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What is a Professional Counselor?

Navigating the world of counseling and psychotherapy can be confusing and often leaves individuals with more questions than answers. There is much confusion among clients (and some professionals) about the differences between counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other helping professionals. The following page highlights some of the fundamental differences between these professions, provides links to further resources and information, and can hopefully serve as a guide for anyone wondering which professional helper might be the best for them.

These terms refer to the myriad of professions dedicated to helping others overcome interpersonal challenges through individualized counseling, goal setting, and psychological intervention.

A licensed professional counselor (LPC) is an individual who has graduated with either a master’s or doctoral degree in mental health counseling and is licensed by a state as a professional counselor. Requirements for obtaining a license and specific titles given to licensed counselors vary by state but always include having to complete a certain number of supervised hours after graduation before being able to practice independently. School counselors complete similar training but apply for a different license and are not required to be supervised after graduation.

Similar to professional psychologists, LPCs can work in a variety of settings. LPCs generally find work in outpatient counseling centers, college counseling centers, residential treatment facilities, drug addiction and rehabilitation facilities, and private practice.

LPCs differ from other helping professionals in that their philosophical approach to helping is based on a wellness model of mental health. This approach is naturally strengths based and tends to focus on supporting what is going well in an individual’s life while also setting goals for how it can be improved. A wellness model of mental health is concerned with the entirety of an individual and seeks to improve strengths related to physical, emotional, spiritual, occupational, and environmental wellbeing. LPCs work towards this goal collaboratively with their clients through the use of individual and group therapy, psychoeducation and skills training, and specific psychological intervention.

You can find more information about becoming a licensed professional counselor or school counselor by visiting the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling’s website.

Psychotherapist is an umbrella term and covers anyone who provides mental-health, guidance or wellness-based services for individuals or groups. Often, helping professionals will use this term interchangeably alongside their professional title when referring to themselves or their work.

A professional psychologist is an individual who has graduated with either a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology and is licensed by a particular state as a psychologist. Requirements to become licensed vary by state, but most often individuals are required to earn at least a doctoral degree and complete some number of practicum and internship hours. Note that this profession is different from that of a school psychologist, which is an individual who works primarily in the K–12 setting and provides similar services in addition to having additional skills in assessment and psychometrics.

Professional psychologists can work in a number of settings including private or group practice, outpatient psychotherapy centers, college counseling centers, as university instructors, in research labs, or other places.

Philosophically speaking, psychologists are differentiated from other helping professions from their reliance on the medical model of mental health. Treatment and mental health services offered by psychologists are most often based on the assumptions that psychological distress and impairment are the result of a combination of physiological, emotional, and cognitive problems that can be corrected through the use of medication, psychotherapy, and/or specific psychological intervention.

Find more information about becoming a professional psychologist by visiting the Department of Psychology’s website. Visit the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling to find out more about becoming a school psychologist.

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is an individual who has graduated with either a master’s or doctoral degree and is licensed by a state an an LCSW. Similar to psychologists and LPCs, LCSWs must pass an exam and complete a certain number of hours of supervised practice before they are permitted to practice independently. Requirements for to become licensed as an LCSW vary by state.

LCSWs have perhaps the greatest diversity in their areas of work due to their broad skillset. LCSWs can work at outpatient mental health agencies offering psychotherapy similar to psychologists or LPCs, as advocates or investigators within the Department of Family Services, in hospitals or other health-care organizations, or in private practice.

LCSWs are distinguished by their skills in case management. In addition to being able to offer psychotherapy services, LCSWs often work with individuals or families to identify and access local, state, and federal resources.

You can find more information about becoming a licensed professional social worker at UT on the College of Social Work’s website.