Mental Health Counselor vs. Therapist: Which Career Is Right for You?

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Close to 20% of adults and close to 50% of adolescents in the U.S. experience some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Given these high rates, mental health professionals such as mental health counselors and therapists play a crucial role in helping people attain a state of well-being.

A mental health counselor holding a clipboard sits with a client.

Because mental health treatment comes in many forms, it’s useful for those interested in pursuing an advanced education in the field to understand the differences between particular roles, such as mental health counselors vs. therapists. Knowing exactly what each of these roles entails can give students a clearer vision of which aligns better with their interests and preferences.

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

Mental health counselors typically work with clients by talking through issues and offering practical advice to help clients live more fulfilling lives. In addition, they are trained to assess and diagnose specific types of mental illness, such as anxiety and depression. They can then tailor their counseling sessions to their clients’ specific needs.

Mental health counselors can be a great resource for those working on practical problems in the short term, such as coping with a recent divorce. Other areas that mental health counselors are trained to provide care for include issues relating to addiction, relationships, trauma and grief.

Regardless of the specific nature of a client’s problems, mental health counselors strive to provide them with practical coping mechanisms and strategies to improve the quality of their mental health in everyday life.

Responsibilities of a Mental Health Counselor

  • Help clients work through major issues
  • Assess clients’ mental condition
  • Give clients strategies for coping with day-to-day challenges
  • Document clients’ information in accord with proper legal practices
  • Aid clients in receiving additional help and services as needed

What Does a Therapist Do?

A number of roles are associated with the term “therapist.” Furthermore, people sometimes use the words “therapist” and “counselor” interchangeably, but some practices are specific to therapists. These practices can include a more acute concentration on talk-therapy during sessions and a deeper focus on complicated past experiences.

Therapists are qualified to assess their clients’ mental state and, in some cases, diagnose mental illnesses. Some examples of various types of therapists include child therapists, addiction therapists, marriage and family therapists, psychologists and psychotherapists.

In many cases, therapists are more interested in delving deeper into their clients’ past experiences than their mental health counselor counterparts. By taking into account how past experiences affect their clients’ mental states, therapists may be able to remedy mental illnesses at a deeper level. This makes therapists ideal for clients dealing with more severe instances of mental illness that require long-term care.

Responsibilities of a Therapist

  • Help clients explore past experiences as a means of attaining a sense of well-being
  • Assess clients’ mental health condition
  • Maintain records of confidential client information
  • Aid clients in receiving additional help if needed
  • Help clients cope with difficult experiences through guidance and strategies

Differences Between Mental Health Counselors and Therapists

When exploring career options, it’s important to note the differences in becoming a mental health counselor vs. a therapist. Though both roles offer the opportunity to help clients overcome daily struggles and improve their mental health, they each offer unique means of doing so.

Education and Licensing Requirements

Mental health counselors typically hold at least a master’s degree and undergo a period of providing counseling under professional supervision. Certification and licensing requirements vary by state.

Therapists typically hold either a master’s degree or doctorate depending on their specialization. Therapists must be licensed in the state in which they practice in order to advertise their services as psychotherapy.

Treatment Strategies

Mental health counselors typically focus on everyday life and help their clients work through and remedy issues by offering certain coping strategies and techniques. Mental health counseling can have a profoundly positive impact on a client’s mental health and sense of well-being. Mental health counselors are good for those looking to resolve short-term issues that are impacting their day-to-day lives in a short amount of time.

Therapists are more likely to use talk therapy, which can involve revisiting a client’s past experiences to better understand their mental state. As opposed to mental health counselors, therapists are more inclined to explore the past experiences of their clients in order to help them reach — and maintain — a state of mental well-being. Therapists can be a great resource for those with long-term mental health issues that need to be treated for longer periods of time.

Practice Specializations

Mental health counselors can specialize in a variety of fields ranging from addiction counseling to child counseling. They can work in many places, including schools and rehabilitation centers, as well as within religious organizations. Mental health counselors may also establish their own private practices.

Therapists can specialize in a variety of fields, such as psychology, family and marriage therapy, and child therapy. Psychology also offers a variety of subspecialties, including cognitive behavior therapy and humanistic therapy, which aim to help clients regain and retain a sense of mental well-being through different means. Students and professionals interested in pursuing areas that allow therapists to diagnose mental illness may need to earn a doctorate first. Most other forms of therapy, such as family and marriage therapy, require only a master’s degree to practice.

Salary and Job Growth

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary of substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors as of 2020 was $47,660. The BLS projects the number of jobs in this field to grow by 23% between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the 8% growth predicted for the labor market as a whole.

The median annual salary of marriage and family therapists (MFTs) was $51,340 in 2020, according to the BLS, and all other therapists made a median annual wage of $57,310. The job outlook is strong for MFTs, too, with a projected employment growth of 16% between 2020 and 2030.

Embark on a Career in Mental Health

Whether they work in a school, office or treatment center, counseling professionals can be invaluable in helping others maintain a sense of mental well-being. If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a mental health counselor vs. a therapist, be sure to check out the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Arts in Counseling with an emphasis in Community Mental Health Counseling, where you’ll receive the tools, training and accreditation to jump-start your career as a mental health counselor.

Embark on the journey of becoming a mental health counselor today and start making a profound impact on people’s lives.

Recommended Readings

What Is Community Mental Health?

How to Become a School Counselor

How to Become an Addiction Counselor


American Psychiatric Association, “What Is Psychotherapy?”

Medical News Today, “Mental Health Counselor: What They Do and How They Can Help”

MHA National, “Types of Mental Health Professionals”

National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Illness

Healthline, “How to Choose a Counselor vs. Therapist”

Santa Clara County COC, “Who Can Certify a Client’s Disability?”

Self, “How to Decide Between Seeing a Therapist or a Counselor”

SHRM, Mental Health Counselors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Wage Statistics (Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors)

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists: Occupational Outlook Handbook

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Therapists, All Other

VeryWell Mind, “What Is a Therapist?”