Overview of Clinical Psychology, Social Work, Psychotherapy & Counselling
Clinical Psychologist, social worker, psychotherapist, and counsellor -- what is the difference? Generally, they all address mental health concerns through talk therapy in the context of a professional therapeutic relationship with individual clients or in groups. Use of these professional titles is restricted to those who have met the educational and experiential requirements and registered with one of the regulating bodies (usually called colleges).
A person can also be a member of more than one college and therefore use each professional title as appropriate. The colleges protect clients by requiring ongoing professional development, enforcing ethical practice standards, and disciplining members. They also protect members by providing legal advice and advocacy, and access to private practice insurance in some cases.
Differences can also be found in the specific educational requirements, supervised experience, and the nature of client concerns addressed. This tip sheet clarifies important distinctions between these professions and provides links to further research the requirements for entering them.
What can I do to get into these programs?
To explore these intense helping professions and careers and to gain entry to clinical training programs, it is essential to have a fair amount of relevant experience. The sooner you can start to explore opportunities, the better. Admissions committees want to see candidates who have worked with vulnerable populations. The closer you can come to helping people with mental health concerns the better. Think about vulnerable populations and issues you care about and seek opportunities there. Programs also expect candidates to have reflected deeply on their experiences and themselves to be able to articulate why they want to do this type of work and how they know they are suited to it. Start early and reflect often on your experiences. Here are some ideas:
- Telephone or e-platform help or distress line volunteer
- Youth program leader for street-involved youth
- Addictions or mental health program assistant
- Receptionist for a counselling centre or psychologist’s private practice
- Peer mental health support worker/blogger/advocate
- Job or recreation coach working with mental health populations
- Residential women's / homeless shelter advocate or assistant
- Aboriginal friendship centre volunteer
Training in non-violent crisis intervention, suicide prevention or mental health first aid, client needs assessment or counselling basics are also very valuable to build skills for these careers.
1. Clinical Psychology
Clinical Psychology is a branch of psychology that is concerned with the treatment and assessment of mental health illness. Clinical Psychologists are required to complete a related Masters and Ph.D. program to practice in the province of Ontario that must be research-based and subsequently have a thesis component. They not only provide the controlled act of Psychotherapy like Psychotherapists, Social workers, and Nurses do, but they also complete assessments to diagnosis individuals with mental health disorders using the DSM-5. These individuals are governed by the College of Psychologists of Ontario (CPO).
2. Social Work
Social work is a profession concerned with helping individuals, families, groups and communities to enhance their individual and collective well-being. It aims to help people develop their skills and abilities to use their own resources and those of the community to resolve problems. Clinical social workers use a variety of mental health interventions (talk therapy) and community-based social workers focus on social interventions at the community level. Clinical social workers have the professional designation of Registered Social Worker (RSW). Only those registered with the college as RSW can call themselves social workers. Read more about the registration requirements for social work here:
Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers: http://www.ocswssw.org
Agencies that hire social workers may prefer applicants who have earned a master’s degree (MSW), which is generally required to advance to senior positions and perform clinical work such as psychotherapy.
Most social work programs prefer candidates from sociology, women and gender studies, or programs with an anti-oppression or critical social enquiry basis. Many have specific social science course requirements as well.
Ontario Faculties of Social Work
The following universities offer master’s degree programs open to those who do not have a Bachelor of Social Work as their undergraduate degree:
- Carleton University School of Social Work
- McMaster University School of Social Work
- York University School of Social Work
- Western University School of Social Work (King’s University College)
- University of Windsor School of Social Work
- Wilfred Laurier University Faculty of Social Work
- University of Toronto Faculty of Social Work
- Toronto Metropolitan University (Faculty of Community and Social Services)
For a full listing of Canadian universities offering BSW/MS /PhD programs in Social Work, visit:
A related career to social work is social service worker (SSW).
Read about SSW careers and training programs: Ontario Social Service Worker Association
2. Psychotherapy Overview
Registered Psychotherapists (RPs) practice a highly interpersonal process that focuses on enabling human change by addressing areas such as personal growth, relationships, trauma, mental health, and psychological illness or distress. They are registered by the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario (CRPO) and, like social workers and psychologists, are permitted to perform the controlled act of psychotherapy - which is legally restricted to certain professions only. It is defined as treating, by means of psychotherapy technique, delivered through a therapeutic relationship, an individual’s serious disorder of thought, cognition, mood, emotional regulation, perception or memory that may seriously impair the individual’s judgement, insight, behaviour, communication or social functioning.
Psychotherapy - Useful Links
- For psychotherapy education programs recognized in Ontario (by the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario)
- For psychotherapy education programs in Canada and abroad
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.
While counselling has much overlap with psychotherapy and social work, counsellors registered with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) cannot provide clinical mental health interventions as defined under the Controlled Act of Psychotherapy. Certification with the CCPA supports those doing general, non-clinical counselling that does not seek to treat serious mental health disorders. Many counsellors, working in non-profit agencies or educational settings such as schools and colleges usually concentrate more on the everyday problems and difficulties of life than on the more severe psychological disorders. For those wishing to work at this level, the title Canadian Certified Counsellor as offered by the CCPA may be adequate.
Many of the same programs which cover the educational requirements to become a registered psychotherapist also prepare people for careers as counsellors. Counsellors may also acquire their skills in other graduate programs, or within the Ontario College system and in combination with experience at the level of counselling. If your vision for your future career is doing clinical therapy as defined by the Controlled Act of Psychotherapy, you will need a master's-level accredited education and registration with a college (social workers or CPRO as discussed above) rather than membership in an association like the CCPA.
Counselling - Useful Links
Clinical training in counselling can also be provided under the umbrella of spiritual counselling and pastoral counselling, offered generally at Christian post-secondary institutions and seminary schools. Here is an example at Saint Paul University.
Marriage and family therapist is another related and overlapping career that has a strong focus on relationships, communication, and family systems. It has its own association, the Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Since continuing education and skills enhancement is required by all the colleges and associations referenced above, education can also entail shorter trainings offered by continuing education companies specializing in mental health and counselling through continuing studies departments. Here is a site that lists such courses.
University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies also provides some options for courses in counselling and related helping fields.
There is a myriad of ways to launch a career in mental health and human services without achieving a master's degree or having clinical qualifications. Read more about such careers at Community Mental Health Careers.
Explore the Ontario Colleges' post-diploma programs designed for university and college graduates in the Education, Community and Social Services section, and change the program level to ‘Post-Diploma’.
Not sure if this path is for you or need help finding the right experiences? Book a Career Counselling Appointment at 905-828-5451
Information is subject to change. Always check with original sources.
Updated July 2023