How the Evolution of Psychology Gave Birth to Counseling

What is the difference between psychology and counseling?

Posted Nov 19, 2010

For a discipline that's only around 130 years old, psychology has a lot of practitioners sporting a number of different titles (and I'm not talking about the local bartender down the street, although sometimes they can be quite excellent listeners). I'm talking about psychotherapists, therapists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, marriage and family therapists, and counselors. What's the difference and why so many titles?

This post aims to provide a little more clarity about the differing psychological services among practitioners, and describes how one discipline grew out of psychology to focus on mental health (instead of mental illness).

While many think of Sigmund Freud as the first psychology practitioner, it was actually Wilhelm Wundt who opened the first psychology lab in 1879. Wundt sought to examine human consciousness using an experimental method he called introspection (for interested researchers, he did not use the scientific method as experiments weren't able to be duplicated). Like its shaky scientific beginnings, psychology grew to encompass a wide variety of approaches-some approaches are based on a solid scientific background, while others are a bit more airy-fairy, so to speak.

Perhaps the ethereal aspect of airy-fairy isn't so far off as psychology literally means "study of the soul" (psychē means "soul, spirit or breath" while logia means "to study"). A more modern definition means to study human behavior and thought, but we're going to come back to that definition in a bit. A blessing of psychology's birth as a discipline was how mentally ill (or perceived mentally ill) people were treated. Just prior to the late 1800s in Western culture-long after people with ‘visions' had been treated as oracles or shamans-it was believed that people suffered from mental illness because God had cursed them. Consequently, mentally ill people were punished with severe beatings, chainings and/or ostracism. Psychology helped change such views and a more holistic (and humane) approach to treatment was adopted.

Many of the first practitioners in the field were physicians. Physicians attend medical school and become Medical Doctors (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). Today's physicians in the field are called psychiatrists and they can provide therapy services while prescribing medications. Psychologists are practitioners that have received their Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). A number of other mental health fields offer graduate and Ph.D. degrees in social work, marriage and family therapy, various forms of counseling and counseling psychology-which brings me to the title of this post. (How the Evolution of Psychology Gave Birth to Counseling)

You may be wondering if psychology gave birth to counseling then what is the difference between counseling and psychology?

Going back to a bit of history, World War II put a big spotlight on mental health as the war had serious mental health impacts on soldiers (war impacts EVERYONE and it has a trickle down effect through the generations). The National Mental Health Act was first passed in 1946 and the U.S. government began funding research and programs related to mental illness and health. In the 1950s, prevention and early detection of mental health problems became a focus. Slowly, a shift in perceptions occurred where people could safely seek treatment for adjustment, transitions, and relational issues without feeling stigmatized. (Clearly, we are still working on shifting those perceptions - in addition to war, old belief systems also trickle down through the generations).

As part of the shift, psychology has generally been defined as treating mental illness and counseling psychology was born to address mental health issues.

This was a giant step for the field and for human development overall. Counseling basically enabled people to seek help without it automatically meaning that one is suffering from a mental illness and requiring hospitalization. Furthermore, counseling's approach (the counseling bias) views people as healthy and sees that environments, heredity, cultural transmission of beliefs, relationships, career and money, etc., can be the causes of distress.

Some of the fundamental tenets of counseling are:

• People should be treated with respect
• If given the opportunity, normal growth will occur
• The goal of treatment is to promote healthy growth
• Counseling is an educational process where the client is part of the process and actively participates
• Counseling builds on strengths as opposed to attacking weaknesses
• Counseling uses empirically validated procedures (scientifically proven via research using scientific method)

Having trained in both schools of thought, I personally love the counseling approach. I have seen much success with clients by helping them realize that they're not broken. Shining the light on people's inherent strengths makes those strengths come to the surface. Similarly, focusing on the "problem" can help people stay stuck in the problem. To illustrate my point, I have witnessed a vast number of people coming in and diagnosing themselves, their partner and their children based on information they read online or from a bookstore. The material is excellent and there is a place for it, however, the downside is that many people begin to suffer from medical school syndrome (where you begin to feel the illness you're studying...and even manifest real symptoms).

People are a lot healthier than they realize (even when they are suffering from a mental illness). There can be a number of reasons why people feel depressed, anxious, or stuck. Counselors help you find solutions by examining the systems around you and helping you build coping skills, resilience and living life in a way that's congruent with your core self-not living a life based on everyone else's expectations of you (especially when you're afraid that being you might be crazy). As one of the tenets stated, counselors believe normal growth in people will occur if given the opportunity. Counseling tries to provide that opportunity with safety, trust, appreciation, and compassion. The purpose of this new "Counseling Keys" blog is to provide you with tips and strategies for living your best healthy self. Stay tuned for more and please check back every couple of weeks.

Best of care to you and your loved ones...and Happy Thanksgiving to my U.S. friends and neighbors!