Counselling vs. Psychotherapy

Posted by: Maritza Rodriguez on July 8, 2011 11:54 am

One of the questions I am often asked is what is the difference between counselling and psychotherapy? The terms are often used interchangeably and synonymously but there is a slight and distinctive difference. Psychotherapy is often treatment based in response to a diagnosable mental health issue such as depression, bi-polar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, adjustment disorder, etc. It is often in-depth and used in conjunction with psychotropic medication, but not necessarily. Counselling tends to be wellness oriented, providing increased insight and learning how to effectively overcome problems and challenges.

Despite the difference, the professional engaging in counselling or psychotherapy is often the same person. The approach usually changes as a result of the presenting problem of the client. As the profession is not licensed in Canada yet, a psychotherapist should have at least a Master Degree with experience with treating diagnosable mental illness. At a minimum, a new psychotherapist should have a supervised practicum.  Ultimately, however, a counsellor should also have earned a Master Degree and have a supervised practicum.

Experience is the main factor in choosing a psychotherapist versus counsellor, taking into consideration the reason behind choosing to engage in therapy. If you are experiencing symptoms or problems that are significantly negatively impacting one or more aspects of your life (i.e. relationships, work, health, etc) then it is important to get a referral or seek out a psychotherapist with the knowledge and skill to treat the problem. If you are experiencing challenges or a major transition that is affecting your mood and aspects of your life and you want to learn effective coping skills and gain insight into your thoughts and  behaviors, than seek out a counsellor.

It should be noted that counsellors and psychotherapists use many of the same techniques and theories such as behavior modification and cognitive therapy. It is important to do your research to make an educated decision.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

10 comments on “Counselling vs. Psychotherapy”

  1. Mike says:

    @Asmat Khan MD, FRCPC – I can see that you have a strong opinion but it does not appear to be based entirely on facts. A Masters degree focused on Counselling or Clinical Psychology differs from a PhD or a Psy.D in Counselling or Clinical Psychology mostly based on the emphasis of diagnostics and formalized assessment in a doctoral degree plus an extra year of experience while in school. All of those people in a Masters or Doctoral program are also taught to do in-depth clinical work with clients based on a multitude of theories and models with specific interventions; this is why counselling and psychotherapy are really interchangeable in the modern world. This tends to mean that often psychologists focus on working in areas that are specific to mental health diagnoses, whether they are doing assessment or counselling/psychotherapy, though of course this is not always the case. Masters level Counsellors tend to focus on working with the populations that are sub-clinical or in the milder to moderate clinical diagnostic range, though of course this is not always the case. Masters level Counsellors and Psychologists can have very similar skillsets or very different skillsets depending on the program they graduated from, their area of interest, their experience, and their continued education.

    I know less about RCSW and Psychiatrist education personally so I won’t put out opinions here as they could not entirely be based on facts and more on personal experiences. I will say, however, diagnostic knowledge is absolutely not the same as the ability to apply therapeutic models and specific interventions; the best psychiatrists I have ever worked with have always told me this. The best psychiatrists I have worked with have always been clear that their ability to give a diagnosis based on symptoms observed and intervene with medication is not the same skillset as my ability to assess, recognize the same symptoms they do, and then intervene relationally, cognitively, behaviourally, and emotionally. When colleagues work together and respect one another for their particular skillsets, the clients are put first and typically there is more success. Belittling others never gets any of us anywhere.

  2. I dont have much time right now to write a lot of my blathering opinions,(my lil girl needs attention, lol), but when I logon again, I will explain in depth why I agree with this article.

  3. Maritza Rodriguez-Arseneau says:

    @Tova – In Ontario, only Psychotherapists can practice under the Controlled Act of Psychotherapy and are regulated by the College of Registered Psychotherapists (CRPO). If you are interested in a helping career, you have to take into consideration that while counsellors in Ontario are not regulated, they can not practice psychotherapy and as a result, can not bill insurances and do not have the opportunities of Registered Psychotherapists. I hope this is helpful.

  4. Tova says:

    Hi I also can’t seem to figure this out…do counselors even exist as their own profession in ontario, or are they just psychotherapists practicing counseling? I would like to know also for an education pathway.

  5. Ben says:

    @Asmat Khan, MD, —You are wrong and you shared bias incorrect information. In British Columbia some social workers hold a clinical registration (RCSW), a separate class of the Registered Social Worker designation which recognizes advanced practice skills in mental health and clinical social work. IN ADDITION, RCSWs are authorized in the province of British Columbia to use and apply the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).
    We do not feel “offended” and we do not “mimic psychologists and psychiatrists” or follow their prescriptions. We do want to be recognized for our full scope of practice.
    I suggest you further educate yourself and explore what exactly frightening you with the social model.

  6. Karen says:

    Dr. Khan
    That is not the case in Ontario, where psychotherapy is indeed a controlled act. Clinical Social workers, psychologists, OTs, physicians can use the designation psychotherapist providing they meet the requirements laid out by their regulatory college and in the RHPA. One doesn’t have to be the one making the diagnosis to provide the intervention.

    I think you will find that this varies from place to place.

  7. Asmat Khan, MD, FRCPC says:

    Psychotherapy is done after a specific diagnosis has been made which can be done either by a PhD clinical psychologist after a practicum or a psychiatrist. Since a social worker counsellor can not diagnose a specific mental disorder they can not do problem specific psychotherapy unless prescribed by the psychologist or a psychiatrist. This will offend some social workers because they would like to be known as psychotherapist to mimic psychologists and psychiatrists (it’s true they do psychotherapies like CBT and DBT but technically they are just carrying out the prescription, psychotherapy being diagnosis specific!) A psychotherapist does a PhD and spend upto 2 years more in clinical practicum while a psychiatrists does an MD and then a 5 year residency training. A social worker does MSc in social work and 1-2 years in learning counselling skills! How can they be educationally equivalent to professionals who spend on average 6-8 years more in mental health?

  8. Verda H. says:

    Does this mean that from a schooling point of view psychotherapists and counsellors are the same? For example, could someone who has completed a master’s in counselling and who is certified call themselves a psychotherapist?

  9. Kristen McCarthy says:

    Hi, I have the same question as Cynthia, in terms of looking at programs but not fully understanding the implications of being associated to the CPCA & ACCT, but not the CCPA. Thank you Kristen

  10. cynthia says:


    I am about to choose a program in Counselling through Canada, I am from Québec but I reside in BC, where I am planning on making a career. I would like this program to offer the most possibilities and one that would open as many doors as possible for a long-term career. I am looking at the Kelowna College of Professional Counselling and at the Clearmind International Institute. That last one recognizes CPCA and ACCT. Those aren’t connected to the CCPA at all? Is there a way I could be certified CCPA with any of those programs? Without this association certificate will I be limited in my practice?

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