Black Mental Health: Psychologist vs. Counselor vs. Therapist

Updated: Jan 9

Before the sessions:

o Browse the internet, ask a friend or use the APS's 'Find a Psychologist' database to help you find a good fit.

o Screen your shortlisted candidates by arranging an over-the-phone interview.

o Check if your employer offers an Employee Assistance Program.

o If you live in a remote area, check your eligibility for telehealth services.

During the sessions:

o Do you like and respect them, and are you feeling comfortable and understood?

o Are they asking adequate questions?

o Have you set clear goals and aims for when the therapy is over?

o Are you receiving feedback that makes you feel like you're on the right track?

o Have they outlined a treatment plan?

After the sessions:

o Are you feeling hopeful and relieved?

o Do you feel empowered to make a change?

How do I access a psychologist?

You must call your primary care physician/general practitioner. Your primary care physician/general practitioner will likely ask you to fill out a questionnaire to make an assessment as to whether psychology is right for you. If you qualify, they'll write you a referral to see someone. Under a mental health care plan, you can choose who to visit with your GP's referral (you're not obliged to see the person named on the letter).

It's also worth checking with your employer, as some workplaces offer Employee Assistance Programs, which provide access to confidential support and counselling to employees and their immediate family. Those of us living in areas where access to healthcare is less handy are likely eligible for Medicare-funded telehealth services, which are specialist video consultations under Medicare. (It's worth noting, obtaining a mental health care plan can interfere with your ability to secure personal insurance.)

How do I know if they're the right psychologist for me?

After the first session, your psychologist should have outlined a clear treatment plan and be asking you about your goals, what you want to achieve, and implementing strategies as to how you're going to achieve them. If you feel like you're not getting anything out of the sessions, it's important to express that to your therapist. Feedback is crucial and can assist your psychologist to adjust their approach in helping you.

After the first few sessions you should feel therapeutically relieved, hopeful and empowered that you can make a change. However, we're all different and improvement might take a little longer for some. Actioning the strategies you've learnt is when you should expect to see change. Accept that you're an active participant in the therapy process, and that the little things you do every day in between sessions is what really matters.

Counseling treatments:

A licensed or certified counselor may help treat the following:

• family problems

• marital or relationship issues

• struggles with anger or low self-esteem

• behavioral problems

• addiction or substance use

• loss or grief

• anxiety

• depression

Typically, a counselor focuses on present day problems that may be affecting your overall mental health and well-being. Their treatments may not go as deeply into how issues from previous relationships, past experiences, or deep-seated trauma may have contributed to your current mental health state.

A psychotherapist may also provide counseling to their clients. Nevertheless, this type of professional must be licensed in order to practice psychotherapy. This indicates that they have the proper credentials, as well as oversight from a state licensing board.

Therapy treatments: Like counselors, therapists focus on treatments that can benefit your overall mental health and well-being. Unlike some counselors, however, therapists must be licensed in the states they practice. They also require more education, usually at a doctorate level. Therapists also tend to focus on talk therapy. This involves verbalizing your problems to help work through solutions that may also involve changes to your thinking and behaviors.

“Therapist” tends to be an umbrella term for many professionals in the mental health field, so a therapist may also be called a psychologist or psychiatrist. Psychologists use more research-based practices, while a psychiatrist can prescribe medications that work in conjunction with therapies. Therapists may also focus on human behavior and research to a greater degree than counselors do. Therapists typically work with more complex issues than counselors, including past experiences and how they influence your current behavior and mental health. But these specializations can overlap significantly.

Counselor and therapist specialties

You may notice that therapists and counselors specialize in similar treatment areas, including:

• child and adolescent therapies

• therapies for individuals, groups, couples, or families

• behavioral therapies

• substance use treatment

• support for anxiety or depression

• therapy for loss or grief

What qualifications does each type of specialist have?

