February 3, 2023

If you are considering therapy, you may be wondering whether a psychologist or a counselor is better suited to help you.

Both psychologists and counsellors are licensed mental health professionals and there is some overlap in the forms of therapy used, but there are also some differences between the two and understanding these will help you decide who is best suited to your current mental health challenges/issues.

Psychologists

Psychologists are part of a group of other health professions that require a diploma. They complete four to six years of higher education and are trained to assess, diagnose, treat and/or prevent mental health problems. They do not prescribe medication (this is the job of a psychiatrist). Psychologists use ‘talk therapies’, which are evidence-based treatments and interventions that focus on human behavior and the processes involved in the way people feel and think. Research has shown that these techniques and strategies can improve symptoms of mental health problems and treat a significant proportion of people.

Psychologists use many of the same therapeutic techniques as counsellors, but because they are more qualified and knowledgeable, they can explore the causes of problems, such as trauma or past experiences that may be influencing thoughts, feelings or behaviour.

Don’t think of a therapist as a practitioner who just listens to your concerns: they often actively apply various strategies to help you cope with everyday life and specific symptoms/issues. A therapist is an expert in guiding you towards your desired outcome.

the services of a registered psychologist are reimbursed by Medicare and/or private health insurance companies.

Counselors 

Counselors focus more on helping the client as an individual. Counsellors help you meet your individual needs, understand yourself better and manage problematic thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Counselors also provide information and training on conflict resolution and stress management techniques to improve the quality of daily life. Counselors help you identify and define emotional problems, identify options, set goals and take action.

The counsellor’s primary role is to provide support using psychotherapeutic techniques, not to diagnose/treat mental illness or severe trauma. The counselor helps to address specific issues and provides a safe space for you to talk about your concerns in a confidential setting. Instead of giving specific advice, the counselor encourages the client to find their own solutions (with guidance): in this case the client is the expert of their own life. Following the “person-centered therapy” model, the counselor listens, guides, promotes self-awareness and works with you to develop steps to achieve your goals.

Whether face-to-face, telemedicine, individual, group or couples counseling, all sessions are private and provide a space to discuss your thoughts and feelings without judgment. 

Counselors often focus on immediate and practical issues such as coping with grief or anger, identifying options and pathways for life decisions (personal or professional), managing conflict and improving relationships and communication skills. It is usually a short-term process that focuses on immediate concerns or problems and encourages seeking positive solutions to achieve desired outcomes. There is an opportunity for self-reflection and self-awareness by identifying patterns of behavior or how your thoughts and feelings affect your daily life.

Counsellors are not required to have a diploma, but membership of an association such as the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) or the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) is highly recommended.

Rather than working from a medical model, counselors focus on compassion and support rather than acute treatment of mental illness.

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