What is the difference between a psychologist and a counsellor?

Continuing my series on what psychologists are I would like to explain the differences between a psychologist and a counsellor.

A counsellor is someone who assists a person to develop understanding of themselves, their circumstances or their problems and facilitates setting goals and making changes. There are no specific training or registration requirements for a person to be a counsellor. However, most counsellors will have completed some training, and many maintain voluntary registration as an endorsement of their skills.

I have previously tried to distill the definition of a psychologist in the simplest possible terms: a psychologist applies scientific research to understanding and shaping human behaviour. Many psychologists provide counselling – but not all. Psychologists may work in research, recruitment, teaching, assessment and a range of other areas that may not involve providing counselling services.

In addition to the services a counsellor can provide, a psychologist will often offer specific therapeutic interventions that have been demonstrated by scientific research to be effective for treating specific conditions – such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. A psychologist may also use standardised assessment tools to assess personality, cognitive functioning (“IQ testing”) or psychiatric symptoms. Many of such tests are restricted by the test publishers and cannot be used by a counsellor who is not a psychologist.

Psychologists must, by law, be registered with the national registration body (AHPRA) to use the term “psychologist”. Eligibility for registration is dependent on specific university level training and supervised clinical practice in the field (more details about these requirements can be found in the above-linked article).

Is a psychologist better than a counsellor?

No, maybe, or yes. This depends on what service a person requires. You may be better off consulting a counsellor than a psychologist if what you require is someone who is skilled at listening and providing empathy and who can help you make decisions in a non-directive way. Psychologists also possess these skills, but they may not be as much a focus of a psychologist’s overall practices. In many cases it comes down to who you can develop a good rapport with – so it is often useful to be able to get a recommendation from someone who knows some practitioners and would have an idea of the style of the professional (whether they be a counsellor or psychologist) who is likely to suit your needs.

If the service you require is treatment for a specific mental health condition, psychometric assessment or any other service that is specific to a psychologist’s training, then a psychologist is the person to see.

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

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