Both counselors and therapists are trained in their area of specialty. They may also hold licenses or certifications as required by their state. To practice therapy, a psychotherapist must be licensed in the state they’re in. To obtain such a license, the therapist must take and pass an exam administered by their state. Therapists typically display their diplomas and licenses in their offices. It’s important to consider such requirements, as well as the educational level of each mental health professional in relation to your treatment needs. A reputable professional will have either a master’s or doctorate level education combined with a license in order to provide their services.

Counselor qualifications

To treat patients in a clinical setting, counselors may have a minimum of a master’s degree in counseling. As part of their education, a counselor will take courses related to their specialty, including therapy techniques.

Depending on state law, reputable counselors may also need licenses to practice counseling services. For example, “LPC” stands for licensed professional counselor.

Additionally, counselors will often obtain certifications, such as those related to addiction and marriage counseling. Keep in mind that some counselors who advertise their services aren’t licensed or regulated, so it’s important to ask in advance.

Counseling psychologists may have doctorate level degrees and specialize in a variety of topics, such as:

• mental health conditions related to behavior and mood

• the influence of a person’s home and work environment

• coping with physical or intellectual disabilities

• the impact of social justice issues

• stressors related to decision-making, especially about life events, school, or work

• adjustment to social life at work, school, or home

• developing a personal identity

Therapist qualifications:

Therapists typically have more education than counselors. Most therapists have at least a master’s degree in psychology. Many obtain doctoral level education. But there are some PhD-level counseling psychologists who have higher levels of education than master’s level social workers (usually with a MSW degree) who work as therapists. Psychology itself is the scientific study of human behavior. Therapists also tend to have training that puts research from one or more specialities into practice. Some therapists may also have a doctor of philosophy (PhD) in psychology. This provides a more in-depth research background. Another educational option is a doctor of psychology (PsyD) which has less of a research emphasis. In addition to providing therapy services, both types of clinical psychology doctorate degrees allow these professionals to seek jobs in academia at the college or university level.

Other therapists may have master’s or doctoral degrees in other related fields besides psychology, including:

• special education

• sociology

• neurology

Therapists must also hold appropriate licenses and certifications based on the state they wish to practice in.

Therapists may offer services in their own private practices, but may also work in:

• group practices

• schools

• universities

• assisted living facilities

• clinics

• social services

Therapists can work with individuals in one-on-one sessions as well as with couples, families, and groups. Some also specialize in working with children through a technique called play therapy.

Short vs. long-term treatment

A counselor may be a better choice if you want to resolve more short-term issues that don’t stem from long-term mental health issues. For example, a marriage counselor can help couples work toward resolving disruptive short-term problems for a healthier relationship.

A therapist, on the other hand, may offer treatments that delve into deeper mental health concerns, including:

• long-term behavioral issues

• anger issues

• anxiety

• depression

• trauma

• addiction

A therapist can also help you discover the underlying causes of these issues, along with negative past experiences that may apply to the situation.

Education and background: Beyond their different treatment areas, you may also consider a prospective mental health professional’s education and background. For example, if you’re seeking a therapist for depression or family-related issues, you may want to choose a counselor with expertise in this area rather than a therapist who specializes in relationship therapies. Both qualified counselors and therapists must have a minimum of a master’s degree. Therapists may have more advanced doctoral degrees.

Budget and location: Your budget and location are other considerations. If you have insurance, you may want to start by calling your insurance company to ask about your mental health coverage and receive a list of in-network professionals to help you lower the cost of your treatment. If you’re in school, both school and university-level counselors may offer free sessions for students while also having the convenience of offices on campus. A clinic or community health center may offer options at a reduced cost for therapists and counselors.

Need a diagnosis? It’s important to note that, while many counselors and therapists are trained to help treat issues related to mental health, most don’t make diagnoses. If you’re seeking a mental health diagnosis, you may consider seeing a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.

Finding a Black therapist for your mental health can be a challenge, but these expert tips can help you get online therapy with a person who's right for you.

Search online directories: A plethora of sites will let you key in your city and state to find a Black therapist, like the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective’s Virtual Therapist Network. There is also: TherapyforBlackGirls, TherapyforBlackMen, FindBlackTherapist, PsychologyToday and Thervo.