• The Difference Between Counseling and Therapy

    The Difference Between Counseling and Therapy

    The words “therapy” and “counseling” are thrown around a bit but, contrary to what some may think, they are in no way interchangeable. Before signing up for one of the other, it is important to be familiar with the roles assigned and designated for the two levels of assistance.

    Therapy: A Closer Look

    Therapy is a relationship forged between a licensed therapist; someone with a Masters’ degree or Doctorate degree in their discipline or area of study, usually psychology or social work. They have been extensively trained to work in that field and practice therapeutic “models,” which are types of therapy they use with clients. They are not only educated in therapy techniques but have served internships with a supervisor who has overseen their skills to make certain they are appropriate and follow strict guidelines established for becoming licensed in their state of practice.

    Doctorate level therapists are most often Psychologists. They are qualified to do things that Master’s level therapists cannot perform, such as psychological testing. Their education is more extensive and they have served more stringent intern processes as well.

    Therapy is most often a short-term process that may be deemed complete with as few as six or eight sessions. This is usually mandated by a person’s insurance coverage. Those who enter therapy will set a specific goal with the therapist that will be completed within a specific time frame. There is seldom a need for anyone to undergo long-term or undetermined lengths of time in therapy. Those who suffer from severe types of emotional trouble may be an exception. This will be discussed most often within the first session or two.

    Most therapy will be practiced in a clinical setting, with the therapist remaining unbiased and detached from the outcome of the sessions. They may recommend techniques for problem solving with clients, but will not advise them about decision-making processes or give them solutions. A good therapist will listen and question the client about their views on situations and assist them in gaining access to their own feelings about those situations. They may guide the client toward finding their own answers but will not provide advice.

    Counseling: The 411

    Counseling, on the other hand, is a more informal practice. Counselors often have much less education in their field than a therapist, usually certification that is 2-3 years of education in their practice. They also serve a shorter period of supervision to obtain their certification. Counselors are often found in settings where lower costs are maintained for treatment, such as recovery homes versus treatment centers with higher costs.

    Frequently, counseling may be free or of minimal cost to the client and can go on for longer period of times. Many clients will work with counselors for periods of time during which they resolve issues that are pertinent to their recovery process.

    It is important to note that most counselors are not trained to work through issues other than those dealing with recovery from addiction. They are not qualified to do couples therapy, family therapy or other forms of intense work. They may have some minimal training in recognizing trauma and abuse issues, but are not specifically trained to help clients work through those problems. They have not been trained in practicing any form of therapy. Their training is designed to give them skills for working at minimal levels of intervention with troubled clients. They are primarily useful in interfacing with clients in non-invasive practices.

    Counselors may offer advice to clients, suggesting interventions or methods for working through their issues that are more directive than therapy. However, if they encounter clients with emotional or physical trauma they are supposed to refer those individuals to therapy. They may be able to recognize these issues, but are not qualified to intervene with the client on these matters.

    How the Two Interact

    Some treatment programs will have both counselors and therapists who work with clients. Both provide different levels of intervention with clients.

    Therapists can provide both group therapy along with one-on-one sessions while counselors may provide psycho-educational groups (but just cannot call it therapy). The latter will be mostly educational and informative. One-on-one sessions with counselors will be less involved with providing therapy than advising clients on educational and informational services.

    An example of a one-on-one counseling session may be to provide resources about recovery or to interact with a client about work they have been assigned in treatment. They may provide feedback on the work to the client or give them additional “homework” assignments to perform.

    A therapy session will offer more intense emotional work, perhaps using psychodynamic skills the therapist has acquired for determining underlying causes for behavior, or addressing issues that are pertinent to that client. There is a higher level of intensity and deeper work than counselors are qualified to deal with. These issues may be trauma, abuse, high levels of anger and anxiety, family issues that are causing trouble for the client, etc.

    Both therapy and counseling are very useful to those who need extra guidance in their recovery. However, depending on the specific needs, one may be more beneficial to a person’s journey than another.


    Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.

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