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  • Writer's pictureHeather Steele

Mental Health Counseling vs Therapy

If you have ever used the words “therapy” or “counseling” interchangeably when it comes to mental health treatments, you are not alone in misunderstanding the difference between them.

While mental health counseling and therapy are both types of treatment for mental health conditions, they have some key differences. Being able to distinguish between the two is crucial when choosing the best treatment to suit your mental health needs.

If you are considering seeking help from a mental health professional, read on to learn what kind of treatment will work best for you.

Mental Health Counseling

A mental health counselor’s job can be equated to that of an advisor helping an individual cope with a particular problem. Mental health counseling typically focuses on addressing specific issues or concerns, such as stress, anxiety, relationship problems, or job-related difficulties.

Counseling is typically short-term and more solution focussed. During counseling, a licensed counselor works with the individual to develop coping strategies and tools to manage their symptoms and improve overall functioning. Counseling is often goal-oriented, concluding once the problem at hand has been dealt with.

Key Characteristics of a Counseling Program

Here are some key characteristics of mental health counseling:

  1. It is typically focused on helping clients set and achieve specific goals, whether reducing anxiety, improving relationships, or managing depression.

  2. It often involves collaboration with other healthcare professionals, such as psychiatrists, social workers, and medical doctors, to provide the best possible care for the client.

  3. Mental health counselors must be empathetic and non-judgmental, able to connect with clients on a personal level and understand their struggles.

  4. Counseling involves actively listening to clients to fully understand their situation and identifying underlying issues.

  5. Confidentiality is paramount; counselors must maintain strict ethical standards to protect their clients' privacy.

  6. Counselors must tailor their treatment to fit the individual needs of each person since each person is unique.

  7. Effective mental health counseling requires evidence-based interventions and techniques proven to work in clinical trials.

  8. Mental health counselors should have a strong understanding of cultural differences and be able to work effectively with clients from diverse backgrounds.


Compared to counseling, therapy tends to focus on deeper-rooted issues that may be affecting a person's mental health and well-being, such as trauma, addiction, or personality disorders. Therapy is often a longer-term process, more in-depth, and involves exploring past experiences and patterns of behavior to gain insight and promote personal growth and healing.

If the counselor is an advisor, the therapist is more like an investigator, putting together pieces of information to properly diagnose an individual’s issue. Therapy sessions are typically longer and more frequent than counseling sessions. A therapist could be a licensed counselor, social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

The therapist helps afflicted individuals develop strategies to change negative patterns and improve their overall mental well-being. Rather than chasing specific goals, therapy aims to improve the overall quality of life.

Characteristics of Therapy Sessions

While counseling and therapy are very similar, here are the key characteristics that differentiate therapy from counseling:

  1. Therapy is a long-term solution for chronic or recurring mental health issues

  2. The focus is more on the experience and feelings of the patient.

  3. A therapist seeks to use therapeutic strategies (like talk therapy) to help their patient overcome mental health issues.

Counseling and Therapy: Not So Different After All

Even though there are a few key distinctions between the two, it’s worth remembering that both counseling and therapy are equally valid forms of mental health treatment.

Both counselors and therapists are trained to help people in need. Which one works better for you is merely a matter of what suits your requirements.

Some of the many similarities between counseling and therapy are listed below:

  • Both treatments require the establishment of a trusting, safe, and therapeutic relationship between the counselor/therapist and the patient.

  • Counseling and therapy can both be used to treat people of all age groups, from children to seniors.

  • Improving the quality of life, whether short-term in counseling or long-term in therapy, is always the ultimate goal of any mental health treatment.

Common Types of Therapy

As trained and licensed practitioners, counselors, and therapists employ a wide variety of techniques that include the following:

Talk Therapy

This is a common and popular type of therapy, where an individual talks about what ails them mentally with a professional. Talk therapy is what most people imagine when asked to picture a therapy session.

However, “talk therapy” is an umbrella term and includes many different methods and approaches. Every counselor or therapist will have their specializations and preferred means of treating patients.

Some of the other most common forms of therapy are:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive therapy focuses on a person’s thoughts, while behavioral therapy focuses on their unhealthy behavioral patterns. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an amalgamation of these two approaches, helps individuals identify and change negative thought and behavior patterns affecting their mental health.

Psychodynamic Therapy

This kind of therapy is sometimes also called psychoanalytic therapy. It operates on the principle that unconscious conflicts and issues affect our mental health. The goal is to trigger or confront those unconscious issues from a person’s past or subconscious so they can be dealt with.

Group Therapy

Knowing that other people are going through the same struggles can help people deal with trauma better. Group therapy sessions often involve five or more participants, all seeking help with a specific issue, such as substance abuse or obesity.

Holistic Therapy

Holistic therapy is a treatment form that seeks to integrate multiple kinds of therapeutic approaches to best serve an individual’s needs. Depending on the complexity of the case, a therapist may recommend a combination of therapy styles to best address the patient’s mental health problems.

It is important to note that some mental health conditions may require medication in addition to counseling or therapy. A psychiatrist — a medical doctor specializing in mental health, can prescribe medication and work with a therapist or counselor to provide the best treatment plan.

Ultimately, the difference between mental health professionals boils down to methodologies, qualification criteria, licensing, and educational background. While counselors and therapists require a Master’s degree, psychiatrists have a doctorate level of education. They are also licensed to practice medicine thanks to having spent an obligatory four years in medical school.

Deciding What Is Best for You

Overall, the choice between counseling and therapy depends on the individual's needs and preferences, and the severity of their mental health condition. Counseling may be more appropriate for someone dealing with a specific concern or problem. In contrast, therapy may be more suitable for individuals diagnosed with mental health conditions and wanting to work on underlying issues.

Sometimes an individual may benefit from a combination of counseling and therapy. Therefore, it is not uncommon for a patient to be recommended for a combination of both counseling and therapy.

Questions to Ask Before Choosing between Counseling and Therapy

If you are struggling with your mental health, simply deciding to take that important step of seeking help is an achievement. However, if you want to get the most out of your decision, you will have to choose your treatment with careful consideration.

A therapist and their patient can only get the best results when they work together, so finding the right one is in your best interest.

Here are some critical questions you should seek to answer before finalizing which treatment you would like to opt for.

Are Your Problems Short-term or Long-term? Knowing the answer to this question will help narrow down the treatment type that will work best for you. For example, a married couple looking to resolve a short-term issue like impulsive spending might only need a few sessions, but if that spending is indicative of deeper, underlying issues like anger or addiction, then a long-term approach will be necessary.

What is Your Therapist’s Background and Specialization?

Finding a therapist is easier than most people think. One of the most important factors to consider when choosing a therapist is their area of specialization. There’s no value in seeing a grief counselor when trying to treat a child’s learning disability, for example. Reflect on what issues you are seeking help with, and then search for a therapist with a demonstrated history of solving similar problems.

What is Your Budget?

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to mental health resources. However, despite being on a tight budget, there’s no reason to forsake your mental health.

Before starting your search, contact your medical insurance provider to check if mental health professionals are covered. Community health centers also offer therapy services at reduced costs. Students and young people can even avail of mental health services on campus.

It is important to seek professional help when experiencing mental health concerns. Your primary care physician or a mental health professional can help you determine the best course of treatment. Talking with a therapist or counselor can be a valuable step in improving mental health and overall well-being. With the right treatment, people with mental health conditions can lead fulfilling and productive lives.

Our team at Morrisville Counseling has a wide variety of training and specialties to provide care for people across a broad spectrum of needs. Contact our team here to schedule a free initial consultation to get matched with the perfect counselor or therapist for you.


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