Mental Health Counselors and Psychologists
If you are feeling a bit down and need professional guidance to help you get back to a better place, do you contact a mental health counselor or a psychologist?
What if you want to become a mental health professional? Would you go to school to be a psychologist, or should you get training to be a mental health counselor?
These questions aren’t as easy to answer as they might first seem because, while mental health counselors and psychologists have many similarities, they have many more differences. We will explore some of the most important differences between these careers in this guide.
Mental Health Counselor Vs. Psychologist
A mental health counselor focuses on helping clients cope with life challenges, while a psychologist delves deeper into understanding thoughts, emotions, and behaviors using various methods, often including research. Both offer therapy, but only psychologists typically conduct extensive psychological assessments.
On the surface, mental health counselors and psychologists are a lot alike. After all, that’s why so many people confuse “counselors” with “psychologists.” Both professions provide much-needed services to people with mental health needs. Both counselors and psychologists need a license or certification to work with clients, too.
But if you dig deeper, you will find that mental health counselors and psychologists are more different than they are alike. These differences are mostly small details regarding the scope of practice, work environment, and educational training. Let’s explore these differences in detail!
Differences in Practice of a Mental Health Counselor and a Psychologist
One of the most important differences between mental health counselors and psychologists is in the scope of practice. By and large, counselors provide general therapy for their clients. Psychologists, meanwhile, often have a much narrower focus, such as providing treatment for specific mental health disorders like schizophrenia, bulimia, or a personality disorder.
This difference reveals another way the scope of practice differs – counselors typically work with clients experiencing everyday situations like stress, anxiety, or depression. Psychologists tend to work more with clients with severe mental, emotional, or behavioral conditions requiring long-term treatment.
Another difference between these careers is that counselors usually do not administer advanced psychological tests. For example, a mental health counselor might perform the Beck Depression Inventory, a basic personality test, or perhaps a mental status examination.
But psychologists tend to be involved in much more detailed testing. For example, psychologists often give clients IQ tests like the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale or the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales. Likewise, a psychologist might be more likely to provide clients with projective tests like the Rorschach Inkblot Test because they require advanced training that is more likely to occur in a doctoral psychology program than in a master’s-level counseling program.
Another example of the differences between these professions is that in some states, psychologists can prescribe medication to their clients, like an antidepressant for a client that’s in a major depressive episode. Psychologists can only do this in certain situations, and they must do so with the supervision of a medical doctor.
Nevertheless, the option is on the table for psychologists, whereas LPCs cannot prescribe medication in any circumstances. To do so requires consultation with a psychologist or medical doctor, who would then prescribe the appropriate medication and dosage.
But, these are certainly not the only differences between mental health counselors and psychologists. Their work environments and educational backgrounds are also very different.
Differences in Work Environment of a Mental Health Counselor and a Psychologist
The work environments for counselors and psychologists are similarly varied. A mental health counselor might work in private practice, a school, or community mental health. Some mental health counselors work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and state-run facilities like juvenile detention centers and prisons.
Additionally, mental health counselors can be employed by private organizations, like an inpatient treatment center for people with an addiction. In some cases, mental health counselors might also work for state agencies, like the departments of health, human services, or child services.
Depending on the educational level, psychologists can also work in most of these same settings. For example, a school psychologist usually needs only a master’s degree. But, in a clinical mental health setting, it’s far more common for a psychologist to have a doctorate.
In any case, counselors and psychologists who focus on clinical applications of psychology often work in office settings with fairly typical 8-5 work schedules. Many counselors and psychologists alike are required to be on call for emergencies on a rolling basis, too. In those cases, you can expect to work late nights and on weekends, providing emergency mental health services over the phone, via video, or even in person (e.g., conducting a psychological assessment on someone who has been involuntarily committed after attempting suicide).
However, these two professions have many differences in their work environments. For example, counselors work almost exclusively in a service setting where they work directly with clients. Psychologists, though, don’t always provide counseling services. In some cases, they might specialize in research and work in a laboratory setting.
In other cases, you will find psychologists working in the field, such as observing animal behavior and using their findings to try to explain specific human behaviors in what is called comparative psychology.
It’s common for more people with advanced psychology degrees to work in an academic setting, too. This makes sense given the strong research component in graduate psychology programs – college professors are often required to conduct original research as part of their employment.
