While often used interchangeably, counselors and therapists are typically classified based on their level of education, treatment approach, and strategies for helping their clients. When considering which expert is best for you, it is important to evaluate your therapeutic goals and what you want to change.
Finding the right mental health professional can be a daunting task, but it becomes easier when you know which type of expert will provide you care that aligns with your needs.
Read more about the differences between a counselor and therapist, and how to decide who is best for your situation:
What is a counselor?
The term counselor usually refers to a person who is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). Counselors have expertise in helping clients understand the causes of mental and emotional issues, while using active listening and aimed questions.
Counselors usually possess a master’s degree, along with a National Board certification, and can treat issues such as:
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Loss and grief
- Low self-esteem
- Life obstacles
- Youth behavioral issues
While there is overlap, counselors are more focused on actionable questions rather than theoretical ones, such as “How can we fix it?” or “What do we need to do to meet your needs?” LPCs emphasize treatment strategies and ways to cope with challenges to lead a happier life, but do not usually dive into past trauma unless it is essential to treatment.
Learn more about what it takes to become a licensed counselor from New Jersey counselor Lina Lewis-Arévalo.
When you may want to consider seeing a counselor
Counselors focus on present problems and situations on a short-term timeline while providing guidance, support, and expertise.
Counseling may be a better option than therapy if you:
- Need guidance and advice on how to recognize issues and address them.
- Have specific problems that you want to fix.
- Want to learn coping skills and tools to better manage stress, addiction, grief, or relationship difficulties.
For example, counseling can help you if you’re having problems with work-life balance and how to manage stress. Or marriage counselors can help you when you are having difficulties within your marriage and you want to improve things between you and your spouse. Usually, counseling focuses on a specific issue for a limited amount of time.
What is a therapist?
Therapists focus on chronic or recurrent problems with an in-depth focus on internal thoughts, feelings, and getting to the root cause. These experts typically have a master’s or doctoral degree and can have skills ranging from marriage and family therapy to clinical psychology.
Therapists can provide treatments that deepen or complement traditional talk therapy such as:
- Marriage or relationship therapy
- Trauma-focused therapy
- Conflict resolution therapy
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
(Curious what some of these approaches are? Check out our glossary of common mental health treatments.)
When you may want to consider seeing a therapist
Therapists work to help you understand yourself for the long-term rather than finding quick solutions.
Therapy may be a better option than counseling if you:
- Have a chronic medical condition that is affecting your emotional well-being.
- Are diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as depression.
- Want to understand past trauma, feelings, or recurring thoughts that are significantly influencing your way of life.
For example, if you are suffering from trauma or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you and your mental health therapist can explore how your past impacts your everyday life and how to develop better coping strategies so that you can feel better. You usually go to therapy sessions on a more long-term basis.
How to prepare for a visit with a therapist or counselor
Regardless of which type of clinician you decide to see, you may find it beneficial to follow these tips to get the most out of your session:
- Make a list of any concerns or symptoms that you are experiencing, and why you are seeking assistance.
- Journal your thoughts and feelings, and write down any major stresses or life changes. (Click here for sample journal prompts to prepare for counseling or therapy.)
- Schedule separate time before your session to think about what you want to discuss and time after to process any challenging topics.
- Compile a list of any medications or supplements you are currently taking.
- Go into your session with an open mind.
Questions to ask before your first session
Before committing to a therapist or counselor, it is entirely acceptable to ask for a phone consultation to make sure they are the right fit for you and your situation. Discussions with your future clinician have the potential to be deeply personal, so you want to ensure that you feel comfortable and trust your provider from the very start.
The National Institute of Mental Health (INMH) suggests these helpful questions to ask before therapy begins:
- How do you approach helping people?
- Do you have experience working with people who have concerns like mine?
- Do you make treatment plans? If you do, will I be involved in mine?
- What can I expect during our sessions?
- What will you expect of me? Will I have homework?
You will also want to consider logistical questions, such as how frequently you will meet, the length of each session, and billing processes.
Therapy or Counseling – which is best for you?
Therapy can include counseling on specific issues that arise during your conversations with your therapist. On the other hand, if a counselor sees underlying patterns and concerns that affect your treatment, they may recommend that you start therapy. Many clinicians may be trained in both therapy and counseling.
However, keep in mind that it is important to find a clinician that you feel comfortable with and can confide in from the get-go. You should feel respected, understood, and at ease to discuss your situation and explore opportunities for treatment. Mental Health Match can connect you with the right counselors and therapists who are specialized to help you with your specific concerns or mental health problems.
Take this free survey from Mental Health Match to get matched with your ideal mental health provider.