According to the UKCP website:
‘There are many similarities between these disciplines, and it is very hard to explain the differences between them. There is usually a general understanding that a psychotherapist has had longer training that a counsellor, and can work with a wider range of clients/patients. Psychotherapy is often considered to take longer and go deeper. But there are also exceptions to every rule and there is no set difference. The UKCP now has a Psychotherapeutic Counselling section that ensures its registrants are up to the same training standard as other UKCP psychotherapists.’
Now I’ll stick my neck out and give my own opinion (with sweeping generalisations of which there will, of course, be countless exceptions):
Lets start by looking at the etymology of the words themselves. Counsellor comes from the from old French word ‘conseiller’ meaning ‘to advise, counsel’. Psychotherapist comes from the Greek ‘psykho’ meaning ‘mind, mental’ and ‘therapeia’ meaning ‘curing, healing’. So, from the words themselves, it seems that a counsellor would be more inclined to offer their opinion on what to do about or, perhaps, how to cope with your problem whereas a psychotherapist would be more inclined to facilitate the mental healing of that problem.
A counsellor is a good listener with whom you can talk about your problems. Many people recovering from their own experiences of addiction, abuse, bereavement etc, are attracted to helping others who are going through the same and take on counselling roles as part of this healing process. This means many counsellors are able to command the respect of their peers, to hold them to account, and offer no-frills ‘from the coal face’ advice that they know worked for them. However, this personal experience can have a downside: if a counsellor has little training, poor supervision and has not fully processed their own issues they risk becoming emotionally entwined with clients and falling into a rescuer role.
Psychotherapists are much less likely to give advice on how to cope with problems. They are more likely to see real world problems as examples of a patterns being played out in the client’s life and be curious about exploring and changing these patterns. Psychotherapists with a broad scope of practice may have little personal experience of the specific issues they are working with which could lead to the criticism ‘you haven’t been through it, therefore you don’t understand’. A long training, requirement for personal therapy and robust supervision is designed to reduce (but may not eliminate) the amount of rescuing behaviour and lead to a greater sense of detached perspective.
Let’s also look at the idea of a ‘talking about’ your problem with a counsellor. In spacial terms you are exploring your problem from the outside by adding a new layer of understanding around it. This may or may not cause the problem itself to change – there are plenty of people who know lots of things about their problems and how they affect their lives but still don’t know how to change them.
A psychotherapist, in comparison, may well believe that too much ‘talking about’ your problems as a way of avoiding getting into their effects. They may well interrupt you and direct your attention elsewhere – often to your body and your feelings. Rather than adding new layers of understanding to problems psychotherapists seek to work with their clients to remove layers and to discover (literally take the covers off) the traumas at the heart of them. By healing the causes of the problems it is possible to facilitate major changes in personality with far reaching consequences in many aspects of life. This deep work used to take a long time but with new and direct psychotherapeutic approaches it is possible for it to be done in relatively short timescales.
That was all a bit serious! How about a joke from 1001 jokes for kids to finish off?
‘What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?’
‘You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo.’