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What Are the Differences between Clinical and Counseling Psychology?

By B. Miller
Updated May 17, 2024
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Though the two separate terms are often used to describe different therapists, there is actually not much difference at all between clinical and counseling psychology. Both of these types of psychologists work as researchers as well as therapists, and will spend their time predominantly working directly with patients. They usually obtain the same education and hold the same degrees and licenses as well. The main difference between clinical and counseling psychology is that, in a general sense, a clinical psychologist works with individuals who have more severe, lifelong mental illness, whereas a counseling psychologist may work with people who need therapy for a briefer time to overcome a difficult period or trauma.

It is important to keep in mind that this is not a hard and fast rule, however. Some practitioners will use the terms clinical and counseling psychology completely interchangeably, and it is up to the patient to ask what types of patients the therapist usually works with, as well as his or her usual treatment methods. These are important questions anyway, because it is necessary for a patient to feel comfortable with a psychologist, feel that they are sharing the same goal for treatment, and perceive that he or she is easy to open up to.

To provide some sort of division between the two terms, it may be helpful to consider the types of patients they usually treat. Typically, a clinical psychologist will work with people who have more severe mental illness; for instance, people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other conditions that require lifelong treatment, often combined with medication. Conversely, a counseling psychologist may treat patients who are struggling with certain life issues, such as recovering from grief, a traumatic experience, or dealing with relationship issues, among others.

Both practitioners of clinical and counseling psychology will work with people suffering from mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, among others. These may be more common with counseling psychologists, however. Clinical psychologists may be more commonly found in places such as hospitals or rehabilitation facilities and will often work in conjunction with psychiatrists; counseling psychologists may work in independent or group practices with other counselors. The treatments they choose to use may differ based on the individual psychologist and his or her preferences, as well as what she has found to be successful in the past when treating various conditions. For most people, both clinical and counseling psychology will be effective, and it is not something to get too worried about when choosing a psychologist.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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