The 9 Differences Between a Coach and Therapist

Nowadays, there are so many different types of mental health and wellness professionals out there, all with different titles, focuses, and areas of expertise. While this is amazing in that it means there is support to be found for anyone, no matter their struggle or preferred method of recovery, it can sometimes be overwhelming to sort through the options available and find the one that is the best fit for you and your needs.


To provide some clarity, I’ve broken down nine distinct differences between therapists and life coaches. Both provide valuable services, just not in the same way.


1. Diagnosis

A psychotherapist can provide diagnosis using the DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual). A primary focus of psychotherapy is the identification and diagnosis of mental disorders. A life coach does not diagnose.



2. Self-Assessment

A psychotherapist can provide diagnosis independent of the client's self-assessment. This function is recognized by third parties, such as the courts. A life coach, on the other hand, relies on the client's self-assessment.



3. Treatment

A psychotherapist can use diagnoses to treat clinical disorders like anxiety and depression. A life coach does not treat, claim that it is treatment, or use the word treatment.



4. Types of Goals

A psychotherapist’s goals typically involve treatment of a mental disorder by the therapist. A life coach’s goals typically focus on quality of life.



5. Setting the Goals

In psychotherapy, the goals may be set by the therapist after diagnosis. Goals in coaching are typically self-identified by the client.



6. Power Dynamics

Psychotherapy typically involves recognized power differentials between client and therapist. This vulnerability of clients gives psychotherapists legal and ethical responsibilities. Coaching is in the nature of a supportive peer-to-peer relationship with the results evaluated by the client so as to avoid these power differentials.



7. Main Focus

The focus of much psychotherapy is intervention by the therapist. The focus of much coaching is the teaching of self-help tools.



8. Primary Care

Psychotherapy may be provided by primary caregivers such as hospitals. Coaching is rarely associated with primary care.



9. Referrals

Life coaches are required to refer clients to psychotherapists or psychiatrists if the client's problem is outside their scope of practice. Psychotherapists are those to whom clients are referred.



When looking for support, try to understand what specifically it is you’re looking for. Do you want a definitive diagnosis based on an expert’s assessment, and a treatment plan specifically focusing on that disorder? Then a therapist is likely a good fit for you.

Or would you prefer someone to share you self-assessment with who can provide you with tools aiming to help you achieve a better overall quality of life or specific goal, not limited to one mental health issue? If so, a life or health coach may be the way to go.

No matter which you try, take comfort in the knowledge that if it turns out to not be the right fit, there are other options out there. Just because one may not be right for you doesn’t mean you have to struggle alone.

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©2016 by Sarah Speers