A lot of people struggle to understand the difference between clinical psychology and counseling psychology. This is in part due to the fact that there is a lot of overlap between the two and because many psychologists work in a variety of settings, meaning they do both clinical and counseling psychology as part of their work. Additionally, the term “clinical” is often used generically, in the sense that it describes a psychologist who is licensed to provide direct services, no matter what training they have completed.
The History of the Specialties
First of all, it is important to take a look back at the history of the two specializations, as this has guided the way the training has developed as well. Both types of psychology focus on psychotherapy and on counseling. Clinical comes from the Greek word “kline”, meaning bed. Indeed, historically, clinical psychology would be delivered at the bedside of a patient. Counseling, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word “consulere”, meaning advising. This is a very broad and initial difference between the two fields. Clinical psychology, as such, looks at mental health disturbances, whereas counseling psychology was about providing advice and guidance. However, these lines have blurred tremendously over time, which is why it is becoming increasingly difficult to pinpoint the differences between the two fields.
Indeed, as the two specialties evolved, they often overlapped and intertwined. Some 100 years ago, psychological science was first properly applied to real world problems, including mental illness and learning difficulties. This is when we started to see psychological clinics, where holistic treatment services were delivered. It was during this time that clinical psychologists started to deliver psychotherapy, which only psychiatrists were able to deliver before then. To this day, the overlap between the two disciplines is tremendous. Let’s take a look, however, at the core differences between the two.
1 – The Work They Do
A counseling psychologist has a stronger focus on healthy individuals, who have fewer pathological mental problems. A clinical psychologist has a stronger focus on those with a psychosis or other serious mental illness. This goes back to them taking over some degree of the work previously reserved for psychiatrists. Both partake in research and supervision activities. However, a counseling psychologist will be involved mainly with vocational and career assessment, whereas a clinical psychologist will look at projective assessment training.
2 – The Orientations of Theory
In recent research, it was found that both disciplines have a great deal of overlap when it comes to the orientation of the theories they study. However, some differences were also highlighted. Within clinical psychology, students focus mostly on psychoanalytic persuasions and behavioral issues, whereas the counseling psychologist will favor humanistic and client-centered traditions. In terms of the theoretical orientation, clinical students preferred psychodynamic research, whereas the counseling students veer towards cognitive behavior.
3 – Place of Employment
Because health care is becoming increasingly holistic, we tend to see clinical and counseling psychologists working in the same settings as well. However, there are some notable differences. A counseling psychologist is more often employed within a university, delivering counseling services. A clinical psychologist, on the other hand, more often works in hospitals. This once again highlights the difference in orientation between the two disciplines.
4 – Research Areas
Finally, there are notable differences in the research areas of the two disciplines. Clinical psychologists favor psychopathological conditions, whereas counseling psychologists prefer vocational assessment and minority/cross-cultural psychology. At the same time, it must be noted that when the difference between the two areas were explored, all mentioned the same faculty research areas. The difference, therefore, is in the frequency with which the two disciplines participate in this programs.
5- Complicated Lines
As you can see, the lines between the two types of psychology are very complicated to really pinpoint, because there is such a great deal of overlap between the two. This is made even clearer when we consider that all 50 states consider both to be “licensed psychologists”. What we do see is that counseling psychologists seem to be more interested in the humanistic approach, dealing directly with behavioral problems that can be resolved in the community. Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, prefer more serious mental illnesses, where hospitalization is generally required. It is possible that the practices will continue to evolve and eventually become one, although it is equally possible that the lines will start to become clearer again. As demonstrated, throughout history, the two disciplines have often crossed paths before moving in different directions again, and this could happen again.
For more in-depth research on Clinical Psychology see our guide. Also a guide exists for Counseling Psychology and it’s field differences. Easily compare 100’s of clinical psychology careers or Find Online Clinical & Counseling Psychology programs or research the various types of Psychology degrees most commonly pursued today.