In our age of information, choice and variety, there are hundreds of different types of therapy and counselling available. As a starting point, one of the most common questions asked is, what is the difference between counselling and psychotherapy?
The answer is much debated as the boundaries are not always clear, especially in the UK. However, it is generally stated that counselling is typically a shorter undertaking that focuses on the present and on current behaviours. On the other hand, psychotherapy addresses deeper, longer-term issues by exploring all experiences including those from childhood and with clients undergoing therapy for longer periods of time.
To get a fuller understanding, it helps to look at both the similarities and differences.
The terms counselling and psychotherapy are frequently used with overlap and flexibility. Certain therapists offer both. Some psychotherapists choose to use the term ‘counsellor’ simply as a softer, more approachable title, some use counselling as part of a psychotherapy process. There are also counsellors who adopt psychotherapeutic approaches. You can see where the confusion arises.
There are many individuals and practices offering counselling, but less that offer a full range of therapies including in-depth psychotherapies (for example, Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy who also happen to discuss this topic on their site). Reputable practices share the interests, approaches and qualifications of their therapists and will be happy to discuss their compatibility with clients.
The similarities – what you get from both
Counselling and psychotherapy are both focused on creating an open, non-judgmental, safe space to help people improve their mental wellbeing and to remove distress from their lives. The majority of therapies across the board are talking or communicative therapies where participants aim for a better understanding of themselves, and often their relationships with other people, through guided discussions with a therapist.
In talking therapies people explore their feelings and thoughts and often look at their choices. Both counselling and psychotherapy have different branches and specialisms and both can work with individuals, families, groups or particular focus areas. But there are some general distinctions that can help people decide which is most appropriate for them.
Counselling addresses present problems and current personal issues such as a relationship breakdown, anxiety or confidence or behavioural issues. Often with some kind of structured process, the counsellor helps alleviate symptoms and current behaviour patterns that are causing distress. It may offer practical tools to break down negative feelings and habits, and it can often be goal or action based.
As it generally deals with more surface level ‘life’ issues, clients are usually involved in therapy for shorter timeframes. The Counsellor’s Guide is a good source of information for those wanting to know more.
Psychotherapy is a deeper and longer term approach. It looks not only at the present situation, but how someone’s childhood and past may be affecting and shaping emotions they have now. The therapist may help someone delve into their past to reveal hidden experiences that have affected them. Psychotherapy looks to identify the roots of an issue as part of the process.
As such it can address more complex mental health problems. It is a much more in-depth exploration of a person’s emotions aiming to bring buried issues to the surface to deliver a more profound understanding of who they are and their relationships.
The training a therapist undergoes is often stated as another key difference. A counsellor or psychotherapeutic counsellor requires a diploma or degree, along with a number of hours of work placement experience. Psychotherapists are required to undergo postgraduate level specialist training of around 4 years. It is often noted too, that most psychotherapists are required to undergo therapy themselves as part of their training and so that they have experience from both sides.
However, counsellor and psychotherapist are not legally protected titles and further specialisms may often entail more training for both. A good therapist will openly share their training details and should be a registered member of one of the appropriate industry bodies such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Which therapy is right for me?
The distinctions made here are broad ones to give a general guide. There are counselling and psychotherapy options to suit different types of problem, different types of people and different levels of previous experience. The therapies on offer will vary and some people undergo counselling for a long time, and some find a psychotherapy that offers a shorter solution.
It depends massively on the person seeking therapy and their needs, and the important thing is for a client is to find a therapist that they feel comfortable with. Many experts say that much of the healing comes from the positive experience of the therapist to client relationship and this can be down to a personal match.
This guest blog was written by freelance writer Aaron James, based in the UK.