Counselor vs. Therapist vs. Psychologist

Are they the same thing? If not, what are the key differences between these professions? Depending on the state you live in these terms are often protected by law and might require specific board approved licensure. Below you will find all three with their distinctions described in detail.

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  • Often used as an umbrella term for both licensed clinicians with advanced degrees and those offering other forms of counseling.
  • Counselors work with the patient to determine the best way for the counseling sessions to provide preferred outcomes.
  • Counselors do not require the same degree of advanced training or licensure to operate.
  • Counselors have access to a much broader field of potential models for counseling.
  • Counselors lack the in-depth understanding provided by clinical research found in therapy and Psychology


  • Protected title in some states such as California, requiring licensure to operate
  • Can include various kinds of Psychologists, Licensed Social Workers, Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists.
  • Use behavioral approach to therapy
  • Different degrees offer routes to the protected title of therapist including but not limited to: Master in Psychology,
  • Master in Marriage and Family Therapy, Master of Social Work, Master in Counseling or a Doctorate in any of those fields.
  • In some states where this term is not legally protected this can include life coaches and others who may not have the same kind of licensure and degree requirements.


  • Usually requiring a minimum of a Master’s degree in Psychology to achieve this title. In rare cases, might include Bachelor’s degree holders.
  • In most cases, refers only to those licensed by a state board to provide Psychological therapy.
  • Must adhere to high standards regarding ethics and confidentiality as provided by the state board.
  • Can be involved in direct therapy with patients in private practice.
  • May teach at a college or university
  • Might be a leader or part of a team conducting research for a university or private enterprise
  • Uses researched based psychological behavioral approach to treating clients
  • Can assess and make clinical evaluations of clients mental health and diagnose mental illness
  • Make judgments on the best course of treatments based upon current clinical research in the field.

Going into More Detail

A Psychologist is a health professional with specific training based on clinical psychological research into human behavior. Psychology has been studying the mental processes of human beings for over a century and has developed numerous effective methods for dealing with mental illnesses. It also has developed strict codes of ethics and confidentiality that all practitioners must adhere to in order to remain board certified. Psychologists all must regularly receive continuing education to stay current on a variety of topics and maintain licensure. Psychologists undergo rigorous training during their education and must complete thousands of hours of supervised practice in order to become licensed to practice on their own. As such, when someone goes to a psychologist they can be assured that a high standard of ethics, professionalism and confidentiality will be shown by the psychologist. They also will be benefiting from more than 100 years of research and crafting of ethics standards.

Therapist is a term that can include a number of disciplines with different approaches. From the Psychologist described above to the Licensed Social Worker, the Marriage and Family Therapist and the Counselor. In many states, the term therapist is a protected term that can only be used by the previously mentioned disciplines and only by those who have licensure with their state board. In some states the term is restricted even further and only some of the disciplines may have this as part of their title. As it is a protected term, you can be assured of a higher degree of professionalism, ethics and confidentiality as those will be required by the various state boards for those disciplines.

The Counselor is a term that can include both the licensed Counselor (who can also hold the title therapist) and a variety of other occupations from diverse backgrounds such as life coaches or those with little or no training at all. In fact the term counselor is the equivalent of advisor and could encompass such diverse groups as clergy and other spiritual advisors and even financial advisors. While some gifted individuals are able to achieve fantastic results, have a high degree of professionalism, ethical standards and confidentiality, the lack of licensing creates fewer barriers to entry for the less scrupulous. Seeing a counselor who is not also a licensed therapist may be cheaper, but it would be wise to do extensive research on the counselor before opening up with intimate details of one’s life. As is the case with all unlicensed professions there are both fantastic individuals and those who are simply trying to profit at your expense. Being extremely careful in your choice of mental health provider is highly advisable.