Clinical vs. Counseling Psychology

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Clinical and counseling psychologists both have doctorates and can practice psychotherapy, so the distinction between the two can get a little fuzzy. With this being said, both of these disciplines have very different histories and distinctions in their clientele. Learn more in this lesson.

Definitions of Clinical and Counseling Psychology

Picture the clichéd psychologist, with his patient lying on a couch in front of him, nodding his head while contemplating his patient's discontentments of his childhood and troubled life. This image meshes with that of a clinical psychologist. Now picture a psychologist in a university counseling center, advising and consulting a college student who feels depressed and disoriented in life. This image is more suitable for a counseling psychologist.

Although clinical and counseling psychology began as two distinct disciplines, the fields seem to be becoming more and more similar. This is because the functions of both a clinical and counseling psychologist overlap in a variety of ways.

Clinical psychology can be defined as the use of clinical experience, evidence-based research and scientific theory to alleviate the burdens and pain of individuals with psychological and psychiatric disorders through psychotherapy. The Greek root of the word, 'clinical,' is 'kline' which means 'bed.' This ties into the original intent of this discipline- more of a medical, complex psychological orientation of psychologists who deal with severely mentally ill patients (think psychotic schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder etc.) in a hospital or mental hospital setting.

The stereotypical image of a clinical psychologist is one with his patient reclining while he listens to his discontents.
Clinical psychologist

Counseling psychology can be defined as the use of clinical experience, evidence-based research and scientific theory to consult, advise and guide individuals suffering from life stressors and demands, and the psychological burden that accompanies these difficulties. The Greek root of the word, 'counseling,' is 'consulere' which means to 'consult' or 'advise.' This ties into the original intent of this field- more of a vocational and life counseling atmosphere.

The true reality these days is that the distinction between these two types of psychology disciplines is subsiding, as counseling psychologists also deal with clients with schizophrenia, for example, and clinical psychologists also deal with vocational planning, for instance. Also, many job listings looking for a psychologist will take either or, often enough, as both are educated in how to do psychotherapy with a diverse clientele.

It is often hard to distinguish between clinical and counseling psychologists due to the overlap in their functions and skills.
Counseling psychologist.

Differentiation Between Clinical and Counseling Psychology

Although the distinction between the two fields of clinical and counseling psychology has become fuzzy over the years, there are still some defining differences between these disciplines.


Did you know that psychiatrists (medical doctors who specialize in psychological disorders) were originally the ones who practiced psychotherapy, and not psychologists? In fact, clinical psychology was not born until the 1890s and counseling psychology was not established until after World War II (1940s).

Lightner Witmer is known as the father of clinical psychotherapy; he established the first psychological clinic in the world in 1896 and published an academic journal titled, The Psychological Clinic, in 1907. He was responsible for bringing the 'clinical' into psychology, which stimulated this field's movement into psychotherapy.

Counseling psychology wasn't recognized as an official field of science until 1946. When soldiers started returning from World War II, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) needed psychologists to treat the mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), resulting from being at war.

In 1952, the VA opened up a separate department for vocational counseling. A year later, the VA hired 55 new counseling psychologists to fill vocational counselor positions. These counselors were meant to help veterans readjust to civilian life by assisting them in finding jobs and educational opportunities. Counseling psychology has always focused more on vocational assistance than clinical psychology.


Clinical psychology was originally intended to focus on more severe mental health patients. Think of the clinical psychologist who treated the fictional character and sociopath Hannibal Lector. Or the psychologists who are employed to treat patients in mental hospitals, such as in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

Some of the more severe mental health disorders are the ones where patients begin to lose touch with reality and experience psychosis. We can see this is some cases of schizophrenia or even in bipolar disorder. The point is that clinical psychologists were originally intended to treat these more intense psychiatric disorders and cases. One of the most famous clinical psychologists in history was Sigmond Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

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