What is the difference between psychotherapy and counselling?

More and more people are seeking psychological services in recent decades due to the increase awareness of the importance of psychological well-being.  When people are seeking help, they may have difficulties to differentiate between psychotherapy and counselling.  Some people are feeling confused as they do not know whether to seek help from a counsellor or a clinical psychologist.  In fact, there is overlapping competence in counselling and psychotherapy, it is not easy to differentiate between them in black-and-white terms.  Sometimes, people even use the two terms, counselling and psychotherapy, interchangeably.

Typically, a counsellor offers counselling to people with normal functioning or without severe mental health issues.  Counselling is more on helping the client to achieve one’s goals or to function more appropriately.  It targets on solving a specific problematic situation in a person’s current life.  On the contrary, a psychotherapist, such as a clinical psychologist, offers psychotherapy in which the client is helped to heal on one’s mental disorders or to improve in one’s serious coping deficiencies.  It usually involves more in-depth work for restructuring or remedialing one’s distorted cognitions, processing one’s emotions related to past traumas or changing problematic behavioral patterns.

In fact, counselling is more situational, educational and problem-solving focus.  Psychotherapy is more long-term and more in-depth.  Usually, psychotherapy may also help the client to process and resolving emotions related to one’s past.  It is directed to the more significant damage the client has in relation to one’s past traumas.  It also focuses more on helping the client to gain insight into one’s problems and personality issues.  For instance, a person can seek counselling for one’s loss of direction in choosing a career path.  This is situational and problem-solving focus.  The counsellor helps the client to explore one’s strengths and interests and to make decisions on choosing a career orientation basing on his or her own values.  Another example is a person can seek psychotherapy for one’s depression.  In the psychotherapy, the client is helped to uncover his or her childhood traumas and to gain insight into one’s distorted cognitions.  Further intervention for processing or resolving emotions related to her past traumas may be conducted by the psychotherapist if in need.

Sometimes, with proper training and professional qualifications, a counsellor can also offer psychotherapy for those with mental health issues.  Whether you are seeking help from a counsellor or a clinical psychologist, it is very important for you to carefully examine the professional qualifications of the service provider.  For those with professional qualifications, such as a doctoral or a master degree in clinical psychology, or with professional membership, such as a registered psychologist in the Hong Kong Psychological Society, they provide evidence-based psychotherapies for the general public.  That is, they will only offer psychotherapies with research evidence on their effectiveness.  They will practice under the ethical standard of the professional bodies, such as protecting the clients’ confidentiality or providing psychotherapies within ones’ competence.

Seeking help for counselling and psychotherapy is a personal issue.  It is very important for you to understand the services you are receiving and to know the qualifications and professional registrations of your counsellors or psychologists. 

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