When you begin looking for professional help the terms counselling and psychotherapy can easily cause confusion. As you read through therapy websites you will find that some services offer counselling, some offer psychotherapy, and some offer both. So what does it all mean? This article will help you understand the difference between these two approaches so that you can the most suitable therapist for you. This is not a technical explanation of the differences – just a brief, jargon-free explanation to help the consumer who is looking for a therapist. Definitions will vary between clinicians so when looking for a therapist it may be helpful to ask directly how they personally define the differences. The following is how we at Auckland City Therapy distinguish the difference between each approach.
When most people think about mental health they think of counselling. Counselling is a broadly used term that has become synonymous with mental health treatment. However, when a mental health professional is talking about counselling they are usually referring to a specific therapeutic approach. Broadly speaking, counselling focuses on treating unwanted or distressing emotional or behavioural symptoms. The aim of counselling is to ease emotional distress and help you get back to a normal level of functioning. For example, if somebody is suffering depression following a relationship breakup, counselling will help overcome the depression so that the person feels better again.
Psychotherapy, from the consumer’s perspective, has many similarities with counselling, and indeed, there is much overlap between the two approaches. For example, they both aim at easing emotional distress so that you can get on with living a normal life again and both approaches will help you learn more effective ways of managing the problem should the same thing occur in the future.
The difference, however, is that whilst also attending to a person’s immediate symptoms, psychotherapy will have more focus on the underlying aspects of somebody’s character structure that might contribute to the problem. In other words, what is it about your psychological makeup that might influence the situations you find yourself in? So, if we look back at the previous example of somebody suffering depression following a breakup, psychotherapy will initially try to ease the depression, but then focus more on why this happened. For example, what were the underlying factors that might have contributed to the relationship failing? How come this person often ends up with similar experiences in their relationships? Etc.
Which approach do you need?
To put it very simply, counselling tends to look at the problem ‘outside of me’ and psychotherapy tends to deal with the problem ‘inside of me’.
So back to your search for a therapist. If things in your life were fine before, and an event (or series of events) has caused you to hit an emotional roadblock, then counselling will help you feel better and get back to where you were before the incident(s) occurred. If, however, things have always been this way, or have been this way for a long time (for example, you have felt depressed or anxious for as long as you can remember, or have always found yourself in destructive relationships etc) then psychotherapy will help you understand these situations more completely and help you change those aspects of your personality that may have previously contributed to your struggles.
At Auckland City Therapy we understand that everybody is different and a problem will rarely fit cleanly into a box. Therefore, we tend not to prescribe one approach over the other, rather, we will usually use a blend of both approaches depending on your situation and tailor our method to work in the way that will be most helpful and beneficial for you.