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Counsellor, Psychotherapist, Clinical Psychologist, Psychiatrist: can you spot the difference?

Welcome to blog 8 of 2022. With each blog, we focus on a topical theme of counselling therapy, which I hope will inform you in your decision to seek therapy or to become a therapist.

So you're experiencing some difficulty and thinking of seeking counselling. For several reasons, you prefer the idea of an independent practitioner. But how do you know what kind of help to seek? Or perhaps you're considering a career in mental health and are curious about the roles of practitioners. Then take a look at these definitions.

Counsellors offer guidance on specific personal or mental health problems. In the UK, a counsellor may have psychological training and may hold a certificate, diploma, degree, post-graduate diploma or masters in counselling and/or specific modalities. Professional training may take three to five years, excluding continuing professional development.

Psychotherapists treat personal or mental health conditions that may be specific or complex. To do this, they may draw on more than one modality. In the UK, a psychotherapist may hold a certificate, degree, post-graduate diploma masters or doctorate in counselling and psychotherapy. Professional training may take four to five years, excluding continuing professional development.

Clinical Psychologists are trained in a medical setting, in a range of modalities, to reduce physical and psychological distress and promote wellbeing. In the UK, a clinical psychologist will hold a doctorate in clinical psychology. Training may take six to seven years

Psychiatrists diagnose and treat mental health problems and illnesses. Treatment may include prescribed medication. In the UK, psychiatrists are required to complete a medical degree before training in psychiatry. Training may take up to 14 years.

Access to treatment

Your GP or hospital may refer you to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, or recommend counselling. You can arrange to see a practitioner privately. A psychiatrist may refer a client to a patient psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor as part of their treatment.

It's not all in the name

There is an ongoing debate about the distinction between counselling and psychotherapy in the UK. Some view psychotherapy as a longer-term, more 'in-depth' treatment, which may involve a combination of techniques. Psychotherapists are often viewed as experienced practitioners with advanced qualifications.

However, a practitioner identifying as a counsellor or psychotherapeutic counsellor may practice psychotherapy, and vice versa. It's also possible for a counsellor and psychotherapist to have similar experience and qualifications. Therefore, the definitions of counsellor and psychotherapist given above may be viewed flexibly.

A professional approach

This is because, unlike psychology and psychiatry, counselling and psychotherapy in the UK is not regulated by a government agency*. However, many therapists are members of regulatory professional bodies, such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). Counselling & Psychotherapy Society (NCPS). As members, therapists are required to adhere to a professional code of conduct, which includes ethical practice, training and development.

I hope this information goes some way to identifying the kind of support you need. Remember: when seeking a counsellor or psychotherapist, if a practitioner does not have all the information you require in their profile or on their website, get in touch and ask - whether it's about modality, experience and qualifications or membership of a professional body.

Please note that professional roles in mental health are not limited to those listed above.

* Practitioners are required to operate within the law.

Images: Anna Shvet; Alex Green

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