I am frequently asked by clients what the difference is between counselling and psychotherapy. Having completed training in both counselling and psychotherapy, I can speak from experience when explaining some of the differences.
Counselling and psychotherapy are interchangeable, that is to say they overlap in several ways. Some might argue that the key difference is the longevity of the work between client and therapist; so the number of sessions the client and therapist meet for. I would argue that whilst this is potentially one factor, it is possible to complete brief therapeutic work with clients both as a psychotherapist and counsellor. In fact one of the requirements for my training and qualification as a psychotherapist is proven work with clients which includes both short and long term therapy.
Thinking about requirements for training, this is an important factor that underpins the type of work a counsellor or psychotherapist can offer. There are two main governing bodies for counsellors and psychotherapists in the United Kingdom. These are the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and The United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP.) Whilst there are no rules stipulating who can and cannot call themselves a counsellor or psychotherapist, counsellors and psychotherapists that are registered with either the BACP or UKCP have completed a specific level of training as part of an accredited course which enables them to gain registration with either the BACP or UKCP. This is important for anyone looking for support from a counsellor or psychotherapist. Always look to see if the person claiming to be a counsellor or psychotherapist is registered with either the BACP or UKCP or that they are in the process of completing a level of training that enables them to do so.
To register with the BACP a person must have completed a counselling or psychotherapy course that is a minimum of one year full time or two years part time with a supervised placement that is a minimum of one hundred hours. A supervised placement is where a counsellor or psychotherapist receives supervision for the therapeutic work they undertake with clients. All counsellors and psychotherapists receive supervision throughout their career as a counsellor or psychotherapist however the amount of supervision required varies depending on the stage they are at in their career. The BACP requires a counsellor or psychotherapist to receive one hour of supervision for every eight hours of client work undertaken in their initial one hundred hour placement.
Training is longer and more rigorous for counsellors and psychotherapists that are registered with the UKCP. The usual requirement is the completion of a Masters Level course in psychotherapy or an accredited course in psychotherapeutic counselling. To train as a psychotherapist leading to UKCP registration takes a minimum of four years followed by a minimum of two years of practice under supervision, usually weekly, for every six hours of work undertaken with clients, and usually for the first four hundred and fifty hours of work with clients. Likewise, UKCP membership as a psychotherapeutic counsellor requires evidence of four hundred and fifty hours of practice; theory and skills.
Another contributing factor which determines registration is whether a psychotherapist or counsellor has embarked on their own journey of personal therapy. To register with the BACP it is not a requirement that the counsellor or psychotherapist has undertaken their own personal therapy. To register with the UKCP a counsellor or psychotherapist must have received their own personal therapy usually for a minimum of once a week for fifty minutes throughout the duration of their training.
So, what does this mean to the actual work of counsellors and psychotherapists? As mentioned previously there are many overlaps in the type of support that is available from a counsellor and psychotherapist. I would summarise the main differences as consisting of the following:
- Counsellors have an understanding of theories and research on mental health and well-being and what can contribute to obstacles to a person’s wellbeing. They can use this to facilitate client development.
- Counsellors have an understanding of theory and research concerning specific life problems, issues and transitions that commonly lead to people considering counselling and are able to use this to inform their work with clients.
In addition to the above:
- Psychotherapists have an understanding of typical presentations of severe mental disorder.
- Psychotherapists understand methods of diagnosis of severe mental disorder appropriate to a theoretical approach and are able to conduct appropriate diagnostic procedures.
- Psychotherapists understand and are able to implement treatment methods to address symptoms and causes of severe mental disorder.
Different people use the words counselling and psychotherapy in varying ways. There is a general understanding that a psychotherapist can work with a wider range of clients and can offer more in-depth work where appropriate. Such in-depth work can include drawing on a clients thought processes and way of being in the world in order to help in regards to specific problems and to help the individual to gain greater self awareness. Part of the process often entails examining feelings, actions and thoughts and learning how to evaluate and adjust behaviour if and where appropriate. It can frequently lead to long term change for the client. Psychotherapy can help a person to deal with psychological difficulties that have developed over a long period of time, helping to identify the emotional issues and background to difficulties.
Counselling can help a person to explore their personal development and create helpful adjustments in their life. Counselling can help a person to identify problems and crises and support the individual to take positive steps to resolve issues and change problematic behaviour. It is frequently a shorter term process to psychotherapy.
Psychotherapeutic counsellors are counsellors who have received a more in-depth level of training than that undertaken by most counsellors.
In actual practice a psychotherapist may provide counselling to support an individual with specific situations and, as mentioned above, a counsellor may function in a psychotherapeutic manner. However, whilst a psychotherapist is qualified to provide counselling, a counsellor may not possess the necessary training and skills to provide psychotherapy. This can be helpful to know as even in counselling, the need for a deeper level of work may become apparent in which case more psychotherapeutic work might be necessary. Whenever considering having counselling or psychotherapy with someone, always consider the persons training and qualifications, background and work experience as well the ethical guidelines governing their work.
References and further reading:
Counselor or Psychotherapist? The Difference between Counseling and Psychotherapy
By Nancy Schimelpfening,
Updated January 30, 2013
UKCP – United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy
UKCP – United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy
The Difference between Counselling and Psychotherapy
By Anna Martin,
Updated June 29, 2013
BACP – British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
BACP Student Pages
HCPC – Health and Care Professions Council
Consultation on the statutory regulation of psychotherapists and counsellors