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What is the difference between Psychologists and Counsellors?

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

In my practice, this is an ongoing question and one that is not easily answered. I am a qualified and accredited Counsellor who has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology (Honours), so I have a working knowledge of both professions. The opinions given in this article are my own and come from my lived experiences, values, and attitudes. So here goes:

What is Psychology? Psychology is based on the science of how and why people think, feeling, behave and learn. A great emphasis on psychological education is on statistics, diagnosis, psychometric testing, and assessment. Psychologists tend to work in modalities such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) which focuses on changing behaviours using a set of specific rules. Psychology is mostly, working within a medical framework.

My experience: I undertook 4 years of study in Psychology (Honours). For the first three years, we looked at the history of Psychology (interesting indeed), the founders of Psychology, different modalities including, Animal Psychology, Clinical Psychology and Child Psychology. The focus of these studies was theory only. In those years, there was no performing or practicing psychological interventions or modalities. The fourth year was purely based on statistics and research and although a very hard and interesting year there was still no performing or learning of specific psychological interventions or modalities. In the four years that I studied Psychology, I did not interact with a client or explore hands-on psychology in the real-world setting. I left my study wondering why I had done this degree and wishing I had undertaken social work instead. The problem is to practice as a Psychologist I would have to continue my studies with another 2 years of practical psychology in the form of a master’s degree in clinical psychology. There are other avenues such as a PHD (which I started but quickly stopped due to the emphasis on statistics) or other psychology forms like forensic and sports psychology. If you live in Adelaide and have children, you are mostly limited to studying clinical psychology.

What is Counselling?

I believe Dr Snell for Deakin University sums that question up well:

*“Counsellors adopt a more person-centred approach, says Dr Snell. ‘If you went to see a psychologist, they would probably do quite a comprehensive assessment, to begin with, whereas a counsellor would begin by listening and discussing what your goals are,’ he says.

Counsellors help people positively tackle problems by helping to clarify issues, explore options and develop strategies. ‘Counsellors are experts in listening and helping people achieve their personal goals,’ says Dr Snell. ‘They don't tend to do diagnosis or assessment, but they will support people with mild to moderate symptoms of mental illness.’

Counselling courses teach the nitty-gritty of listening and responding to clients. ‘The training in counselling is very practical,’ says Dr Snell. ‘You learn about empathy and positive regard – the counselling ‘micro skills’ – to make sure you graduate with fundamental listening skills, which are essential for counsellors.’

As I am an experienced Counsellor, I find most of my clients are looking to be understood, listened to, and accepted. For some they feel the weight of the world lift when they have someone, they can feel safe and connected to, with whom they can be heard.

My experience: With my expensive piece of paper in hand, and nowhere to go I decided to study for a post-degree in Counselling. Straight away I knew this was a course for me. It was practical and we practiced working with real clients. I studied Grief, Alcohol and other drugs, and Depression Counselling and learned Narrative, Acceptance and Commitment, Solution Focused, Person-Centered Therapies (to name a few) while practicing these modalities in real-time. Not only did I learn a lot about counselling I also went on a personal journey. In those two years, I worked through some hard mental health issues I was having (a bonus really). I believe I came through this course a well-grounded person who does not work under a medical model instead opting to use a person-centered approach. For me, my clients are the experts in their own mental health, and I am there as a guide who listens and gives space for that person to be heard (sometimes for the very first time). I am honored to call myself a Counsellor and I feel I have made the right choice.

Ok, I want to name it; I am biased towards counselling. However, I firmly believe that Psychology has its place and for some who want and need diagnoses and treatment, it is the way to go. For some with multi-complex mental health issues, I think Psychology fits well. Again, over to Dr Snell:

*Study psychology and you’ll cover a lot of assessment and diagnosis theory. You’ll learn counselling skills too, but the focus is on the technical aspects of different therapeutic approaches. ‘This is because psychologists are often dealing with more severe kinds of pathology,’ says Dr Snell. * Click here to read article

Regulation the difference between Counselling and Psychology: One of the biggest problems for counselling, is that it is unregulated. Meaning anyone can call themselves a Counsellor. People with no formal education; people who have completed weekend courses; and those who have studied for 6 years are allowed to call themselves Counsellors. Yep, that is a problem that I hope changes soon, but if you do your due diligence make sure when connecting with a Counsellor that they are accredited under ACA, PACFA or ARCAP or the regulatory body in your state.

Mental Health Care Plans (MHCP) – Counselling and Psychology: Since counselling is unregulated, it does not fall under the Medicare scheme. If you have an MHCP you can see a psychologist and gain a rebate through Medicare for around ($87) per session. However, Psychologists tend to charge a lot more than Counsellors (some don’t so please have a look around and do your homework) therefore sometimes you are in the end still paying more. To get an MHCP, you need to visit your doctor, who will ask you a series of questions (using a form of the DASS-21) related to your mental health. The doctor can then refer you to a psychologist, or you can find your own. To see a Counsellor, you do not have to visit your doctor. Therefore, you will not have to discuss the intricacies of your mental health with a GP. This can be a relief for some people who do not want to share their mental health stories with many people.

I want to reiterate that this article is based on my opinions. I advocate for everyone to find what fits them and what feels right. There are great Psychologists and there are not so great Psychologists as equally there are great Counsellors and not so great Counsellors. I hope whether you choose a Counsellor or a Psychologist that you find the right match and that your mental health journey is a positive experience.

Written by Samantha Seymour 16 September 2021


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