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What is the Difference Between a Mental Health Counselor vs. Psychologist?

Alliant International University
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Published on: 11/17/2022
Last Updated: 05/22/2023
6 minute read

What is the Difference Between a Mental Health Counselor vs. a Psychologist?

Are you interested in pursuing a career where you can make a major impact on the lives of those struggling with mental or emotional health issues? If so, you may find careers in the world of clinical psychology to be richly rewarding and intellectually stimulating. 

For those with a budding interest in professional psychology, there’s no shortage of potential career options to choose from. However, if you’re deciding between a career as a mental health counselor vs psychologist, you may be wondering about the differences between these two talk therapy positions. 

Read on to learn more about these two talk therapy career paths and which might be best for you.

What is a Mental Health Counselor?

So you are interested in mental health counseling and want to know how to become a mental health counselor. Setting your sights on becoming a mental health counselor is a great idea if you’d like to use your counseling psychology background to help guide patients through stressful or traumatic experiences in their lives.   

What Settings Might You Work in as a Mental Health Counselor?

One of the advantages of pursuing a career as a licensed mental health counselor is that you can often adapt your skillset depending on the work you most enjoy and the types of patients you would most like to serve. 

For instance, mental health counselors might work for1:

  • Inpatient facilities
  • K-12 schools
  • Government agencies
  • Rehabilitation or substance abuse centers
  • Private practices
  • Residential treatment centers
  • Colleges or universities

Depending on the environment where you as a mental health professional work, your clinical mental health counseling patients could include teenagers, those struggling with substance abuse issues, families, students, or employees.

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

The mental health counselor requirements and duties of your counseling psychology job can vary greatly depending on the environment where you practice and the type of clinical mental health counseling patients you work with. As a licensed professional counselor, your duties may also change from day to day—some days might consist entirely of one-on-one work with patients, while others might be heavier on more administrative tasks, like scheduling, filing, and working with insurance companies. 

Here are some tasks you might regularly encounter as a mental health professional2

  • Guiding patients through intake sessions where you learn more about their personal and medical history and what’s driving them to seek help. 
  • Moderating group or family therapy sessions.
  • Building treatment plans that are structured to address your patient’s unique needs. 
  • Reviewing and assessing treatment plans as patients progress.
  • Maintaining rigorous documentation and working with insurance companies to ensure your patients are getting the help that they need.
  • Engaging patients in one-on-one therapy sessions.

What Skills Might a Mental Health Counselor Need?

Because mental health counselors work directly with patients, it’s helpful for those looking to pursue this career to be compassionate, engaging, and understanding. Due to the sensitive nature of the work, individuals can also benefit from having: 

  • Empathy for those struggling with mental or emotional health issues 
  • Strong critical thinking skills to best determine specific treatment plans

Mental health counselors also typically have a background in the field of psychology and a thorough understanding of industry best practices by attending mental health counseling masters programs.

What is a Psychologist?

A career as a psychologist may be an appealing option for those who want to combine their passion for helping others with their interests in mental health issues, science, research, and clinical study.

What Settings Might I Work in as a Psychologist?

Similar to mental health counselors, psychologists are needed in a wide number of settings. This means you may be able to build a career that’s specific to your interests. 

For instance, as a counseling psychologist, you might find yourself working for3:

  • Hospitals
  • Private practices
  • Prisons or correctional institutions
  • Substance abuse facilities
  • Schools or universities
  • Government agencies
  • Large corporations
  • Residential facilities (including specialized facilities, like those for the treatment of eating disorders)

Because professional psychology is a large field that encompasses all manner of specialities and disciplines, your counseling program work might look different depending on where you find employment and the type of patients you work with.

What Does a Psychologist Do?

One of the major differences between mental health counselors and psychologists is in who they treat and how they treat them. While a mental health counselor may work with anyone in the population, counseling psychologists tend to work with patients with mental health issues or diagnosed mental illnesses. 

Additionally, counseling psychologists are typically tasked with administering cognitive assessments to patients. This can be an important part of the development of individualized treatment plans. These assessments might include:4

  • Personality tests
  • IQ tests
  • Observational tests
  • Emotional intelligence tests
  • Aptitude tests

What Skills Might a Psychologist Need?

Those looking to pursue a career as a counseling psychologist may benefit from having the following skills:

  • Compassion and empathy toward others
  • Listening and communication
  • Critical thinking 

It can also be helpful for prospective psychologists to have an interest in research, the human brain, cognition, and mental health. 

Mental Health Counselor vs. Psychologist: Which is Right for Me?

Careers in both mental health counseling and psychology can be rewarding for those interested in helping others with mental health issues. No matter which path you choose to pursue, the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alliant International University offers an incredible suite of programs that can help prepare for a future as a mental health practitioner. 

Programs like the Master’s in Clinical Counseling provide the opportunity to build real-world counseling skills, as well as hands-on experience working with those who need help. The PhD in Clinical Psychology program gives budding psychologists the chance to do research and fieldwork alongside world-class faculty members and develop their skills in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues.

To learn more about these programs and all of our offerings, contact us today!


  1. Cherry, K. “Mental Health Counselor Training, Skills, and Salary.” VeryWell Mind. April 15, 2021. Accessed February 14 2022.
  2. McKay Rosenberg, D. “What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?” The Balance. July 22, 2019.…. Accessed February 14, 2022.
  3. Cherry, K. “Where Psychologists Work.” VeryWell Mind. April 3, 2020. Accessed February 14, 2022. 
  4. Ditzell, J. “Types of Psychological Testing.” PsychCentral. September 14, 2021.…. Accessed February 14, 2022. 

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