What's the difference between clinical and counselling psychology?

Updated 9 August 2023

The field of psychology has made tremendous differences in the mental health of many. Clinical psychology and counselling are two of the most sought-after career paths in the field. However, many aspiring psychologists are often confused about the differences between the two careers. In this article, we explore the meaning of these two psychological fields, their similarities and the difference between clinical and counselling psychology.

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What is clinical psychology?

Clinical psychology is a psychological specialism that focuses on diagnosing and treating psychopathological, emotional and behavioural disorders. It involves approaching these disorders from the healthcare perspective using diagnostics tests.

A clinical psychologist is, therefore, an individual who is knowledgeable in psychology and psychopathology. They're trained to leverage this knowledge and conduct diagnoses and provide treatment solutions to patients. Some of their patients may suffer from anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar and or personality disorders.

What is counselling psychology?

Counselling psychology is a broader area in the field of psychology. It aims to reduce psychological stress arising from relationships with friends, family, work and society. It seeks to use certain specialised clinical techniques to resolve these issues.

Therefore, a counselling psychologist is a skilled professional trained to help individuals overcome their daily life stressors. They provide them with tested coping skills that aid them in balancing out their life issues. As a result, a counselling psychologist can also work with individuals suffering from psychological conditions like anxiety and depression.

Read more: What is counselling psychology?

What's the difference between clinical and counselling psychology?

While they share many similarities, there are several differences between clinical and counselling psychology. Both fields have very different educational paths and job specifications. Below are some of the main differences between the two careers:


The areas of psychological practice focused on by a clinical and counselling psychologist differ. A clinical psychologist focuses on patients who suffer from mild or severe cases of mental disorders. From a healthcare standpoint, they conduct psychopathological assessments on patients and provide treatments for their disorders.

Counselling psychologists aim to improve the health, interpersonal and personal well-being of their clients. Unlike clinical psychologists, they work from a vocational perspective. They use communication and psychotherapeutic skills to teach their clients coping skills that help them navigate their major life stressors such as grief, anxiety or low self-esteem.

Related: What it takes to be a social psychologist (with definition)

Place of employment

This is another area where clinical psychology and counselling overlap. Qualified individuals in both areas can work in private corporations. Likewise, they can also work with public corporations such as juvenile centres, drug rehabilitation centres or prisons.

However, a counselling psychologist is more likely to be employed by a college or university to offer students counselling services. In comparison, mental health clinics and hospitals are more likely to work with a clinical psychologist.

Research area

The field of psychology is research-oriented and clinical psychology and counselling is not exempt from this. While the research in clinical psychology is mental health-oriented, there are other subspecialties within this branch of psychology. Below are some of the research areas that are available in clinical psychology:

  • Emotional disturbances

  • Learning disabilities

  • Geriatrics

  • Substance abuse

  • Child and adult mental health

Whereas, some of the unique research areas under counselling psychology include:

  • Social cognitive career theory

  • Gender dysphoria

  • Relationship coaching

  • Psychology of self-esteem

  • Community and at-risk youth mental health intervention


The training and educational requirements needed to become either a clinical psychologist or counsellor are quite similar. For a counselling psychologist, you'll require a three-year psychology degree that fulfils the standard requirements of accreditation by the British Psychological Society (BPS).

The same goes for clinical psychology. A 2.1 qualification improves your eligibility to apply for the Graduate Basis for Chartered membership (GBC) of the BPS. This is also in addition to some basic counselling skills and relevant work experience with individuals with emotional needs.

Career path

The career paths in clinical psychology and counselling can be rewarding. They offer individuals job stability, profitable salaries and a chance to positively impact a patient's life and mental health. However, for these two fields, the career paths are not so similar. Here are some job titles often held by clinical psychologists:

  • Clinical counsellor

  • Mental health social worker

  • Clinical case manager

  • Neuropsychologist

  • Licensed clinical psychologist

The job titles a counselling psychologist may hold includes:

  • Counselling therapist

  • Rehabilitation counsellor

  • Family therapist

  • Crisis counsellor

  • Licensed mental health counsellor (LMHC)

Read more: How to become a counselling psychologist

Theoretical orientation

The theoretical structures adopted by both clinical psychology and counselling in their focus are often intertwined. Despite this, their theoretical substructure is very different. Where clinical psychology focuses on behavioural science and psychoanalytics, counselling psychology uses multicultural and humanist approaches. Also, where clinical psychologists use psychodynamic research, counselling psychologists often prefer cognitive-behavioural research.


The primary aim of both a clinical psychologist and a counsellor is to improve the general well-being of their clients. However, the populations served by both professionals are quite distinct. Counsellors tend to have a generalised client base. This is different from a clinical psychologist whose client base is more specialised.

Also, the cases handled by a counselling psychologist are often not as severe as those handled by a clinical psychologist. This is because clinical psychologists are more niche. They handle patients who have specific diagnosable mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar or personality disorder.

Related: How to become a psychologist in the UK

Essential clinical and counselling psychology skills

Succeeding as a counsellor or clinical psychologist requires more than just a degree and experience. You also need some counselling and clinical psychology skills. Here are some vital clinical and counselling skills:

Communication and interpersonal skills

Both clinical and counselling psychology are people-focused. They expose the psychologist to people needing emotional help and patients suffering from various mental disorders. You, therefore, need communication and interpersonal skills to aid you in conveying your thoughts and speaking clearly to avoid misunderstandings.

Keen observation

Communication is not always verbal. To successfully observe patient's and provide effective advice, you may need keen observation skills to interpret your patient's body language and facial expressions.

Also, you may need keen observation skills to collect data from daily clinical occurrences and conduct research on them. This skill can allow you to connect client behavioural patterns and feelings to preexisting clinical diagnoses.

Active listening skills

In addition to keen observation, active listening is essential to understanding a client's challenges and offering solutions. It's a valuable and professional technique used by psychologists to thoroughly listen, absorb and understand the viewpoint of their clients. Using this skill, you can observe a client's body language, interpret their feelings and reflect on their story.

Empathy and sympathy

Empathy is the ability of a person to share and understand another person's feelings. At the same time, sympathy requires you to understand and interpret a person's feelings or emotions. Most clients who work with a psychologist are seeking someone who can understand their perspective.

Possessing an empathic and sympathetic skill builds your clients' trust in you and connects you to them. This gives you a chance to offer them the emotional care and behavioural counsel they need.

Related: Children's psychology jobs (with primary duties and salaries)

Problem-solving and analytical thinking skills

Problem-solving and analytical skills enable psychologists to solve problems effectively and logically. Using their knowledge of psychology, they identify and diagnose their client's problems and needs. With their problem-solving and critical thinking skills, they identify and administer treatments.

Read more: Problem-solving skills: Definitions and examples


Patience is the ability to tolerate and endure a situation. The result time frame for treating patients differ. Some patients take months or years to begin showing signs of healing. Therefore, a counsellor and clinical psychologist need patience as a skill so as not to get disappointed or frustrated with a client.

Confidentiality skills

This skill enables psychologists to keep all information shared by their clients during their counselling sessions secret. Doing so helps psychologists to get and sustain their clients' trust in them and the counselling system. They can only be revealed to other professionals for collaboration towards finding a treatment plan.

Emotional stability

As a psychologist, you may come in contact with people with various range of mental conditions and personality types. Your ability to remain emotionally balanced and stable goes a long way in determining your success and the life span of your professional career. Possessing emotional stability also helps in developing evaluation and reality-oriented thinking towards the issues at hand.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article is affiliated with Indeed.

Related: What does a behavioural therapist do? (Skills and salary)

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