Counselor vs. Therapist vs. Psychologist – Important Differences and Similarities

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

If you are struggling with mental health issues, or need help handling grief, stress, insomnia, or one of hundreds of other issues, you can likely benefit from a mental health professional. The question is, do you need a counselor, therapist, or psychologist? Oftentimes, the choice comes down to your specific needs and how much money you are wanting to spend. 

It is a common misconception that counselor, therapist, and psychologist are interchangeable terms. In reality, these professionals are all skilled individuals who have varying levels of education and different treatment capabilities. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide detailing what makes each of these professionals unique and how they may be able to help you. 

Whether you are just beginning your research or you are on the cusp of hiring a mental health care provider, you should take a look through this guide to help you understand just what these professionals are all about. Then, you can read our in-depth reviews on some great online therapy providers to help you make your decision.

What is a Counselor?

One of the most confusing of these three terms is, “counselor.” It is essentially an all-encompassing term for a mental health provider. It can include professionals of varying degrees and licenses. It is important to pay close attention to the credentials and experience of those who label themselves a counselor.

While many counselors are therapists of varying educational experience, others call themselves counselors as well. This includes life coaches, dating gurus, and other professions in which the “expert” is usually only self-proclaimed as such. 

Schooling, Degree, or License Required – Counselor

  • No specific licensure is required to be called a counselor
  • Some counselors hold graduate degrees, but it is not typically required
  • Counselors can include individuals with methods that stray from medical, scientific, and study-backed advice
  • Some therapists use the title of counselor because that is the title their state licensure board uses.

What Counselors Usually Treat

We don’t want to give counselors the reputation of being unhelpful because that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are plenty of problems that counselors can help patients through, and for a far lower cost than psychologists. However, you should definitely be proactive on researching the education and reputation of any counselor you choose to use. 

Here is a list of a few things a counselor can help you with:

  • Handling and overcoming grief/ loss
  • Understanding and improving your personal relationships
  • Youth behavioral issues
  • Creating and achieving goals to improve your life
  • Creating healthy coping skills
  • Handling general anxiety and occasional depression

What is a Therapist?

Therapist is a far more specific term pertaining to a professional who will offer therapeutic services. Typically, these professionals use a behavioral approach to overcoming anxiety, depression, and a multitude of other mental and relationship issues. In many states “therapist” is a protected title and there is required licensure to be named as such. 

Therapists can vary widely in their specializations or general area of expertise. You will want to ensure that the therapist you choose is used to working on similar issues to those that ail you. For instance, if you are seeking a therapist to help with the relationship between you and your parents, you likely don’t want to utilize a therapist that specializes in play therapy for children. 

Schooling, Degree, or License Required – Therapist

  • Usually requires state licensing
  • Many different degree paths can be taken to become a therapist, but a Masters degree is almost always required for licensure
  • Degree paths like social work, family therapy, and psychology are some of the most common for modern Therapists

What Therapists Usually Treat

Therapists are more highly educated than some counselors, and tend to operate within the realm of certain niches. This can make it simple to find a therapist that can help you with very specific issues in your life. Therapists provide in-office (and sometimes online) service where they talk to patients and help them work through/ overcome certain issues in their lives.

Here are some issues therapists can help with:

  • PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
  • PPD/ PPA (PostPartum Depression/ Anxiety)
  • Finding guidance through understanding past trauma and coping with your current life
  • Sexual disorders caused by mental distress and similar issues
  • Mood disorders (major depression, bipolar disorder, dysthymia, etc.)

What is a Psychologist?

When it comes to education, psychologists will have the highest degree level of these three types of mental health providers. The only level of education for a licensed psychologist is a Ph.D. Which means they have more years of education than standard therapists. Their access to psychological testing makes psychologists incredibly proficient at diagnosing mental health disorders.

Psychologists typically charge higher rates for their services because they can offer psychological testing and their licensing is much more difficult to qualify for. In most cases, psychologists will be credited through a state board of psychologists, which means you can utilize the state board’s website to find in-depth information on the credentials of the psychologist.

Schooling, Degree, or License Required – Psychologists

  • A Ph.D is required to become a licensed psychologist.
  • Psychologists have access to psychological testing for diagnosing mental health disorders.
  • Psychologists often actively participate in studies regarding modern mental health care.
  • Will be licensed with the state and oftentimes associated with a college or university.

What Psychologists Usually Treat

Psychologists are capable of handling all the issues handled by therapists and counselors, but they also have the ability to do advanced testing to help treat these situations in the most effective and meaningful way. Thanks to them using the best and most current method of psychological treatments, there are issues that they are particularly helpful with.

Here are some of the most common reasons to seek a psychologist:

  • Overcoming addiction
  • Diagnosing a behavioral or mental health disorder
  • Having your behavior and/or brain monitored for research and diagnosis purposes
  • Overcoming the effects of brain diseases, injuries, etc.
  • Getting help with chronic depression, anxiety, or other issues