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How To Know If You Need A Coach Or A Therapist: 6 Differences To Consider

Stephanie Catahan
mbg Contributor
By Stephanie Catahan
mbg Contributor
Stephanie Catahan is a certified health coach, community leader, reiki practitioner, and writer. She has a psychology degree from University of California, Berkeley and health coaching certifications from Duke Integrative Medicine and Precision Nutrition.
January 3, 2022
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Maybe you've noticed an increase in people talking about therapy and coaching. Your partner has a therapist to manage their anxiety. Your neighbor has a coach to sharpen her leadership skills. Maybe you yourself are trying to decide whether to hire a therapist or a coach to guide you through stress management of becoming a new parent or another kind of major life transition, but you don't know where to start.

Although therapy and coaching might come up in the same conversation, there are important key factors to consider before deciding whether to work with a coach or therapist.

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Coach vs. therapist. 

The International Coaching Federation (ICF), one of the leading organizations for certifying coaches, defines coaching as "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential."

A coach guides clients through developing skill sets to reach a clarified goal within a specific timeframe. Some coaches support clients through any and all life goals and are broadly referred to as a life coach. But most coaches have a specialization, such as a health coach, career coach, leadership coach, relationship coach, and beyond.

"The processes life coaches use with their clients depends heavily upon the niche they choose (relationship, career, leadership, etc.) and may involve the use of a variety of tools & exercises depending on the niche and coach," Samuel Gozo, ACC, MCPC, a master certified professional coach and owner of Integrative Clarity Coaching, tells mbg. "All in all, the purpose of life coaching is to identify clear and concrete goals and actively partner with clients to achieve them."

On the other hand, therapy—short for psychotherapy—is a clinical-based approach to treating mental health issues that are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. Oftentimes, therapy involves analyzing past experiences that help inform or explain current situations. 

"A therapist is a licensed professional (or a pre-licensed professional that practices under another therapist's license), that helps clients with mental health problems," explains Christine R. Melendres, LCSW, a licensed therapist and founder of Sweet Mango Therapy Group. "Therapists are trained to help people who are struggling with mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. They diagnose, assess, and provide treatment of mental disorders. They help clients process and heal from past hurts and trauma. Therapists also help with crisis intervention or grief counseling."

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6 key differences between a life coach and a therapist:

1.

Therapists are state-licensed professionals. Coaches aren't. 

One of the biggest differences between a coach and a therapist is how they're accredited. 

"Therapists are governed by a licensing board, and to legally provide psychotherapy, one requires a master's degree with a state license to practice," Melendres explains.

In the U.S., licensing requirements vary from state to state, but in general, only practitioners who have at least a master's degree in fields like social work, counseling, or marriage and family therapy and who have passed their state's licensing board exams can legally be called therapists. You'll see acronyms after a licensed therapist's name, such as LCSW (licensed clinical social worker), LPCC (licensed professional clinical counselor), or LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist). 

There are many paths to becoming a therapist, but all therapists undergo years of school and training, including obtaining a minimum of a master's degree, acquiring clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional, and passing a state-mandated board exam for licensure. Psychologists who hold doctorate-level degrees such as Ph.D. or Psy.D. can also choose to work with clients as therapists as well, though state licensing requirements may still apply. Psychiatrists, who are medical doctors holding an M.D. and who prescribe medications as part of a client's treatment plan, may also be called therapists.

For coaches, there is currently no centralized governing body that regulates or oversees the coaching industry, and there is no specific training or minimum requirements to become a coach. "I firmly believe that's on the precipice of changing," Gozo notes, though, "so it is strongly encouraged that anyone serious about becoming a life coach gets appropriately trained and certified to do so."

As a client, here are a few ways you can verify whether your potential coach has the proper training, certifications, and credentials:

  • There are a few major certifying and credentialing bodies in the coaching industry: ICF (International Coaching Federation), EMCC (European Mentoring and Coaching Council), CCE (Center for Credentialing & Education), and National Board For Health and Wellness Coaching (NBHWC).
  • In general, certification entails completing a coaching training program, which allows a practitioner to call themselves a "certified coach" with that certifying body or organization.
  • The ICF is widely considered one of the leading providers of coaching certification. Practitioners are recognized as ICF credentialed coaches once they have completed requirements including a training program and three to 12 months of mentorship under a more senior coach.
  • Another important factor to consider is actual coaching experience. Look at your coach's testimonials from previous clients and previous work. You may want to consider speaking one-on-one to a coach's previous clients to learn more about their experience with your potential coach.
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2.

