Counselor vs Therapist: What’s the Difference?

The answer to the question of what makes a therapist different from a counselor depends on why you are asking.

If you are someone who needs treatment for a mental health issue, you might not find many differences at all. Counselors and therapists draw on the same body of knowledge and expertise for diagnosis and treatment. They use many of the same techniques and treat many of the same kinds of conditions, from depression to anxiety to addiction. All of them can offer you empathy, compassion, and effective answers to your problems. You might not even notice exactly what the title is on the business card, and you may never care.

If you are looking for a career in mental health, it’s a different story. Becoming a counselor versus a therapist means choosing between two different traditions in mental treatment. It means picking and following different educational tracks. There are different tests to take and licenses to earn along the way.

Similarities in Jobs Between a Counselor vs Therapist Role

Both counselors and therapists start off with a strong grounding in basic psychological principles. They learn how to assess and diagnose psychopathologies. They are trained in similar therapy techniques, including:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Psychodynamic therapy

Both counselors and therapists also have some of the same limitations. You won’t find either one of them dealing with serious psychotic disorders or doing deep dives into fractured personalities. Both will hand off such serious work to licensed psychologists.

Is a therapist and a counselor the same thing?

When you look at all those similarities, you might start to think that a therapist and a counselor are basically the same thing. But that’s not true. Each profession has been around long enough, and developed its own perspectives and approaches to mental health, and that’s where the big difference lies.

Either one might be able to do a bang-up job of lifting an unemployed worker out of depression, or helping a teen suffering from anxiety at school. But they’ll each come at the problem in their own distinct way.

The Real Difference Between a Counselor vs Therapist

When you get right down to it, the big difference between counselors and therapists comes down to philosophy.

  • Counselors - Counselors look at mental health issues as a practical, functional problem to be solved for each individual. They focus on problem-solving and the details of issues that are preventing a patient from achieving their goals, and look for straightforward treatments that deal directly with those issues.
  • Therapists - Therapists approach mental problems in the context of social and relational issues. They see individuals as part of a larger web, each strand of which tugs on their mental well-being. They look through that web of connections to trace the root of problems and focus on treatments from a holistic perspective.

These philosophies come out of the roots of each profession, both of which mostly evolved during the early 20th century.

You can find a psychology degree program at the bachelor’s level that will serve as a solid foundation to go into either counseling or therapy.

Different Professional Tracks For Counselors vs Therapists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows very similar salary ranges for both roles. For 2020, the median salaries were:

  • Counselor - $46,240
  • Therapist - $49,610

Marriage and family therapists, naturally, tend to specialize in couple and family counseling. Careers in counseling are more likely to range toward vocational or school counseling. But either one might, for example, pick a specialization in dealing with addiction issues within those fields.

The Education of a Counselor Versus Therapist

Both counselors and therapists need to earn a master’s degree at a minimum to become licensed.

For therapists, that’s a master’s in marriage and family therapy from a program that has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). That means these programs include training in clinical treatment for individuals, couples, and families, with strong cultural competency skills and biopsychosocial perspectives on mental health.

For counselors, it’s a master’s in counseling degree accredited by CACREP, the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. The coursework there leans on clinical skills in individual therapy, studies of career development and group counseling work, and psychological development across the human lifecycle.

Both types of programs include practicum and internship placements to get you out into the field early working with real clients. And each delivers training in research and experimental evaluation, leading up to a master’s thesis or capstone project that helps you synthesize your training into a single, unique project or paper based on your own research and ideas.

Either kind of master’s program is likely to cost you between $25,000 and $55,000 and take two years to complete, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics from 2019.

Becoming Licensed as a Counselor Versus Therapist

Each state has different standards for professional licensing for counselors vs therapists. These are set out by state licensing boards that exist for those professions. In some cases, it’s actually the same board for both jobs, even if the requirements are different.

The basic steps to follow are pretty similar, though:

  • Earn your master’s degree in the relevant field
  • Accumulate a set number of hours of supervised experience working with clients in your field
    • Counselors - Usually 2000 to 3000 hours
    • Therapists - From 1500 to 3000 hours, or 2 years
  • Take and pass a standardized professional examination
    • Counselors - Depending on the counseling role, the NCE, CRCE, ECCP, or NCMHCE exam may be required
    • Therapists - MFTNE, the Marriage and Family Therapy National Examination
  • Sometimes take and pass a state-specific ethics or jurisprudence examination

It always pays to consult your state licensing board first, whether you plan to become a counselor vs therapist!

At the end of the process, you’ll be licensed for independent practice as a counselor or therapist. The actual title for either job can vary from state to state. Counselors can be LPCs, Licensed Professional Counselors, or Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs), or any of several similar titles. Therapists are usually called LMFTs, or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists.

Can a counselor diagnose?

Just like licensing, the answer to this question depends entirely on the state you are in.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2020, licensed professional counselors in 32 states are specifically authorized to diagnose mental illnesses. At least 2 states specifically prevent diagnosis by LPCs. And in the majority, it’s a subject that isn’t specifically mentioned by law.

For clients, the choice of counselor vs therapist might never really matter. They want a person who cares about them, who has the skill and insight to solve their problems, and the professional standards to do the job. That’s something both jobs have on tap. As a future psychology professional, the best fit for you will depend on your motivations, your skills, and your interests in making the world a better place.