Difference in therapists

What's the difference between a psychologist, counsellor, psychotherapist and social worker?


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Written by Talked Team

28 Sep, 2021

It sounds like the beginning of a joke... a very confusing joke! In this article we will make the differences between each one clear and explain when you might choose one of the other.

Psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists and social workers are all licensed therapists who offer mental health support. The differences can often be subtle but the way they work and the treatment they provide can vary, especially when it comes to things like Medicare and claiming rebates.

It's important to keep in mind that this is just a general guide. If you are unsure of how to move forward with your mental health or are in danger of hurting yourself it's best to reach out to Lifeline or contact your GP.


Counsellors can help with concerns and difficulties in everyday life, they can guide a patient and help them understand their thought patterns, behaviours, emotions and reasons for why certain behaviours and thoughts can be problematic for the client.

When visiting a counsellor a client may be struggling with a strong emotion such as grief or anger. A counsellor will help the client deal with immediate causes and help provide techniques to better control them.

The terms “counselling” and “psychotherapy” are often used interchangeably, but there is a slight distinction. Counselling generally refers to short-term consultation while psychotherapy typically refers to longer-term treatment. In general, counselling is more concerned with practical or immediate issues and outcomes while psychotherapy is more focused on helping a person understand his/her life in a profound and reflective manner.

Counselling is not regulated in Australia, but there are governing bodies that ensure a high level of qualifications and expertise. A qualified counsellor must have at least a certificate in counselling (preferably a diploma). The Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) requires its members to undergo a minimum of 350 hours of training and 50 hours of supervision over a minimum of 3 years.


Psychotherapy, is a longer process that evolves over time and aims to help a person look at long standing thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that have been negatively impacting one’s life and relationships. It can go much deeper to uncover the root causes of problems, which can often result in a more dramatic change in how one perceives themselves and their relationships. Psychotherapists

Psychotherapists don’t have medical training, however psychotherapists may include psychiatrists with a medical background (more on psychiatrists below).

Similarly for counsellors, PACFA requires its members to undergo a minimum of 350 hours of training and 50 hours of supervision over a minimum of 3 years.


In Australia, the practice of psychology is regulated by APHRA, while counselling is not. This is one of the reasons why the cost of psychologists can be claimed by Medicare, while other therapists can not (although some social workers are covered by Medicare, more below).

Psychologists can help in the same manner as counsellors and psychotherapists, but they are also involved with all matters of mind, which comprises of everyday thought processes and behaviours. Often a psychologist will work with clients in a clinical setting to assist with complex mental health conditions. If you are someone with a formal diagnosis, a psychologist might be a good choice.

Psychology, requires more formal education, with the completion of a minimum of six years training. This training includes a minimum of one to two years of supervised clinical practice as well as university study.

A psychologist may be a Medicare provider, which will allow you to claim a rebate if you are referred by a GP, learn more about this process in our Medicare article.

While a psychologist is not a medical doctor, a psychiatrist is. A psychiatrist often works to diagnose and treat serious mental health issues, such as schizophrenia.

Social Workers

In order to train as a Social Worker, they must complete a 4 or 5 year undergraduate or Master degree, which also includes considerable supervised practical experience. They are regulated by the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), but may also be members of ACA or PACFA if counselling is their primary role.  

While social workers undertake a range of roles within the community, some also focus specifically on counselling and mental health, providing similar services to psychologists and other counsellors. In addition, once they have a minimum of two years of supervised clinical practice, they may undertake further study to be designated as an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker (AMHSW) by the AASW, which signifies their high level of experience and skill in mental health, and allows them to be registered with Medicare for rebates, similarly to a Psychologist.

Accredited Mental Health Social Workers are highly trained and educated professionals, meeting some of the highest standards of professional regulation in Australia.

Social workers work with children, adolescents and adults, and across a broad range of mental health concerns and diagnoses.  

Social workers usually apply a holistic approach, considering the person within their entire psycho-social system rather than seeing the person as the problem. They encourage a therapeutic relationship based on collaboration and partnership rather than the therapist being the “expert”. They also usually have a good understanding of the service system. They may specialise in specific client groups (e.g. adolescents, adults), or types of therapy (e.g. EMDR, Narrative Therapy, trauma therapy, creative modalities), so check their individual bio to ensure that they seem the right fit for you.

Which one should you choose?

It's important that you find a therapist you actually connect with, you'll need to feel comfortable to open up and work through some difficult issues.

We've made it easy for you to browse all types of therapists and book a free 15 minute session to ensure they are the right fit for you.

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