Coaching sessions focus on the present and future, whereas therapy sessions typically focus on healing from the past.

"Coaches are present-focused with a future consciousness," Gozo explains. Coaches keep their clients focused on the present as much as possible and provide sessions to move clients forward toward their goals.

Therapists, on the other hand, focus on the past and on mental health, says Melendres. "There's typically a diagnosis given to the client, and there is a treatment plan that is used. Clients are given the opportunity to look at what is going on emotionally, psychologically, and interpersonally."

Therapists also provide a uniquely safe space for clients to dive into all aspects of their mental health because of the legal regulations around the profession. "Therapists are prohibited from disclosing confidential communications to any third party unless mandated or permitted by law to do so," Melendres notes. 

3.

Therapy sessions are generally more open-ended, whereas coaching sessions are more focused. 

Sessions with a therapist are typically one hour per week and usually start open-ended, allowing for the client to inform the topic of the session. There is not always a clarified "goal" for the session.

Sessions with a coach are also usually one hour each week and sometimes start open-ended, but the sessions will usually narrow toward a specific topic, as there is usually a specific goal to work toward.

Most coaches will also offer their services for a specific niche. Most therapists practice a wide spectrum of therapies to address various mental health issues, though some do practice within a niche or utilize a specific therapy, such as EMDR or sex therapy. (Here's more on the different types of therapy that exist.) 

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4.

Coaching is usually short term, while therapy is usually long term.

Working with a coach is usually a short-term engagement that can range from one month to one year. The main function of a coach is to provide tools for a client to move from one state of being to the next, making progress toward their goal. Because coaching is set up for clients to make progress, it is important to work against specific timelines and milestones so the client doesn't remain stuck in old habits or behind recurring obstacles. By the end of your coaching sessions, you will likely have made progress toward your clarified goal.

Engaging with therapy, on the other hand, is often a long-term engagement with no specified end date. That's because therapy is a practice that seeks to uncover root causes for your distress. This can take a while to work through, but in the hands of a professional therapist, the work you put in will be worth it.

5.

Coaching and therapy have different types of goals.

Since sessions with a coach are usually a short-term engagement, there will be a clarified goal to work toward. Goals in coaching are usually based on action and solutions. Some examples of a clarified goal are public speaking for work, finding a relationship using online dating, and improved nutrition habits.

Most coaching practices are built on a framework that the coach has developed over time with various clients. Results using their coaching framework can be replicated for many clients.

Goals when working with a therapist include emotional processing, depression management, anxiety management, and how to handle grief. These goals are not always action-oriented. Sometimes exploring past experiences to find a root cause is necessary during a session, which may result in no specific actionable takeaway in that particular session. If you're working with a psychiatrist, medications can also be prescribed to manage mental health issues.

By the end of your therapy sessions, you will likely have a better understanding of your emotions, triggers, boundaries, and mental health.

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6.

Many therapists take insurance. The majority of coaches do not. 

Funding for these services is an important consideration when evaluating which is right for you. Many therapists take insurance, which means that part (if not all) of your sessions may be covered by your medical insurance provider. This will vary by state, insurance provider, and therapist, so be sure to check your insurance policy and ask your potential therapist about payment. Out of pocket, sessions can cost anywhere from $75 to $200-plus per session. 

Most coaching is not covered by insurance, and each coach will set their own pricing, which can vary from $100 to $15,000-plus depending on different factors like your goal, niche, and length of program. However, some niche coaching like health coaching is on its way to becoming eligible for insurance coverage with efforts being led by NBHWC.

You may find therapists and coaches who offer sliding-scale pricing that can accommodate a wider range of budgets. For example, a therapist may offer sliding-scale sessions priced at $75 to $150 per session depending on a client's ability to pay. Their sliding-scale offerings may come with fewer time-slot options or phone-only support. Each practitioner will set their own rules around their sliding-scale offering, but it's a great way to offer wellness services to more people with varying budgets.

How to know which one is right for you. 

