Reviewed By: Samantha Renner, MS, LMHC, NCC

Counselor, therapist, counseling, therapy – they’re words that are often used interchangeably. But is counseling and therapy really the same thing?

Well, not exactly, and if you’re looking to start in-person or online treatment for various mental health conditions, then it’s helpful to understand the distinction. That way, you can find the best provider for your specific concerns.

The Main Differences Between Counseling and Therapy

  • Therapy is typically for a longer-term than counseling
  • Counseling targets a specific issue, whereas therapy is for prolonged life changes
  • Counselors and therapists go through different levels of schooling and certification (depending on the state or location).

Even by defining the differences between the two, you’ll still see both counseling and therapy used to describe the same types of treatments. However, knowing which category you fall into will help you to find the best therapist (or counselor) for your needs.

Therapy and online therapy focuses on a general diagnosis

Generally, you can separate the two providers based on the average length of care and client needs.

For example, psychotherapy or therapy addresses more of a wide range of concerns covered under general diagnoses like anxiety disorders. Treatment can last for weeks, months, or even years, covering general behavioral issues requiring more of a life-coaching support system.

Counseling and online counseling narrows the focus

But, counseling, on the other hand, hones in on the specific issue or situation.

Counseling is shorter-term guidance with problem-solving and coping techniques in a group or individual setting. It covers things like marriage and family, career, grief, and substance abuse. While substance abuse benefits from ongoing support, counselors may suggest programs like AA, where the client benefits from a 24/7 sponsor and peer group.

The Main Similarities Between Counseling and Therapy

Approaches to counseling and therapy overlap, which is why the two fields are often confused. The initial diagnosis, whether self or clinically-determined, leads to the best type of professional for the situation.

There’s plenty of commonalities, though, as counselors address anxiety-based issues, and therapists also treat addictions and rehabilitation needs.

Some of the main similarities between counseling and therapy include:

  • Treatment plans for mental health concerns
  • Problem-solving and coping techniques
  • Guidance for stress-related disorders
  • Available in-person and online
  • Similar rates and insurance acceptance (depending on certification)
  • Individual and group sessions

What is Counseling?

As we mentioned, one of the most significant differences between counseling and therapy is the length of treatment and a broad versus narrow-range focus.

Counseling is generally more of a short-term support system for clients with defined needs. You could say that counseling leads to a problem-solving plan to move beyond the situation. For example, marriage counseling is about getting to the heart of the matter and moving past it.

While counselors can fit into the therapy realm, some don’t have the same licensing and training. For example, spiritual counselors are generally church leaders with some knowledge of coping mechanisms, but they don’t necessarily have a Master’s in psychology or counseling.

What Type of Client Benefits from Counseling

As counseling targets specific issues and concerns, it’s for anyone with a narrower focus. Clients dealing with grief from loss, whether through a job, marriage, finances, or loved ones, tend to fit into the counseling mold.

Counseling isn’t just a way to get over a loss, though. It’s based on problem-solving and coping techniques. Whether through online counseling or in-person sessions, counseling is an effective method of care covering the following:

  • Marriage and family issues
  • Career loss or planning
  • Rehabilitation – physical or mental trauma
  • Substance abuse
  • Spiritual guidance
  • Coping with grief or loss

What is Therapy?

Therapy is also known as psychotherapy, and it’s usually under the guidance of a trained professional with a Master’s degree and a few years of supervised practice.

Again, therapy and counseling overlap in some aspects. But, generally, therapy is an extended treatment plan for issues under a bigger umbrella. Instead of focusing on something specific like losing a spouse, in-person and online therapy gets more into thinking and behavior modification.

Broad range changes in thinking and behavior

Clients who participate in therapy are looking for coping mechanisms and ways to change their overall life approach. That can be something like handling stress better or alleviating anxiety.

Patients may also have a diagnosis like depression or bipolar disorder that requires long-range support. Depending on the issues addressed, therapy can take quite a while, as it’s a slower evolution process.

While there are quite a few therapeutic disciplines, they typically fall into one of four categories:

  • Cognitive
  • Behavioral
  • Talk
  • Humanistic

Combining therapeutic methods

Then, there’s an integrative approach that combines methods. You’re probably familiar with cognitive-behavioral therapy that goes beyond what we think affects how we feel. It includes our thoughts and their effect on how we feel and how we behave in certain situations.

Regardless of the type, therapy is designed for a long-term change instead of a short-term “feel better.”

Who is a Therapist Best For?

Therapists treat mental health concerns on all ends of the spectrum. They’re going to support small shifts in perception or behavior. Or, therapists function as a support system and sounding board for clients looking to change patterns and live a better life.

For patients diagnosed with depression, bipolar or anxiety disorders, a successful therapeutic relationship can make all of the difference, even in conjunction with medication. Effective therapy might not be a quick remedy, but it can lead to lifelong improvements.

Ideal therapy patients include anyone struggling with:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Negative habits and thought patterns
  • Self-defeating or destructive behavior
  • Isolation
  • Lack of support
  • Physical challenges
  • Unhealthy responses to stress

Counseling vs. Therapy FAQ

Why is it important to understand the distinction between counseling and therapy?

As the two mental health treatment fields are sometimes interchangeable, it might not be essential to distinguish between them. However, if you understand their two associated specialties, you can narrow your search accordingly to find the best service for your specific needs.

How do I know if I need a counselor or a therapist?

There are two significant differences between a counselor and a therapist. Counselors are generally best suited for narrower-focused issues like a loss, career dilemma, or family struggles. If you have a specific goal in mind, you’ll find that counseling may suit your needs. It’s more quantitative with less of a time commitment. But therapy might be best if you’re suffering from anxiety or you’ve been struggling in your daily life for a while. An in-person or online therapist will work with you to slowly shift thought and behavioral patterns.

Will my health insurance cover both counseling and psychotherapy?

The short answer is that you’ll need to contact your insurance provider for specifics on your benefits. However, in the US, both Medicare and many plans under the Affordable Care Act include counseling and therapy under the mental health blanket.