Therapist, Counsellor Or Life Coach: What's The Difference?

How to find a therapist – or life coach – who's right for you, right now.

Mental health issues — especially among young people — are on the rise, but so are the number of people willing and able to talk. Therapy shouldn’t be the preserve of the wealthy or privileged – that’s why we’ve launched The Therapy Edition, a series of stories on how to seek support and embrace it once you do.

You’ve decided to talk to someone about your mental health, wellbeing or life ambitions. Great! But how on earth do you find the right person?

There are thousands of therapists, counsellors and life coaches in the UK and their credentials can be extremely varied, which can make booking a session a stressful process.

To help you find the right support, we asked the experts to explain the difference between each profession, the access routes, and how you can ensure you’re not telling your life story to Jez from Peep Show.

What’s the difference between a therapist and a counsellor?

The simple answer is: there isn’t one. When people say “therapist” they’re usually referring to psychotherapists, but the terms therapist, psychotherapist and counsellor are often used interchangeably.

“In general, some people consider psychotherapists to work with clients on a longer-term basis than a counsellor normally might, and with potentially more complicated or long-lasting mental health concerns, but there is no official or statutory differentiation,” says Jo Ferguson, head of membership services at Counselling Directory and Life Coach Directory.

Therapists and counsellors deliver “talking therapies”, which can take many forms, Ferguson explains. These include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), focusing the way people think and behave

  • Psychoanalytic therapies, looking at how past experiences affect the present

  • Humanistic therapies, with a focus on self-development and growth

  • Arts therapies, using the creative arts in a therapeutic way

  • Other therapies, such as group therapy or mindfulness.

Counsellors and therapists use these talking therapies to help individuals come to terms with problems or challenges they are facing. These might include specific mental health conditions, bereavement, bullying, relationship problems, trauma and stress. “Most people will seek counselling when they want to change something in their lives, or explore their thoughts and feelings in more depth,” says Ferguson.

“Counsellors encourage their clients to talk about what is affecting their mental health, helping them to uncover any root causes of problems and identify their individual way of thinking. There isn’t one singular format for counselling, and every session will generally be tailored to the individual.”

That image of a person in therapy lying on a couch? This stems back to the godfather of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud who at the turn of the last century interviewed his clients on a couch. Today, many psychotherapists refer to themselves as ‘integrative’, meaning they draw on a range of different theories and adapt their clinical responses to each individual (couch optional).

How do you access counselling/therapy?

The NHS offers free but usually short-term talking therapy, for which there may well be a waiting list, says Rachel Baird, spokesperson for the Mental Health Foundation.

“To get it, ask your GP to refer you. In some places, you can also refer yourself to the local provider of NHS talking treatments,” she adds. “Many charities also offer low-cost therapy and your GP may know about the ones in your area. Some charities set time limits on how long you can see one of their counsellors/therapists.”

Another option is to find a therapist or counsellor privately, which will cost more, but give you more choice about who you see and how long for, says Baird. If you’re booking privately, it’s worth checking out your therapist or counsellor’s credentials before paying out.

“The training of counsellors and psychotherapists varies tremendously, from a short course of introductory classes through to a university degree course that takes years. There is no ‘usual’ training or qualification,” Baird warns. “As a potential client, you are fully entitled to ask about a professional’s qualifications and experience, and membership of professional bodies.”

It can be useful to check if your therapist belongs to an organisation that has a code of ethics and a complaints procedures in place for clients who believe a counsellor or therapist has done something wrong.

You can search for counsellors in your area on either website. Additionally, all counsellors on the Counselling Directory have had their credentials checked and belong to professional bodies. Most professional therapists will also offer a trial session, so you can decide if you’re a good fit for one another. Feeling awkward? This guide on how to break up with your therapist and move on with a new one might help.

For more information, read our guide on how to access free therapy in the UK.

What is a life coach?

A trained life coach can guide and help you to make, meet and exceed personal and professional goals, explains Ferguson. Life coaching is currently an unregulated profession in the UK, “meaning anyone can essentially call themselves a life coach”, she adds. So, it’s essential to do your research.

“A life coach won’t tell you what to do, but they will provide an objective and empowering environment to help you achieve your goals,” she says. “This can help you feel more confident about overcoming any difficult challenges you may be facing.”

Life coach Carol Ann Rice, who trained for two years and now runs Pure Coaching Academy – a life coach training school accredited by The International Association of Professional Coaching and Mentoring – says life coaching may help if you feel you’re at a crossroads.

“The problems we could help with include a midlife crisis, retirement, redundancy, illness or loss,” she explains. “Other things people use coaches for is to increase confidence, start businesses, to write books, to lose weight or to take up exercise.”

While therapy and counselling may delve into your past, life coaching is predominately focused on your future, says Rice, which is why people may seek it when they’re not sure what they want from the next stage in their life. Counselling or therapy appointments will also usually occur weekly at the same time for stability, whereas life coaching may be more flexible.

“There are a lot of people who come to coaching to get clarity, they don’t actually know what is out there for themselves and they want a career change,” says Rice.

If you’re looking for concrete answers from someone external, life coaching may not be for you, though. “We come from the stern point that you have within you everything you need to get the answers you want and the life you want,” Rice explains. “What we do is ask the questions, dig and delve, and help the client unlock the answers to the questions and support them on their way.”

How can you access life coaching?

Although you might find free podcasts and blogs by life coaches online, if you want a one-on-one session with a life coach tailored to your goals, you’re going to have to pay for it privately. Again, it pays to do your research before booking.

“In the absence of statutory regulation, a number of professional bodies have been set up to establish training and conduct standards for life coaches to adhere to,” Ferguson explains. “By setting criteria their coaches must meet, these bodies provide assurance to the public that their coach has been suitably trained and will carry out sessions in an ethical and professional way.”

“Most of these organisations accredit qualifications too, so you know any coaches trained by them will have been primed to meet the organisation’s standards,” Ferguson says.

Therapy and coaching are very personal, so while recommendations from friends might be helpful, it can be a case of trial and error to find the right person for you. If you’re struggling with your mental health or need further support, your GP should be your first port of call.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.