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  • Writer's pictureFiona McNally

Counselling or Psychotherapy?

What is the difference between counselling and psychotherapy?

This is a common question people ask. Finding a suitable therapist can be a daunting process, particularly if you are unsure whether a counsellor or psychotherapist is more appropriate.

The truth is that, in the UK, there is an overlap in both training and practice of counselling and psychotherapy. Therapists themselves often have varying ideas on what the difference is, and there are therapists, such as myself, who are qualified as and refer to themselves as both.

Counselling and psychotherapy are both talking therapies. A counsellor or psychotherapist offers a safe, supportive environment in which you can share what is causing you distress. Through listening and responding in a way that helps you to understand yourself and others better, a counsellor or psychotherapist can help you find more effective ways to live a satisfying life.


Counselling is a term generally used to describe short-term work, where the focus may be a traumatic event, such as divorce or bereavement, or challenges an individual is facing at work or home. Counselling may reference your past, but the focus is primarily helping you to cope more effectively with what you are experiencing in the present.


Psychotherapy, like counselling, can help with present issues but also works to help you have a deep understanding of your emotions by looking at your past. It explores how what you experienced as a child and young adult affected you in ways that might still be causing you difficulties now. Psychotherapy aims to find the root cause of the issues you find challenging, in addition to how to manage them in the present.

Psychotherapy is generally longer-term and tends to work with what comes up each session without any imposed format or overall plan for the direction of your therapy. In addition to the issues addressed in counselling, psychotherapy deals with mental health challenges like depression, anxiety disorders, addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder.


· Both explore feelings, beliefs, and thoughts.

· Both focus on creating a safe, supportive environment.

· Both help you understand yourself and others better.

· Both help you make better choices and move forward in life.

· Both involve working with a therapist with at least three years of training.


· Counselling is more likely to be action and behaviour focused.

· Counselling is more likely to be short-term.

· Counselling is more likely to focus on your present issues over past issues.

· Psychotherapy tends to go on longer than counselling.

· Psychotherapy is more in-depth than counselling.

· Psychotherapy explores the past as well as the present.

· Psychotherapy can deal with deep mental health problems and disorders that have developed over a long period of time.

Don’t worry if you are still unsure whether you would benefit most from seeing a counsellor or psychotherapist – enquiries are always welcome so contact a few different counsellors and / or psychotherapists for an initial conversation. Some psychotherapists will refer to themselves as counsellors because it sounds less intimidating, whereas some counsellors work on a deeper level usually associated with psychotherapy so having a discussion can help you to decide which feels more appropriate. Most counsellors and psychotherapists will also offer an assessment, providing an opportunity for you and the therapist to explore whether you both feel you can work together.

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