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What are the differences between counseling and other professions?

Professional counseling is often compared to or confused with marriage and family therapy, psychology, or social work. However, four aspects underlying the profession that make counseling unique include (Remley & Herlihy, 2014):

  1. Counselors focus on the mental health or wellness of the client instead of diagnosing mental illness.
  2. Counselors assume that personal and emotional issues are developmental and normal;
    asking for help is a healthy response rather than a sign of weakness.
  3. Counselors believe that early prevention is better than remediating a problem after it has become more serious.
  4. Counselors work to empower clients and encourage them to become more independent.

Counseling is a process where people can explore issues of concern in a supportive, non-judgmental environment. Through counseling, individuals and families can learn how to enhance their relationships, develop unused resources more fully, and become better at helping themselves in their everyday lives.

These professions have similarities in that they all focus on helping clients through talk therapy and any of these professions may work with individuals, couples, groups, or families. In addition, they follow similar codes of ethics which require treating clients with respect and dignity, protecting the client’s confidentiality, maintaining professional boundaries, encouraging a client’s autonomy, and practicing within the professional’s scope of practice.

However, each profession has a different core philosophy. Understanding these differences can help you make a decision about which program might be best for you. However, if you would like to learn more about professional counseling we encourage you to speak to a counseling program coordinator.

Dr. Jason King (2012) conducted a research study exploring the differences of these four professions and summarized each of the professional themes as follows:

Counseling’s core focus is on client growth, development, and wellness.  Counselors are positively orientated and approach clients with a humanistic and holistic perspective. They try to develop skills and competencies to help clients create a regimen to improve and maintain their own mental wellness.  In counseling the goal is to make clients independent and not need counseling to have a productive life. Counselors may specialize in counseling areas such as school; clinical mental health; marriage, couples, and families; addictions; career; college and student affairs; or gerontological counseling. Although some of these areas may have similarities to other professions, the core beliefs, training, and perspectives of the counseling profession are what make these areas unique to counseling. Counselors often work in schools, mental health agencies, career centers, private practice, and other organizations. The entry level in this field is a master’s degree. 

Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling’s core focus is on family systems and relationship wellbeing.  This field is very similar to counseling; however, their emphasis is on working with more than one individual at a time. They use a systems perspective when addressing issues since problems are usually influenced by a family system or subsystem. For example, a marriage and family therapist may work with two or more family members to resolve sibling rivalry, marital dissatisfaction, divorce conflict, or sexuality issues to promote positive relationships. Marriage and Family Therapists typically work in mental health agencies, group practices, or private practice. The entry level in this field is a master’s degree.

Psychology’s core focus is on research and developing of psychological testing instruments to help clients. Psychologists also counsel clients but use more of a medical model to conceptualize and diagnose problems instead of focusing on a client’s wellness.  Psychologists often work in mental health agencies, hospitals, college counseling centers, group practices, or private practice. The entry level in this field is a doctorate degree because of the emphasis on research.

Social Work’s core focus is on social justice, getting rid of oppressive systems, and using community forces to remedy inequality.  Social workers look at community resources to try to help a larger group of people and advocate for their rights. Social workers often work in government organizations, behavioral health hospitals, and community agencies. The entry level in this field is a master’s degree.

To learn more about the details of Dr. King’s research and findings, view the full webinar.

King, J. (2012, Dec 14). Defining counselor professional identity: What makes us unique among the mental health professions?
               Chi Sigma Iota Webinars. Retrieved at http://www.csi-net.org/?webinars.



Department of Counseling
and Student Affairs

Gary A. Ransdell Hall 3036
1906 College Heights Blvd. #51031,
Bowling Green, KY 42101-1030
(270) 745-4953

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 Last Modified 5/11/21