Applied Psychology

The Difference Between Counselling and Psychotherapy

May 16, 2024 | By Jenna van Schoor
Black man, counseling and psychology consulting for therapy, mental healthcare or support.

Counselling and psychotherapy are closely related types of mental health support. What needs to be clarified is that both types of support are often referred to as therapy. However, the modalities are different. 

If you’re looking for support, it can be helpful to understand which would be more beneficial to you. Clarifying which modality you might be more interested in can also benefit those interested in a career as a mental health practitioner.

To give an overview, counselling and psychotherapy differ in scope, training, focus, techniques, and accessibility. This post will explore how they differ in each of these areas. In this context, therapy refers to psychotherapy, although many other treatments and modalities are available.  

Differences between counselling and psychotherapy

1. Scope

Counselling is typically focused on dealing with specific issues or concerns. For example, it can help victims solve current problems in a crisis. In other words, it is more short-term and can help deal with relationship problems, stress, or making important career decisions. 

Counsellors will often refer patients to licensed psychotherapists if they feel that what the client needs is beyond the scope of their expertise. 

Conversely, psychotherapy involves a trained psychotherapist working with a client to explore deeper psychological issues that are more chronic. For example, psychotherapy can help deal with past traumas, mental health and personality patterns. This process is usually long-term. 

Psychotherapy might be more targeted towards those with diagnosed mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

2. Training

Counsellors can have varied educational backgrounds, such as psychology or social work. 

However, only licensed psychotherapists can offer psychotherapy, which typically involves more advanced medical and psychological training and clinical exposure. Licenced practitioners include psychologists, psychiatrists and licensed clinical social workers. 

3. Focus

Counselling focuses on practical strategies and skills for solving specific issues. Standard techniques include problem-solving, communication skills, and goal-setting. 

Psychotherapy involves a deeper exploration of thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. Possible techniques include psychodynamic therapy and psychoanalysis, as well as other modalities, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). 

4. Accessibility

Counselling is typically more accessible than psychotherapy. In many parts of the world, it’s free at clinics and other places that provide psychological support. In South Africa, there are many toll-free numbers that you can call to speak to a trained counsellor in a psychological emergency. These include:

  • SADAG: 0800 567 567
  • SADAG Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0800 567 567
  • LifeLine: 0861 322 322
  • Department of Social Development Substance Abuse Hotline: 0800 12 13 14

As mentioned, counselling doesn’t always need to happen in a crisis. Psychological support can also help you deal with conflict or navigate career decisions. Counselling can also occur in the workplace to help deal with conflict or other issues.

Psychotherapy is widely available but may be more expensive and not always accessible to the broader public. However, psychotherapy has become more available thanks to online platforms, breaking down previous geographic barriers. 

Similarities between counselling and psychotherapy

We’ve discussed how counselling and psychotherapy differ, but it’s also important to note that they have similarities. Both address emotional issues and mental health challenges. Both are regulated by professional organisations and are subject to legal and ethical requirements. Both aim to help people examine their lives, shift perspectives, build resilience, and become a better version of themselves.

All mental health practitioners must follow sound ethics in managing confidentiality. Counsellors and psychotherapists must also have informed consent and build solid therapeutic relationships, which involve setting and maintaining boundaries. 

Cultural contexts can also influence how these two mental health modalities differ or how they are similar in other parts of the world. In many different countries, the terms might also be used interchangeably. Either way, it is helpful to understand the slight differences between them, especially if you would like to train to become a counsellor or therapist yourself.

Learn more about counselling and psychotherapy at SACAP Global

You can begin with a psychology degree if you’d like to become a registered counsellor or a licensed psychotherapist. Learn more about this by visiting the SACAP website. For example, SACAP offers a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Psychology, specialising in Psychology and Counselling.

For those interested in developing foundational counselling skills to incorporate in your current work role, you can take a look at some of our related short online courses:

If you already have foundational counselling skills, you may want to learn more about specific counselling contexts, such as children, youth, addictions or grief and loss, in these online courses:

Whether you become a registered counsellor or not, these skills will undoubtedly enrich your current skill set. For more information about upskilling in other related areas, browse our course list.

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