Is there a difference between counselling and psychotherapy? Yes. And no. And it depends who you ask.
I did say it wasn’t straightforward.
Let’s look at the different ways you might distinguish a counsellor from a psychotherapist.
When I did my training I progressed through different levels of certification. My first qualification was the Postgraduate Diploma in Counselling. Now that one is pretty clear; at point of this qualification, I was a counsellor.
The next qualification was the Advanced Postgraduate Diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Ok, so now I was both.
The third qualification was the Master’s degree in Psychotherapy which cemented my credibility as a psychotherapist.
As the psychotherapy qualification is accessible only after achieving the counselling diploma, you might assume that a psychotherapist is the higher qualified practitioner.
Not necessarily true, I’m afraid.
Neither the title of counsellor nor psychotherapist are “protected” titles. In other words, technically anyone can call themselves a counsellor or psychotherapist, regardless of whether they hold a qualification or not. Whilst a particular college may classify psychotherapy as the higher qualification, generally speaking there isn’t an absolute distinction.
Frustratingly there is no one, central body that has power to bestow and police use of the terms “counsellor” or “psychotherapist”; the mind-therapy schools of theory and practice are so diverse it was considered too complicated to bring all of them under one umbrella organisation.
Thankfully there is a way of telling who’s a responsible, qualified therapist from one who is not, and that’s by looking at whether the practitioner has voluntarily signed with a professional body.
By electing to register with an organisation such as the BACP or the UKCP, the practitioner has had to meet certain levels of qualification and experience, and are announcing that they will abide by the code of conduct set by that organisation. Contravening the code could mean a formal hearing and registration may be revoked.
There are different organisations for different areas of the profession. Is there one organisation for counsellors and one for psychotherapists, then? Umm, no, not quite.
At point of that first qualification I was eligible to join the BACP, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. I really rate the BACP; they have a wealth of resources which can explain therapy to the potential client, their professional development opportunities are worthwhile and the organisation is highly professional.
When I signed up to the BACP directory, however, I was asked to nominate which title I’d prefer to be known by, “counsellor” or “psychotherapist” or, as I ultimately did, I could claim both. Whilst the BACP doesn’t quite use the terms interchangeably, I find it hard to see their distinction. At this point, you might say it’s a personal preference whether the practitioner is a counsellor or a psychotherapist.
It was only on achieving the second, higher qualification was I able to become registered with the UKCP, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, however. Again noting that registration is voluntary, I could technically have called myself a psychotherapist at any point. However, only now at point of the higher qualification was I eligible to register with the UKCP and receive the designation of UKCP Psychotherapist.
The UKCP is also a great organisation and I’m proud to hold the registration; I’m especially impressed by their recent collaborations with print media and other outlets which is helping demystify psychotherapy to the public.
So, happily, we have ways to identify the responsible professional and as long as you choose a practitioner who holds a well-recognised registration, you’re better assured of a quality therapy. But does all this distinguish between counselling and psychotherapy? By now you may be asking if a difference matters!
The Therapy Itself
I find one distinction in my practice. From the two additional years training after my counselling diploma I learned a wealth of extra theory, found a greater understanding of myself and then had time to incorporate it all into a therapy practice. The psychotherapy qualification afforded me the ability to work at a greater depth and complexity than had I left with just the early counselling qualification.
For me, and by report of those I’ve worked with, there is a felt difference between operating at counselling level, and then at the deeper psychotherapy level. It isn’t to say that one is better than the other, but rather they could be considered as different tools for different jobs. And it isn’t to say that you’re in worse shape should you find yourself in a psychotherapy rather than a counselling. There are many variables that can take us toward one or other and, in truth, we can move fluidly from counselling to psychotherapy even within the same session.
It’s a distinction I’ve arrived at for myself to help me understand my practice. Is there a difference between counselling and psychotherapy? Yes, and no, and it depends who you ask. I say there’s a difference in practice. Personally, I wouldn’t have been comfortable calling myself a psychotherapist without that extra training. At the least, I hope I’ve offered enough information to help you decide on a therapist.