Clinical Mental Health Counseling versus Psychology

Clinical mental health counselors and clinical psychologists are fundamentally similar but functionally different.

At a glance, both counselors and psychologists: 

  • are state-licensed,
  • serve clients directly,
  • are reimbursable by most insurance, and
  • seek to improve quality of life and health outcomes for their clients.

However, there are key differences between these professions. Mental health counselors and psychologists obtain different degrees, with a counselor earning a master’s in mental health counseling and a psychologist earning a master’s in psychology or, more commonly, a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). They receive different training, develop unique approaches to providing care, and tend to have different career outcomes.

Explore the different components of these occupations and their corresponding degrees, below.

Training and Education

Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling

Requirements

A clinical mental health counselor should have a master’s degree from a counseling program that follows CACREP standards. Clinical mental health counselors can also choose to focus on various concentrations such as substance use or special populations, including children and members of the LGBT community.

Length and Format of Study

A mental health counseling master’s program typically lasts between two and three years. Some programs can be completed in as few as 18 months. Length of program depends on the credit requirements. Additionally, some mental health counseling programs are offered both on campus and online.

Topics

Most counseling programs focus on providing students with the practical skill set to guide clients through life challenges. The core concepts covered typically include: 

  • human growth and development,
  • diversity and multicultural issues,
  • career guidance for clients, and
  • contextual and cultural issues.

Counseling programs train students to be discerning consumers of research who responsibly incorporate current, credible information into their practice.

While a master’s in psychology emphasizes assessment and tailors treatment to specific mental disorders, a master’s in mental health counseling focuses on holistic treatment. Mental health counselors may administer therapeutic tests under the supervision of licensed psychologists or if they themselves hold a doctorate. However, counselors consider the results to be just one metric of many variables that measure a client’s overall health and development. Counseling programs generally share this commitment to caring for the whole person, though every curriculum has its own approach or perspective.

Master’s Degree in Psychology

Requirements

You can become a psychologist with a master’s degree in psychology, but in some states you may have to work under the supervision of a licensed clinical psychologist with a doctorate. Because of these limitations, many students go on to pursue a doctorate, such as a PsyD in clinical psychology, a competitive degree program that usually lasts five years.

Psychology master’s programs follow standards set by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Length of Study and Format 

A master’s degree in psychology typically takes between one and two years to complete. You can pursue a master’s in psychology through various on-campus programs, or you can enroll in an online master’s in psychology program.

Topics 

Psychology master’s programs focus more on analyzing and conducting research than counseling programs. Students explore research methods, both quantitative and qualitative, and statistical procedures in detail. A typical curriculum emphasizes psychometric assessments, which are standardized scientific tests that measure an individual’s mental capabilities, behaviors, and personality. Practicing psychologists use the results of psychometric assessments to guide work with clients.

A typical psychology master’s program trains students to use psychotherapy to specifically treat severe mental disorders. While a counselor helps clients achieve overall wellness, a psychologist analyzes clients from an exact scientific perspective and then treats their individual problems. A psychologist places less emphasis on context and more emphasis on symptoms and measurable outcomes.

Scope of Practice and Role

Similarities between Mental Health Counselors and Psychologists

Both mental health counselors and psychologists provide counseling services to help people navigate the mental health or emotional issues that make life difficult. Both practitioners work directly with clients, often in weekly sessions, engaging in talk therapy and giving homework assignments.

Mental health counselors and psychologists each require state licensure to practice. However, the overall scope of practice differs according to their training. For instance, mental health counseling programs highlight talk therapy, while a psychology master’s program stresses the importance of clinical assessments.

These roles can overlap. Mental health counselors can use assessments in their practice, and psychologists also receive training to provide clinical mental health therapy. In addition to psychological assessments, a psychologist’s role also includes working with the chronically mentally ill, such as clients diagnosed with schizophrenia or dementia, and severe psychopathology. Psychologists may conduct research, psychometric studies, and other scholarly activities, and they may work with a multidisciplinary team to provide wraparound services. 

If you are choosing between these two professions, consider which kind of work you find most interesting and how you want to spend the majority of your time and energy in your practice. If you find clinical tests fascinating and enjoy piecing together the results, you may be better suited for a psychology master’s program. If you are eager to explore a client’s history and current context and how these factors affect their personality, behavior, and emotional health, then a master’s in mental health counseling may be a better fit for you.

Mental Health Counselor Individualities

  • General therapy
  • Assist people in day-to-day life management
  • Sessions can be more cost effective for clients
  • Emphasis on “talk therapy”
  • May be involved in conducting research but mainly consume and apply research according to clients’ needs

Psychologist Individualities

 
  • Disorder-specific therapy
  • Typically administer a wide range of tests: IQ tests, tests of neurological function, etc.
  • May administer tests to patients they do not see on a regular basis
  • More likely to work with individuals with serious mental illnesses and behavior problems
  • Frequently involved in conducting research

Career Growth and Salary

Mental Health Counselor

  • 2016 median annual pay: $42,150
  • Mental health counseling jobs are expected to grow 20 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is faster than the average for all occupations.
  • Pursue careers in a variety of settings, including mental health, educational, agency, and corporate settings.

Psychologist

  • 2016 median annual pay: $75,230
  • Counseling, clinical, and school psychologist jobs are expected to grow 19 percent between 2014 and 2014, which is faster than the average for all occupations.
  • Many practitioners with a master’s in psychology work in private practice. Others seek employment in research labs, school settings, or on health care teams.

If you have any questions about these career paths or Counseling@Northwestern specifically, request information and an admissions counselor will contact you.

Sources:
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-5
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-6