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What's the difference between counselling and psychotherapy?

By Ana Isabel Alonsagay

Mental health continues to be a prime area of medical concern, with nearly half of the Australian population experiencing a common mental disorder (anxiety, depression, social phobias) in their lifetime. Based on estimated figures from 2017, this equates to approximately 8.7 million people. 

It’s no surprise, then, that plenty of those in the field of healthcare aspire to specialise in mental health – an industry set to boom with opportunity. Leading occupations of the field include counselling and psychotherapy, professions whose skills are currently in high demand.

For those seeking a career path in mental health, SkillsTalk dive into the industry trends, day-to-day responsibilities, and key differences between counsellors and psychotherapists – and which speciality may suit you and your interests best.

A career in counselling

According to the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA), “Professional counselling” is defined by personal, confidential collaborations between a qualified counsellor and their clients; in an effort to promote better mental health, well-being, and self-understanding. 

Using varying methods of intervention and communication modalities, counsellors attempt to resolve a client’s both unidentified and present concerns. The process involves plenty of empathy, active listening, and the ability to establish and foster positive relationships. Successful counselling is achieved when a client feels understood, respected, and accepted without judgement. 

Counsellors are trained to work with people of all backgrounds and ages – including children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. Their services may be provided as a short-term, long-term, or even lifetime solution – depending on the needs of their patient(s). 

Counselling – Industry insights

Job Outlook statistics show that the counselling field can expect very strong growth in the coming years – with employment numbers in 2018 jumping from 25,900 to 30,500 by 2023. This growth is likely to see around 22,000 job openings (about 4,400 a year). Opportunities may come from new roles, though most are likely to sprout from worker turnover. 

Aspiring counsellors can fortunately find work in most regions of Australia, with most jobs available in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland. The top three employing industries are health care and social assistance; education and training; and public administration and safety. 

Full-time workers can enjoy a weekly wage higher than the all-jobs average ($1,460), with most earning around $1,584 per week. Wages tend to be higher as experience in the field grows. 

According to the Australian Counselling Association (ACA), future investments in the field will likely focus on reducing incidences of suicide among at-risk populations; providing more support for mental health programs in schools; providing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with services that are both safe and culturally appropriate; and offering greater mental health support for the aged.

A day in the life of a counsellor 

counselling concept

Everyday responsibilities of a counsellor primarily involve assessing, assisting, and communicating with clients. Through different types of therapy – including cognitive behaviour therapy and talking therapies – counsellors help their patients identify, define, and work through emotional, social, or educational issues they may be struggling with.

These sessions typically involve interviews or even developing rehabilitation plans if required. 

Clients facing employment difficulties may also be provided with information and resources to assist them in the job-seeking process. Counsellors will typically discuss with these individuals on career options best suited to their needs and abilities. 

Those working in a school setting will also likely collaborate with teachers, providing information and advice on how to better understand the learning process and behaviour of their students. 

What skills do you need to be a counsellor?

To succeed in counselling, one ideally should possess excellent skills in both verbal and non-verbal communication. They must also exhibit high levels of empathy, as this helps them better understand or relate to the problems or personal concerns presented by clients. Additionally, the ability to work with and sensitively adapt their methods to those of varying backgrounds, ages, religions, and personalities is crucial. 

As an often mentally and emotionally taxing profession, one must also be well-equipped to work in unpredictable environments and handle sensitive and often distressing circumstances – these including (but are not limited to) bereavement, domestic abuse, addiction, or violence. 

Job Outlook research shows that those who enter the field typically hold a formal qualification in counselling, psychology, social work, or related field. Plenty use VET (Vocational Education and Training) as their educational pathway. 

A career in psychotherapy

psychotherapy concept

In contrast to counselling, psychotherapy encompasses a broader range of areas in relation to human behaviour and emotion. While multiple similarities are evident (and plenty of psychotherapists may also provide counselling services), psychotherapy is a largely deeper process, diving further into the root causes of one’s problems, long-standing attitudes, thoughts, perspectives, and behaviours. 

While counselling can typically be a short-term process with a focus on one’s immediate issues (usually addressed and resolved on a more conscious level) – psychotherapy aims to explore, unravel, and address elements of a patient’s psychological history. As such, the field offers clients a more long-term solution: the greater ability to understand, reflect, and examine their life and key events within it. 

Those who undergo successful psychotherapy thus acquire a higher level of self-awareness, and the ability to change problematic thoughts and behaviour through healthy, lasting means. 

Psychotherapy – Industry insights

According to data from Job Outlook, the field of psychotherapy is set for strong expansion in the coming years – from 37,500 workers in 2018 to 48,800 in 2023. Job-seekers will likely see around 38,000 openings over this timeframe (about 7,600 available jobs a year). While these opportunities can come from new roles created, most will likely be due to turnover. 

Aspiring psychotherapists can find plenty of employment opportunities across Australia, with most available roles found in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland. Like counselling, the top-three employing industries are health care and social assistance; education and training; and public administration and safety. 

Full-time workers earn a higher-than-average weekly wage of $1,857 per week – with the opportunity to earn more as their experience grows. 

As of now, psychotherapy is a common form of treatment for a wide variety of mental health conditions and disorders; including (but not limited to): depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and phobias. 

A day in the life of a psychotherapist 

As with counsellors, the everyday tasks of a psychotherapist involve assisting and communicating with patients. 

As mentioned, however, psychotherapists deal with deeper-seated issues, thoughts, emotions, and trauma; employing a wide variety of therapy methods to better process a client’s inner conflicts and subconscious behaviours. Such therapies include hypo-psychotherapy, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, and even humanistic and integrative psychotherapy. 

These all provide effective ways of helping a patient identify sources of mental and emotional stress, while coming to healthy, sustainable ways of coping. Psychotherapists may also manage further treatment or medication options, if necessary – or refer their patients to community groups, other counsellors, or even behavioural studies. 

Of course, keeping up-to-date on the latest field research and treatment is a necessity for anyone working full-time.  

What skills do you need to be a psychotherapist?

Since the field involves analysing and working through people’s psychological trauma, psychotherapists require high levels of empathy and emotional strength to sensitively deal with a wide array of circumstances and social issues. 

They must, of course, be well-versed in behavioural disorders, mental dysfunctions, thought patterns and methods of diagnosis and rehabilitation. This provides them with the keen problem-spotting skills required to assess patient behaviour. 

Like counsellors, excellent communication skills (verbally or otherwise) are a must. Psychotherapists are masters in asking valuable questions and articulating their assessment of one’s condition, on top of offering appropriate solutions. Active listening is vital, as this helps one gain a deep, thorough understanding of their patient’s concerns. 

Most professionals enter the field with a postgraduate degree in psychology, or two years of supervised postgraduate experience with a registered psychologist, according to Job Outlook.

Looking to start a career in mental health?

As Australia continues to grapple with its growing concerns of mental health, the demand for expertise and skill continues to rise. 

If you’re looking to get your start in the field, Upskilled currently offers a 24-month CHC51015 - Diploma of Counselling to help equip aspiring professionals with essential skills in therapy, interpersonal communication, and relationship-building – the fundamentals necessary to pursue a career in mental health. 

Best of all, the course is delivered online, helping you tailor your training according to personal needs and schedule. 

Join the growing industry of Australia’s mental health field, and enquire about a course today. 
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