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 Therapist or Counselor? Therapy or Counseling?

Wait! Oh My. . . There's More! Life Coach & Life Coaching. . .What the Heck is That?

Yikes! I'm so Confused! What do I need? What's Right for Me? Do I need a Therapist, Counselor or Life Coach?

I receive numerous questions regarding the difference between therapists and counselors as well as counseling and therapy. In short, there is not a huge difference. Both therapists and counselors work directly with individuals to resolve underlying issues that are causing emotional distress. To take it a step further, therapists and counselors might also be social workers, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, qualified mental health professionals, Life Coaches, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, addiction specialists, or even nurse practitioners and psychiatrists. Wow! That's a lot of terms and can get pretty confusing for those not working directly in the field. Let's break down the most common terms you'll hear. . . Therapists, Counselors, Life Coaches. . .


Therapist is short for psychotherapist. Thus, those two are one in the same. One of the major qualifications to hold the title Therapist is a Master's or Doctorate Degree. So. . . my Uncle Bob has a Master's Degree in Accounting, is he a therapist? Should I consult with him about my depression? Of course not. To be a therapist, the Master's Degree needs to be in a human service/social science field such as Social Work, Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, or Counseling. In addition to the degree, each state has its own licensing and regulatory rules. In most cases, if an individual successfully completes a Master's Program in one of the above mentioned fields, he or she is eligible to apply to the state for a Limited License in that field. For example. . .

Sally attends WCCC and in 2 (+) years she earns an associate degree. From WCCC, she transfers to WSU and earns her Bachelor's Degree in Social Work (BSW) an additional 2 (+) years later. After WSU she decides to transfer to MSU for her Master's in Social Work. After about 2-3 years there, She earns her Master's in Social Work. Now what? She's had about 7 years of schooling so she's a therapist ready to open her own practice and work independently, right? Nope. . . not quite yet. Sally now has to apply to the state for her Limited License as a Master's Level Social Worker (LLMSW). The state does intensive background checks as well as reviews academic transcripts prior to approving the limited license. Without even a limited license, Sally cannot provide any social work services in the state of Michigan that requires a licensed social worker. Once her limited license is received, she's welcome to open her own counseling practice and provide therapy services. However, she is required to have supervision (at least 4 hours a month) for at least two years with a fully licensed MSW (LMSW). After two years of full time employment and 4 hours a month of supervision as a LLMSW, she is eligible to take a huge state exam to become a LMSW. The exam is very difficult and many great social workers fail at least one time. After she passes the exam (which she has to pay to take), she is eligible to send her proof of education, supervision, and work experience to the state to receive her full license as a Master's Level Social Worker (LMSW). With the full license, Sally is now able to work fully independent (no more mandatory supervision). However, she is required to complete a set amount of continuing education hours yearly to ensure she is staying to up to date on social work practices. In short, as soon as Sally receives her LLMSW she can call herself a therapist and open a practice to provide therapy. Many people attempt to do that, but it is very difficult. Would you like to see a LLMSW straight out of school with no experience or a LMSW with state approved experience and supervision already under his/her belt? There is only so much a textbook can teach you. The bulk of what I've learned as a social worker/therapist has been in the field and from my clients. Schooling meets the basic requirement and is invaluable, yet there is so much more to learn after framing that MSW degree. The journey to becoming a skilled therapist is only just beginning. . .


Counselor and Counseling (aka counsellor and counselling) are broad terms to describe what a therapist does during therapy. Whereas you have to have an advance degree to provide therapy services (Masters or Doctorate) there are not as many qualifications to be a counselor. Addiction treatment centers typically have counselors on board who have never attended college. Many of them simply completed the treatment program themselves and get hired as a counselor after demonstrating successful recovery from substance usage. However, there is an advance degree (Master's in Counseling) that requires similar steps as the Master's in Social Work degree. If someone has a LLPC next to his/her name, it signifies a Limited Licensed Professional Counselor (Master's Degree but still receiving supervision and work experience). If they have a LPC next to their name, they are now a fully licensed Professional Counselor (Master's Degree, Supervision, and Work Experience requirements met). Most LPC's tend to refer to themselves as therapists rather than counselors as therapist signifies higher education, training, and experience. As stated, having the title "Counselor" does not necessarily mean that person is educated or qualified to provide therapeutic services. Would you feel comfortable or would you want your credit counselor exploring your childhood trauma or recent rape with you?

Life Coaches

Life Coach and Life Coaching is a newer discipline that has become very popular the last few years. I would simplify the difference between life coaching and counseling as past vs present. Life Coaching looks at the future -- goals for tomorrow. Counseling, on the other hand, tends to focus on the past -- issues, traumas, etc, that need healing to achieve the goals of tomorrow. Unfortunately, this field is not regulated as is the therapy field. Just about anyone can print off a business card and claim to be a life coach with no formal training, education, or experience. A Life Coach cannot call him/herself a therapist unless the higher education requirements have been met. On the contrary, therapists can call themselves life coaches as they are beyond qualified to provide life coaching (future focused) services. If looking for a life coach, I would recommend looking at the letters next to the person's name as well as asking about formal training, experience, and education. I am suspecting that this area of practice will have stricter regulations in the future. Until then, please just be careful with who you hire. Not everyone with a title can be trusted.

I hope this helped clarify the most important terms you'll hear while you're trying to find a professional to help you with whatever issue or concern you're currently having. If I can be of any additional assistance, or if you have any other questions, please feel free to email me.