Both coaching and mental health industries are growing. In 2020, the American Psychological Association reported that therapists noticed a significant increase in patients seeking services, while research firm IBISWorld reports that the business coaching industry is worth about $10 billion—and that's just in one coaching niche.

You might start to notice that both professions are roles that offer support depending on what you want to work through. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when deciding if a therapist or coach is right for you:

  • What appears to be the issue that you want to work on? 
  • Ask yourself the 5 Whys focused on this issue: Why is this issue important, etc.
  • Do you have insurance coverage that will cover therapy services?
  • Do you have a wellness stipend or education reimbursement that might cover coaching services?
  • Are you willing to pay out of pocket for therapy? If so, how much?
  • Are you willing to pay out of pocket for coaching? If so, how much?

Note: Some people find benefit in having both a therapist and a coach at the same time, so this doesn't always have to be an either-or situation!

After you've figured out what you want to work on and what you can afford financially, use a Google search or directories to find the right fit. For coaches, you can start your search on Noomii. For therapists you can begin your search on Psychology Today, Inclusive Therapists, or Therapy Den. Once you've found a few interesting prospects for your coach or therapist, reach out to each of them to schedule a short call to figure out if there is a good match between you and the coach or therapist. Most practitioners will offer a free discovery call to assess if there's a fit.

It is important to find a good match to ensure that the professional you choose to work with is best equipped to help you according to your personality and personal needs.

When to see a therapist.

One in five adults in the U.S. experienced mental illness in 2020, and mental illness costs $1 trillion in lost productivity globally every year. But the good news is, mental health care is becoming less stigmatized and more widely accepted in various communities.

According to Melendres, you should consider seeing a therapist for issues like: 

  • A mental health concern that is causing distress in your life. 
  • Support navigating difficult emotions
  • Healing from past hurts or trauma
  • Struggling with your relationships
  • Learning strategies to cope with certain triggers
  • Overcoming deep-rooted issues from your past

When to see a coach.

According to Gozo a person is ready to work with a coach when you:

  • Can clearly identify a goal but need a coaching professional to lay out options of how to go about working toward your goal
  • May have a hazy goal you're committing to clarify

"My advice for anyone seeking a life coach is to seek out a coach that specializes in helping others achieve goals similar to yours," Gozo adds.

Can a therapist act as a life coach?

"A therapist absolutely can become trained and certified as a life coach and deliver coaching services," Gozo says. He adds that there are going to be similarities between therapy and coaching, as they both involve a co-collaborative relationship between client and professional, being results-oriented, establishing a safe space, proper validation, etc., "but each industry carries its own code of ethics, core competencies, do's and don'ts." 

From an ethical standpoint, Gozo adds, it is the professional's responsibility to:

  • Be properly trained/certified/credentialed
  • Thoroughly educate potential clients on what they offer
  • Allow you to choose which service you want
  • Unwaveringly maintain the integrity of the chosen professional relationship

"It is best practice for the licensed therapist to create a separate coaching business. Coaching services should be offered under a business entity that does not include therapy. This protects the public from exploitation, confusion, and potential harm," Melendres adds.

The bottom line.

Both coaching and therapy are tools for self-development. They provide great opportunities to have a professional guide you through the most challenging obstacles in your life. Depending on what you want to focus on, you can engage in either service one at a time or both at the same time if you have the means. 

On your search, keep in mind accreditation that you care about, the kind of sessions you want to participate in, and goals you want to achieve. If you're still debating whether or not to engage in either service, jump in anywhere and allow yourself to explore options with an exploratory call with each professional you're interested in working with.

Stephanie Catahan
Stephanie Catahan
mbg Contributor

Stephanie Catahan is a health coach, community leader, and writer. With a psychology degree from University of California, Berkeley and trained at Duke Integrative Medicine, she applies a holistic lens to wellness and works with clients on their mindsets to prevent burnout. As a community leader, her work is intersectional, guiding clients through the many layers of their life’s context to reach their own version of ultimate well-being. She has experience building wellness initiatives for employee resources groups at companies like Google.

Additionally, Catahan blends intuitive wellness with practical habits as a reiki practitioner and certified nutrition coach with Precision Nutrition. Catahan utilizes her wide array of experiences to inform her unique perspectives in her writing for mindbodygreen. She currently lives between Brooklyn and San Francisco.