Clinical Mental Health Counselor vs. Clinical Psychologist

Clinical mental health counselors and clinical psychologists both provide tremendous help and necessary resources to a variety of populations. Both careers focus on understanding human behavior and promoting positive change within individual, familial, or group dynamics.

However, it is important to understand the key differences between these two careers in order to make the most proactive decision for prospective mental health professionals.

Education Requirements

Clinical mental health counselors have master’s degrees in mental health counseling or a related major. Depending on the school and coursework, these programs range from about 1-3 years. Coursework focuses on mental health themes including human development, counseling techniques, assessment, and multicultural issues.

While many professionals have undergraduate degrees in psychology or other related majors, this is not always required for graduate school admissions.

Mental health counseling graduate programs with accreditation, such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), may increase chances of employment opportunities after graduation and helps with licensure.

All mental health counseling students must also engage in practicum and internship experiences under the supervision of a licensed counselor. These experiences provide students with the opportunity to apply theory and begin initial stages of performing therapy and clinical services.

Clinical psychologists have doctoral degrees in clinical psychology.

  • The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) focuses on scientific research (collecting data and statistics and facilitating experiments) and/or teaching experience. These doctoral programs emphasize applying research methods and scientific knowledge to expand the psychology field. Both private and public universities typically offer PhD programs.
  • The Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) focuses more on counseling and psychological services than conducting research. This doctoral program prepares students for providing clinical treatment by utilizing an understanding of human behavior and implementing evidence-based techniques.

On average, both programs take about 5-7 years to complete.

After completing extensive coursework in advanced psychology and research, students must typically defend a dissertation, which is an intensive research project based on theory and applied experimental data, and pass comprehensive exams as designated by each school.

While it is not a necessary requirement, many psychologists have undergraduate backgrounds in psychology or related social science fields. Many psychologists have also completed graduate-level coursework or have obtained a master’s degree in psychology or a related field prior to pursuing their doctoral program.

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Licensure or Certification

Similar to other mental health professions, clinical mental health counseling licensure requirements vary by state.

With that said, the path towards licensure in mental health counseling typically includes:

  • Completing a graduate program in mental health counseling or related mental health specialty
  • Completing 2,000-4,000 hours of postgraduate supervised clinical experience
  • Successfully passing all qualifying exams
  • Completing continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain active licensure

In the United States, clinical psychologists must be licensed in order to practice. Similar to other mental health professions, every state differs in its individual requirements and specifications.

With that said, the path towards clinical psychology licensure typically includes:

  • Completing a PhD or PsyD doctoral program
  • Finishing 1-2 years of supervised professional interning or training
  • Passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology
  • Completing continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain active licensure

For psychologists interested in advancing their learning, the American Board of Professional Psychology grants specialty certifications in a variety of fields, including group psychology, psychoanalysis, counseling, forensic, and school psychology.

Professional Role

Mental health counselors typically provide direct clinical services and treatment to individuals struggling with emotional or behavioral issues. They seek to help people in distress and provide advanced listening and reflective skills to foster insight and promote change.

Typical job duties for clinical mental health counselors include:

  • Assessing and diagnosing a range of mental and emotional disorders
  • Discussing client emotions, thoughts, and past experiences
  • Exploring emotional stressors that affect daily living
  • Providing applicable coping skills and strategies for leading a healthy life
  • Referring to community services and health professionals for treatment planning and care

Mental health counselors also work in a variety of sectors including:

  • Outpatient care centers
  • Community health centers
  • Private practice
  • State and local government
  • Inpatient treatment facilities
  • Employee assistance programs

Clinical psychologists provide continual, comprehensive mental and behavioral health care for individuals and families. They may also consult with agencies and communities, train, teach, or supervise other mental health professionals, and/or conduct psychological research. 

Typical job responsibilities include:

  • Assessing and diagnosing mental health disorders
  • Providing therapeutic services
  • Conducting assessments with standardized testing and research measures
  • Consulting with mental health professionals for treatment planning
  • Engaging and implementing in scientific research
  • Writing relevant research and peer-reviewed articles

Clinical psychologists work in a variety of settings including:

  • Community mental health centers
  • Public and private schools and universities
  • Non-profit and for-profit businesses
  • Local and state governments
  • Hospitals and medical organizations
  • Private practice

Approaches to Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders

Mental health counselors provide counseling services for those struggling with various mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. They implement active listening skills, reflection, compassion, and appropriate communication with clients to create a trusting clinical relationship and facilitate positive change.

Mental health counselors typically work from a theoretical framework, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in order to conceptualize human behavior and employ effective interventions for successful treatment planning. They often take a collaborative approach in working with their clients.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), clinical psychology represents a relatively broad field, as clinical psychologists work in a variety of sectors. In general, clinical psychologists assess and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. They integrate research, evidence, and science to provide effective treatment to facilitate healthy living and positive change.

Clinical psychologists may act within a counseling role to assist people with psychological distress. While they employ many different techniques and interventions, clinical psychologists often obtain intake and assessment information, conduct diagnostic testing, and provide psychotherapy services for individuals, families, couples, and groups.

Within this role, clinical psychologists may focus on a specific population, such as adolescents or those struggling with substance use disorders. They may focus on the health or neuropsychology of their patients, identifying developmental disorders, traumatic brain injuries, or the impact of how other medical conditions affect emotional functioning.

What is the difference between a clinical mental health counselor and a clinical psychologist?

Becoming a clinical psychologist requires more time in postgraduate school which can demand more time and money in terms of pursuing the career. While both careers may include counseling, clinical psychology also often encompasses teaching, research, and testing/assessment.

Pay ranges also differ, with the average psychologist earning $81,040 annually, and the average mental health counselor earning $48,520 annually, as of May 2021. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates positive job growth for both careers.

Working as a clinical psychologist or mental health counselor can be an incredibly rewarding career for individuals who enjoy learning and connecting with other people. Both fields offer limitless opportunities to create effective and lasting change for the communities they serve.

Last updated August 2022