Counsellor or psychotherapist? What is the difference?

Many people are confused over the difference between a counsellor and a psychotherapist, if we add in a psychologist and a psychiatrist it’s baffling!

The debate over whether a counsellor and a psychotherapist are the same has been running since the late 1990s. The issue exists because both the term counsellor and psychotherapist are not legally recognised titles and therefore do not attract professional protection. The term ‘counsellor’ has been adopted for many diverse job titles, for example; ‘careers counsellor’, ‘debt counsellor’ and ‘spiritual counsellor’. Sadly, with no protection for the title, anyone can use the terms counsellor or psychotherapist.

Worryingly, this means that a vulnerable or distressed person seeking support can at best, be mislead or at worse could be adversely affected psychologically by someone who is not adequately trained.  
In 2008, the profession moved towards regulation, which would have monitored those using the title counsellor or psychotherapist to ensure they were appropriately qualified and not misleading the public.
With the government changing in 2010, regulation of the profession was not seen as a priority and did not advance.

With a little background covered, let’s discuss the difference between a counsellor and a psychotherapist. The most obvious place to start is etymology – the study of the origin of words. Psychotherapy is two words combined. The word ‘psycho’ has been hijacked by popular culture as an insult; however its origin comes from ‘psyche’ which is a Greek word with the basic meaning of ‘life’ as in ‘breath of life’. Derived meanings include – spirit, soul and overall ‘self’. The second part of psychotherapy, therapy is derived from the Greek ‘therapeia’ which means ‘to heal’; also associated with the word therapeia is another Greek word ‘therapeuein’ which means ‘to minster to’. Therefore, the word psychotherapy literally means ‘to administer healing to the self’.  

The origin of the word counselling is from the Latin, a more modern language than Greek, ‘consilium’ which means ‘to offer consultation or advice’.

The above definitions appear to be very different; perhaps not even the same profession. Psychotherapy directly relates to healing the soul or self whereas counselling could be seen as a passive process of advice giving.

From my experience there are differences, I would like to stress that this is my personal view and not official, so your comments are invited and welcome. Psychotherapy, as I see it, tends to be more long term and explores deeper issues that may have been causing distress for a while. It can be difficult to separate experiences and emotions; therefore, psychotherapy works with the sense of self and general well-being. For example, if you grew up with a violent and unpredictable mother – psychotherapy would be appropriate.

Counselling, I feel, tends to be shorter term and targeted around a specific issue. For example, you got mugged and are afraid to go out in the dark. Counselling would support you in being able to process the experience to assist you in being able to go out at night. 

What I haven’t done on this post is discuss the different theoretical underpinning of counselling and psychotherapy. This is a huge discussion, and as I wanted to keep this simple I haven’t taken this up. 

Having outlined the differences, counselling and psychotherapy agree with one major and significant element. The relationship is essential to the process; therefore whether you see a counsellor or a psychotherapist the relationship supports the healing.  

If you are thinking of seeing someone for support, regardless of whether they are a counsellor or psychotherapist, I have offered some advice below.

  • Speak to the person and consider what you feel when you hear their voice. Do they have warmth to their tone that promotes your willingness to talk?
  • If you can, meet them, your well-being is in their hands, make sure they are right for you. Imagine you are interviewing them for the most important job – supporting and caring for you!
  • Ask them where they did their training and who awarded their qualification. Listen out for the name of a recognised college or university.
  • Find out how much experience they have of working with the issue you need support for.
  • Ask if they are a member of a governing body; this offers you further protection as they will have to subscribe to a code of ethics and are subject to a complaints procedure. To name a few -  British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), British Psychological Society (BPS), the United Kingdom Association for Humanistic Psychology Practitioners (UKAHPP), College of Sexual and Relationship Therapist (COSRT).
  • Ask if they have ever had a complaint made against them or whether they have had their membership of a professional body suspended, cancelled or refused.
  • Ask if they have availability at the time you want an appointment.
  • Ask them how much they charge.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Farnborough, Hampshire, GU14
Written by Richard Carroll, M.A, BSc, MBACP Accd Counsellor/Psychotherapist & Supervisor
Farnborough, Hampshire, GU14

I am a very experienced, well qualified and accredited counsellor/psychotherapist and work with adults, children, young people and couples. I work in an integrative way; which means my approach offers me the flexibility to support people in a sensitive, warm, caring and professional way no matter what the issue/problems is.

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