The Difference Between Counseling, Therapy, and Psychology Careers

Which mental health profession is right for me? Can I provide therapy as a counselor? Will I need a master’s degree to work as a school counselor? Do psychiatrists only work with severe mental illness? These may be questions that you have thought about when deciding to pursue rewarding work within many of the helping professions that work with all types of clients in many different settings.

Often times, the terms of counseling and therapy are used interchangeably. Public perception of the two terms varies as one may be viewed as providing here and now services while the other delves deeper into root causes of behavior. However, both mental health terms relate to the services provided to individuals seeking guidance and assistance in addressing their social, emotional, and mental needs. In both, counselors or therapist are meeting with individuals to address their concerns on many different levels to include emotional, mental, and physical. There are different counseling theories that each mental health professional may integrate into their practice. As such, there could be many different titles and licensure/certifications for their practice.

Counseling Careers

Individuals who pursue a career in counseling often become one of the following: licensed professional, clinical mental health, school, rehabilitation, substance abuse, or pastoral counselor to name a few.

Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) 

Mental health counselors provide client-centered therapy through the combination of psychotherapy with a problem-solving approach to address change and problem resolution. The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) summarizes the services that are offered by LMHC’s to include assessment & diagnosis, psychotherapy, treatment planning, brief- and solution-focused therapy, alcohol and substance abuse treatment, psychoeducational and prevention programs, and crisis management. Licensed Mental Health Counselors also work with other mental health professions in collaboration for the health and benefit of their clients. Some counseling specialties require licensure first as a mental health or professional counselor before earning certification to work with a specific population. To become a LMHC, one must obtain a master’s degree in counseling and licensure.

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Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

Professional counselors diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders through psychoeducational techniques, prevention plans, consultation, and therapy. LPCs work with individuals, families, and groups to address mental, behavioral, and emotional problems and disorders. The American Counseling Association (ACA) further summarizes that contrary to other approaches, LPCs approach to work with clients is centered around them as an individual, not their presenting illness. Similar to LMHCs, licensed professional counselors must also obtain their master’s degree in counseling and licensure to practice.


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Substance Abuse/Addiction Counselor

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides an outline of typical substance abuse/addiction counselor activities. Substance abuse/addiction counselors evaluate a client’s mental and physical health to assess readiness for treatment. Helping to define goals and subsequent treatment plans, substance abuse/addiction counselors work with clients to develop the skills and behaviors that are necessary for recovery from addiction or to modify their behavior. These counselors also educate families about addiction and the process of recovery. For some speciality certifications, various states will certify individuals who were past addicts to provide peer counseling. Depending upon the locale and place of practice, substance abuse counselors may have a bachelor’s education, while addiction counselors apply for state licensure after completion of a recognized master’s degree program.

School Counselor

All school counselors are required to obtain a master’s degree in school counseling. For some states, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), it is required to have teaching experience before becoming certified in school counseling. More information can be found on their “State Certifications” page. The ASCA examines in their role statement of school counselors that they engage in activities to promote equity and equal access to educational experiences for all students through leadership, advocacy, and collaboration to support a safe environment for learning. School counselors address the needs of all students through a culturally relevant lens while integrating intervention programs that are a part of the comprehensive school counseling program.

Therapy Careers

Therapy in the mental health field can be considered an overarching term that includes different types of approaches to meeting with clients. However, the term is not definitive of the level of competence a mental health professional will have.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

Marriage and family therapists address clinical concerns within individual, couples, and marriage sessions. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), LMFTs address depression, marital problems, anxiety, psychological concerns, and child-parent problems. Therapy approaches for LMFTs involve a holistic, brief-, and solution-focused therapy with therapeutic goals that are attainable. Marriage and family therapists incorporate the role of the individual within their marriage or family dynamic as an influence or bearing on their behavior and/or presenting concern. To become a MFT, individuals must pursue a master's degree in marriage and family therapy and apply for licensure through their state board.

