What’s the difference between a psychologist, a psychotherapist, and a counsellor, and which one is right for you?


Whether you’re struggling with a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression or you want to boost your self-esteem, getting in touch with a mental health professional is an important first step. And yet, the terminology can be confusing. While looking for professionals, you might come across terms like “psychologist”, “psychotherapist”, and “counsellor”, sometimes used interchangeably. However, while all three terms might have something in common, each speciality focuses on different things. Here in the UK, the differences between the three terms aren’t always clear, which can make the process of getting help rather confusing. Understanding what a psychologist, counsellor, and psychotherapist do will help you determine which one is right for you and what you can expect during sessions. 

What does a psychologist do?

In the UK, a psychologist is a mental health professional who has a doctorate in psychology and is registered with the British Psychology Society (BPS) and the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Psychologists are doctors and have received training in psychopharmacology; however, they are not medical doctors, meaning they cannot issue prescriptions or perform medical procedures. Due to their academic background, psychologists tend to follow a scientific approach, which is why they often work in schools, hospitals, and care units. 


There are two types of psychologists: 


  • Counselling psychologists: they help patients overcome emotional challenges using research-based treatments and can also diagnose more severe mental health conditions. But, most of the time, counselling psychologists focus on less severe mental health concerns, such as helping you overcome stress or resolve an emotional crisis.
  • Clinical psychologists: they tend to focus more on research and theory and perform tests, observations, and interviews with patients who have complex mental health conditions. In the UK, most clinical psychologists work with the NHS and prison services.

What does a counsellor do?

Unlike psychologists, who usually delve deeper into the source of your mental health issues (i.e., childhood trauma), a counsellor’s approach usually focuses on the present and helping you overcome what’s causing your distress now. This can be anything from a particularly stressful time at work to a bad breakup or the loss of a loved one. Some counsellors focus on general issues, while others specialise in a specific area, such as stress, depression, low self-esteem, or relationship problems. A counsellor can help you overcome a difficult period of your life, boost your self-esteem, or understand what motivates you. For example, if you aren’t satisfied with your life, you feel unfulfilled at work or in personal relationships, but don’t know how to improve your wellbeing, a counsellor can give you actionable tips and recommendations. Counselling is often referred to as a short-term solution that offers long-term benefits because the duration of counselling sessions doesn’t usually exceed twelve weeks. If you are struggling with a more severe mental health condition that requires complex treatment, your counsellor may refer you to someone else who can offer you specialised help. 


Counsellors can also specialise in various kinds of therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Person-Centred Therapy. Becoming a certified counsellor requires academic training, but the minimum is a diploma level training of two years. 


Although counsellors can offer their services without having a license, ideally, you should only work with someone who is accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) or United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

What does a psychotherapist do?

A psychotherapist is a psychologist or registered counsellor who specialises in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is usually a long-term process that aims to boost your emotional wellness by helping you overcome issues from your past. For example, you may discuss traumatic events from your childhood, emotional negligence, or toxic relationships. Psychotherapy is also referred to as talk therapy because, during the sessions, the psychotherapist will try to identify the root of the problem by talking with you in a safe, non-judgmental setting where you are free to express yourself. 


Like counsellors, psychotherapists can help you cope with symptoms such as stress, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping, but they can also help with long-term mental health conditions such as PTSD and OCD. Because it focuses on changing emotional patterns by processing events in your past, psychotherapy is usually a long-term solution. On average, psychotherapists recommend one or two sessions per week, but, in some cases, you may have up to five sessions per week. As for the duration of the treatment, it may span across several years, although session frequency can be changed depending on how you respond. 


Psychotherapy treatment plans can be complex. For example, your psychotherapist may employ counselling techniques but also specialised psychotherapy approaches, such as behaviour therapy, Gestalt therapy, or cognitive therapy. 

How to choose between a psychologist, psychotherapist, and counsellor 

In short, the main differences between a psychologist, psychotherapist, and counsellor refer to their level of education and training and their approach to addressing mental health conditions. For example, while a counsellor can help you overcome a short-term challenge, such as going through a stressful period at work, a psychotherapist is more suited to help you process past events and understand how they reflect on the present. 


Ultimately, choosing between a psychologist, psychotherapist, and counsellor depends on your needs. All of them can be a good starting point for treating mental health conditions, and when in doubt, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask if they can help you with your particular issue. No matter what you choose, make sure you feel 100% comfortable with your mental health professional. 

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