What’s the Difference between Counselling, Psychotherapy, and Social Work?

Counselling, psychotherapy, and social work, pile of question marks with the word 'what' in the middle

Finding counselling services in Windsor, LaSalle, and Amherstburg can be challenging!  Some of the terms you may come across in your search include: therapy, counselling, psychotherapy, therapist, counsellor, psychotherapist, social worker, psychologist, and psychiatrist.  What’s the difference between them all?  This blog post will help you understand the differences between counselling, psychotherapy, and social work.  Stay tuned for posts that will help you learn about the differences between a counsellor, psychotherapist, and social worker.

Counselling, Psychotherapy and Social Work

The terms therapy, counselling, psychotherapy, and social work are used interchangeably by most.  It is important to note that some terms are regulated while others are not.  When a term is regulated it means that a governing body – for example a college or professional association – requires specific education and experience in order to perform the role.  Regulation of a profession helps to protect the public.  The Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) states the following:

“In order to become a registrant, applicants to a college must demonstrate that they possess a set of entry-level competencies necessary for the ethical and safe conduct of the profession. This is achieved through comprehensive examinations, supervisory reports, training records, and the like. In addition to this there is often an educational requirement that is closely tied to the competency profile, as is the case in many master’s degrees and applied doctoral programs. In addition, applicants must show that they are personally suitable to take on the fiduciary duties required of a professional. This is demonstrated through such processes as criminal record checks and professional recommendations.”

The CCPA regulates Canadian Certified Counsellors.  The College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario (CRPO) regulates psychotherapy and psychotherapists.  The Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW) regulates social work and social workers.

Now that we understand regulation, let’s look at the differences between counselling, psychotherapy, and social work.  Remember that therapy, counselling, psychotherapy and social work can be used interchangeably.  Note that the term therapy is not regulated.


The Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA), which regulates Canadian Certified Counsellors, defines counselling as:

Counselling/psychotherapy is the skilled and principled use of relationship to facilitate self-knowledge, emotional acceptance and growth and the optimal development of personal resources. The overall aim is to provide an opportunity for people to work towards living more satisfyingly and resourcefully.  While the relationship will vary according to need, it may be concerned with developmental issues, addressing and resolving specific problems, making decisions, coping with crisis, developing personal insights and knowledge, working through feelings of inner conflict or improving relationships with others.


Counselling is a relational process based upon the ethical use of specific professional competencies to facilitate human change. Counselling addresses wellness, relationships, personal growth, career development, mental health, and psychological illness or distress.  The counselling process is characterized by the application of recognized cognitive, affective, expressive, somatic, spiritual, developmental, behavioural, learning, and systemic principles.

The counselling process is characterized by the application of recognized cognitive, affective, expressive, somatic, spiritual, developmental, behavioural, learning, and systemic principles.

In other words, counselling is about building a helpful relationship where you can understand yourself better, accept your emotions, and grow as a person. The goal is to help you live a more fulfilling life and make the most of your abilities. Whether you’re dealing with everyday challenges, tough decisions, or deep inner struggles, counselling is there to support you. It covers a wide range of areas like mental health, relationships, personal growth, and career development. And it uses various approaches to help you, including thinking, feeling, body awareness, spirituality, and learning.


The College of Registered Psychotherapists (CRPO) which regulates psychotherapy and psychotherapists, defines psychotherapy as:

Psychotherapy is primarily a talk-based therapy and is intended to help people improve and maintain their mental health and well-being. Registered Psychotherapists work with individuals, couples and families in individual and group settings. Psychotherapy occurs when the Registered Psychotherapist (RP) and client enter into a psychotherapeutic relationship where both work together to bring about positive change in the client’s thinking, feeling, behaviour and social functioning. Individuals usually seek psychotherapy when they have thoughts, feelings, moods and behaviours that are adversely affecting their day-to-day lives, relationships and the ability to enjoy life.”


As health care professionals, psychotherapists work in a wide range of settings. Settings include: private practice, hospitals, clinics, care facilities, rehabilitation centres/programs, employee assistance programs, universities, and more.

In other words, psychotherapy aims at helping people improve their mental health and overall well-being. It involves a therapeutic relationship between a Registered Psychotherapist (RP) and the client, working together to bring about positive changes in thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and social functioning. People seek psychotherapy when their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are negatively impacting their daily lives, relationships, and happiness.

Social Work

The Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW) which regulates social workers, defines social work as:

From individuals and families to organizations and communities, social workers collaborate with their clients to address challenges through a process of assessment, diagnosis, treatment and evaluation.


According to the College’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, the scope of practice of the profession of social work means the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and evaluation of individual, interpersonal and societal problems through the use of social work knowledge, skills, interventions and strategies, to assist individuals, dyads, families, groups, organizations and communities to achieve optimum psychosocial and social functioning.

In other words, social work aims to help individuals, families, organizations, and communities overcome challenges and achieve optimal psychosocial and social functioning.  Social workers collaborate with clients, utilizing a range of knowledge, skills, interventions, and strategies to address a variety of individual, interpersonal, and societal issues.  In a mental health setting, social work involves providing support and interventions to individuals experiencing mental health challenges. They conduct assessments to understand clients’ needs, provide counselling, facilitate support groups, and advocate for clients’ rights and access to services.

In Summary

As you see, counselling, psychotherapy, and social work are pretty similar.  They all aim to support individuals, couples, and families with a variety of behavioural, social, emotional, and mental health challenges.  Most professionals will use the terms counselling or therapy to describe the work they do even though those terms are not regulated.  It’s therefore really important to  do your research and ask questions so you can make an informed choice about your care.  To learn what to look for, read What’s the Difference Between Counsellors, Psychotherapists, and Social Workers?

Authored by: Jessica Swabey, MACP, CCC, RSW