Psychology Careers

Psychologists are trained to perform assessments and make diagnoses as well as provide therapy to individuals and groups. This helping profession requires an advanced degree beyond a master’s program. There are different types of concentrations in psychology that will determine the exact title of a psychologist to include population and locale of practice.

Clinical Psychologist

After obtaining their doctorate, clinical psychologists are trained to make diagnosis and provide individual and group therapy. Some clinical psychologists are educated and trained in different concentrations such as child, education, organization, community, developmental, and health. Providing mental and behavioral health services in both health and social care settings, clinical psychologists use evidence based approaches to focus on prevention, health disparities, reduce psychological distresses, and to enhance psychological well-being. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes the role of psychologists as including the following: assessment, diagnosis, collaboration with an interdisciplinary team, creating/monitoring programs of treatment, offering therapy, rehabilitation of clients into community, developing programs for behavioral and mental health services, consulting with other professionals and staff, and conducting evidence-based research.

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school-psychologist

School Psychologist

School psychologists also obtain their doctorate degree, make diagnoses, and provide therapy much like their clinical counterpart. School psychologists, however, work with parents, teachers, and school staff to address the developmental needs of students as well as the formation of individual education plans (IEP). The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) examines that school psychologists help schools to improve academic achievement, promote positive behavior and mental health, support diverse learners, create a safe and positive school climate, strengthen family-school partnerships, and to help improve school-wide assessment and accountability for student progress in academics and behavior. Collaborating with other student support staff, like school counselors, psychologists in the school settings work to promote the overall behavioral and mental health of their students.

How are school psychologists different that school counselors? Learn more in our comparison guide: School Counselor vs. School Psychologist

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Counseling Psychologist

As general practice and health service providers, counseling psychologists address the emotional, social, work, school, and physical health concerns of individuals and focus on how people function both personally and within their relationships. This profession also provides assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of severe psychological symptoms. The American Psychological Association (APA) further identifies counseling psychologists as engaging in individual, group, and family counseling and psychotherapy providing many services such as crisis intervention and trauma and disaster management while consulting with organizations and providing program evaluation and tracking client progress. Working with all types of populations and organizations, to include businesses, counseling psychologists have earned their doctorate in their field.

Psychiatry Careers

For those who pursue a career in psychiatry, they receive medical training and education to become a doctor who can prescribe medication based upon the mental and physical assessment of any client.

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Psychiatrist

Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that is focused on mental health that include substance use disorders. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) reviews that psychiatrists are educated and trained on a medical route to focus on diagnosis, treatment, and prevention or mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders which include physical aspects of psychological concerns. Often times, psychiatrists will prescribe medications in combination with the therapy that they offer. After completion of their doctorate program, psychiatrists complete a one year residency within a hospital working with medical illnesses. The remaining three years are dedicated to mental health treatments.

Social Work Careers

Social workers can make diagnoses, provide individual and group therapies, and provide case management and advocacy on behalf of their clients.

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Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), licensed clinical social workers help individuals, families, and groups increase their capacity in social functioning and advocate for conditions in society that support their communities. LCSW help individuals address their own needs through psychosocial services and advocacy. Social workers can be found in schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, senior centers, private practice, prisons, and in other agencies that address individual and family needs. Licensed Clinical Social Workers are first educated through a recognized social work master's degree program and then apply for licensure through their state board.

Ever wonder the difference between counselors and social workers? Learn more in our comparison guide: Mental Health Counselor vs. Social Worker


Although each discipline of mental health professions varies from one another, they all involve the advocacy and attention to the mental health needs and concerns of their clients - from all walks of life and in many different locales and place of practice. In determining which profession is right for you, take into consideration the importance of working with specific populations, the roles that you would like to play, and which setting you would like to practice in. There are many other specialties, certifications, endorsements, and licenses that are available to those seeking to become a mental health professional.


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