Differences in Education of a Mental Health Counselor and a Psychologist
One of the most distinct ways these occupations are different is the educational requirements. Mental health counselors typically get a master’s degree in counseling, which often takes the form of a Master of Science, Master of Arts, or Master of Education. These programs are usually around 60 credits and take anywhere from two to three years to complete.
Graduate programs in counseling can be found in large numbers as on-campus degree options. There are online options, and the number of online programs in this field seemingly grows each year. Online programs in counseling are not wholly online, though; you will likely complete most or all of the coursework online, but field placements (e.g., practicum, internship) must be done on-location in a counseling setting.
Generally speaking, a master’s degree is all that’s required to become a mental health counselor. Provided your counseling graduate degree program requires the appropriate coursework and experiential activities, the chances are good that you will be eligible for licensure as a mental health counselor in your state regardless of the state in which you got your degree. This is not a given, though, so it’s prudent to explore the specific licensure requirements for mental health counselors in the state in which you wish to practice.
The coursework for a typical master’s degree in counseling explores topics like theories and techniques of counseling, individual and group counseling, and multicultural counseling. Likewise, you’ll take courses in professional ethics, psychopathology, and child development. Most programs have a 100-hour practicum and a 600-hour or more internship component, though these requirements vary from program to program.
Though some master’s-level psychology careers exist, it is far more common to pursue a doctoral degree in psychology (e.g., a Ph.D. or Psy.D.). In fact, some states require psychologists to have a doctorate, otherwise, they cannot practice as a psychologist.
Most doctoral programs in psychology last about five years, the majority of which is spent in seminars and colloquia. These classroom activities are highly advanced and drill down to specific psychological topics. For example, you might take a seminar in abnormal psychology, psychopharmacology, or biological psychology.
Research is also a significant component of most psychology doctoral programs. This is a major difference between the educational requirements for mental health counselors and psychologists. Where counseling students focus more on the application of counseling techniques rather than research, graduate programs in psychology typically include both.
So, for example, if you enroll in a doctoral program in psychology, the chances are good that you will have to complete a doctoral dissertation in addition to completing the fieldwork. Like counseling graduate programs, psychology internships are usually one year, though some programs might require additional supervised practice, depending on the specialty.
Speaking of specialties, it’s safe to say that prospective psychologists have a larger selection of concentration areas than mental health counselors. For example, a mental health counselor might get a degree in clinical mental health counseling, addictions counseling, school counseling, or marriage and family counseling. Psychologists, though, might specialize in any of the following:
- Clinical psychology
- Counseling psychology
- Child psychology
- School psychology
- Biological psychology
- Social psychology
The above isn’t even a complete list, either, but you get the point. Depending on your area of emphasis in your psychology doctoral program, you might have your pick of a half-dozen or more career paths.
Which is Better? A Mental Health Counselor or a Psychologist?
Earlier, two questions were posed: First, if you are feeling a little depressed, do you see a mental health counselor or a psychologist, and second, if you want to be a mental health professional, do you get training as a psychologist or a mental health counselor?
Though either of these professionals is qualified to help you with a depressive episode, it might be more common to see a counselor, given their focus on day-to-day functioning and common mental health concerns. A psychologist, on the other hand, might be more appropriate if you have a serious mental disorder that requires long-term treatment.
The answer to the second question is that either course of study will provide you with the training necessary to be a mental health professional. The main consideration to make is the type of mental health services you wish to provide.
Again, counselors are usually the first line of defense for people experiencing common mental health needs – the stress of losing a job, sadness associated with divorce, and anxiety about starting a new relationship. If you want to provide therapy for these and other types of common occurrences and do so primarily in a psychotherapy setting, a graduate degree in counseling is a good choice.
However, if assessing, diagnosing, and treating people with more robust mental health needs is of interest to you, training as a psychologist might be more relevant. Disorders like autism, dissociative identity disorder, and phobias usually require in-depth, long-term treatment, which you will learn how to provide in a psychology graduate program.
So, ultimately, choosing the best option between a mental health counselor and a psychologist comes down to your specific mental health needs or your desires for your career. Use this guide to help you clarify which option is best for you so you can make a more informed decision that best fits your needs.