What is the difference between seeing a counsellor versus a clinical psychologist? People are often confused about how the professions differ from one another, and which is best for them.
I am a counsellor
I am a counsellor, with a background (before counselling) in philosophy. I have a bachelor's degree with honours in philosophy, and while pursuing post-graduate studies and teaching at The University of Melbourne, I became interested in the new field of philosophical counselling. So I studied a two-year diploma in counselling at the same time. I discovered a passion for the art and was told that I had a strong talent for it by my educators, several of whom offered me work in counselling or in teaching. I knew that this was the right direction and, eager to get to work, I dropped my philosophy research so as to quickly complete further counselling studies, which I did to masters level. I have now been working in the field for a decade.
What is counselling?
Counsellors are trained to help people with life problems. For example I am a member of the Loss and Grief Practitioners Association and provide bereavement counselling in organisations. In my private practice I help people with issues in their life such as direction and purpose, separation or loneliness, and so on. Counselling involves a range of skills, but in essence the deepest, if seemingly simplest, aspect its honed practice of listening. This means that you can unburden yourself and speak through things, and hear yourself in ways you usually cannot. In doing so you come to see yourself more clearly, so you can guide yourself better. By doing that you also work through problems such as emotional obstructions, both there in the session as well as by slowly practising a new way of being across time. Counselling can be a source of great relief and a fresh start. The counsellor also possesses practical wisdom, both through their way of being in the world - to be a counsellor "in your bones" is a vocation, you walk about with your eyes open in particular ways - as well as through their training. So the point is also for the counsellor to provide suitable guidance. There is a practical solidity about good counselling, a focus on actually making life work.
Psychology and Psychiatry?
Counselling for life's struggles is different to treating mental health disorders. This is the difference between my work and that of a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. They are mental health professionals, working according to a medical model of psychological functioning. They assess, diagnosis, treat, and in some sense manage, disorders and risks of a psychological sort. There are some cross-overs, for example there is debate about whether depression and anxiety should be seen in medical terms, and so counsellors also work with those issues as problems in living, but beyond that if you think you have a mental health disorder or are at risk of harm then you should seek a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. They are trained to assess and treat the great variety of disorders, and they are linked to the many resources of the mental health system.
Philosophy and counselling?
As a counsellor with a background in philosophy, I combine philosophy and counselling. This means that alongside the skills mentioned before, I draw on philosophical insight and reflection. This is not about applying theories to your concerns, rather it is about helping you to develop clarity and perspective; use your talents to their best; develop your character so as to flourish and to serve others and the world; and create a vision, a direction, a purpose, and make it real in your life. Philosophy is about greater truth and greater goodness. It is a striving for a more meaningful life. To combine such reflection with the skills of modern counselling makes for a powerful activity!
In recent years I have developed a passion for a new movement in mainstream psychology called positive psychology. Positive psychology measures many of the concerns of traditional philosophy - the development of character, the creation of happiness and flourishing - and provides guidance on what to do and how to do it, to make the ideal real. So I integrate both into my counselling.
In recent years I have expanded to include coaching in my work. Put simplistically, counselling is for emotional struggles whereas coaching is for creating structured change in your life. In coaching we focus on your goals such as your desire for flourishing or happiness, or your desire to become a better person through building your character and making a positive impact on your world. Coaching is more didactic and directive. This is where my knowledge of philosophy and positive psychology comes in full force. As I put it elsewhere, this is like personal training at the gym only for your heart, mind, and life. It is in this context that I offer six and eight-week programs, which take a small group of people on a structured journey of personal development.