What is the difference between a psychologist and a counsellor?

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Sometimes the terms ‘psychologist’ and ‘counsellor’ are used interchangeably. After all, they are both mental health professionals and there are lots of similarities, as well as some key differences.


Similarities between psychologist and counsellors

Both psychologists and counsellors can offer mental health support and have the ethical responsibility of always putting the client first. Psychologists can offer counselling services and both may use similar kinds of therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). There is also an overlap of the sorts of problems each can assist with, such as couples counselling or marriage counselling or to help address other relationship issues. Both can also offer support with depression or anxiety counselling also.


Keep in mind that experienced mental health professionals, including GP’s, psychologists and counsellors, are trained to recognise what approach is going to work best for you, and have a requirement to advise which mental health professional will provide you with the best support.


But there are some key differences between each profession, particularly how and when you might need to access each.


Regulation and accreditation

Counselling is a self-regulated industry, but any good counsellor should be registered through one of the peak bodies, ACA or PACFA. Counsellors offer support to people with mild to medium mental health problems, generally over the short-term.


In contrast, psychologists often work with people with more serious mental health issues over longer periods of time. The practice of psychology is a highly regulated one. That means, you always know that the psychologist you see is University degree-qualified (often with up to 6 years of training), including one or two years of supervised clinical practice and is registered to work with the Psychology Board of Australia (Ahpra).


This level of difference is demonstrated in the way that Medicare offers rebates for Australians for all psychological services, but does not have rebates in place for counsellors. You also do not need a GP referral to see a counsellor, whereas your GP may refer you to a psychologist as part of ongoing care, with a mental health treatment plan. Under current terms, a mental health treatment plan enables you to claim up to 20 sessions with a psychologist every calendar year, and claim Medicare rebates for some of that cost.


Differences in practice

Because of the different types of work counsellors and psychologists do, they often have different areas of practice. Counsellors often work in drug and alcohol, marriage, career, student guidance or family counselling fields. Psychologists are essentially scientists, working in a huge variety of settings, including private practice, hospitals, universities, completing research or consulting. They treat people with emotional and mental health issues, as well as healthy clients who may be seeking to understand behavioural problems.


Both psychologists and counsellors engage in talking therapy. One of the most important differences between the two is that psychologists have the expertise to assess and diagnose mental health conditions. However, neither can prescribe medication, which is reserved for psychiatrists or other doctors in Australia.


Do I need a counsellor or psychologist?

First of all, if you are struggling with any issues or are in personal distress – seeking help of ANY kind is better than taking no action at all. Often, your GP is a good place to start. You can work together to find the best support for you, and can refer you to a psychologist near you or a telehealth psychologist.


If you would like to find out more about how Inner Psych can help you, please click here. Or click here to book with one of our lists of trained, accredited professional psychologists.


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