Coach or Psychotherapist?

Coach or Psychotherapist?

Coach or Psychotherapist?

Do You need a Coach or a Psychotherapist?
By S. Anne Marie Archer

The views shared in this blog post are not professional. They are the opinion of the author.

Do you need a coach or do you need a psychotherapist (“therapist”)?

You’ve determined that you need some support in figuring out some aspect of your life or career or, something in your life is falling apart or not going well and you need help sorting it out. How do you determine whether you need a coach or a therapist?

How do you answer this question so that you engage the right type of person to support your needs?

I’ve spent some time researching this subject because it’s an issue that comes up often when I talk to coaches. Where is the bright line? When should a client be referred to a mental health professional rather than a coach?

There are lots of debates going on right now about whether some life coaches are crossing the line into therapy and whether it is ethical for them to do so. I’m not going to get into that debate but what I would like to do is to share what I’ve learned about the difference between a coach and a therapist so that those that read this blog post can make their own determination about what is best for them.

Therapy is quite popular nowadays as many famous people are speaking very openly about being in therapy and engaging a therapist. But please understand, whether you need to be in therapy is a very personal decision that should be made by an individual based on their own needs. It should not be something you do because it is trendy or hip or your favorite celebrity is doing it.

The same can be said about coaching. I have personally found coaching to be very beneficial in terms of helping me decide how I wanted to proceed relevant to my career as well as the direction of my life but it's a choice you should make based on your needs.

In this blog, I will share what I have learned through my own research about the key differences between a therapist and a coach. I will also share links to some articles, that I found useful, at the end so that you can read them yourself if you would like.

Because we are in a world where everyone and anyone can call themselves a “Coach“ specifically and especially in the United States, it’s important for individuals to know the difference and know when they might in fact need to engage a therapist instead of a coach, or when they might need to engage a therapist along with a coach.

This is not going to be an exhaustive review but instead an overview that gives you some key things to think about when determining whether you should engage with a coach or a therapist or both.

As I did my research about the difference between therapy and coaching, I found three key areas: 1) Training and licensing requirements, 2) approach/orientation, and 3) payment for services.

Training and licensing requirements.
To be a coach you need no formal training. There are certifying bodies such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF) among several but there is no requirement that a person is certified or receive any particular training before they hold themselves out to the public to be a life coach, a business coach, or any other kind of coach. So, it is up to the consumer to do their own homework to determine whether or not they want to hire a person to provide a specific coaching service. I wrote a previous blog post for this site about how to find of course that is right for you I highly recommend that you read it. You can link to it here.

On the other hand, psychotherapists (“Therapists”) are required to have specific training and licensing before they can hold themselves out to the public as mental health service providers. Some may be trained as psychologists others as psychiatrists others as social workers but they are all required to not only be degreed but licensed at the state, and sometimes even federal level.

Coaches are not required to have any type of licensing or training though many do have extensive training and coaching experience it is not required. Many coaches are also certified in specific areas like executive coaching or life coaching or business coaching but it is not required, that is a key thing to be aware of, and as there is no central certifying body for coaches. There are multiple certifying bodies for coaches but none of the certifications necessarily hold more weight than the other though some are more respected than others. But the truth is that Coaches can tout themselves as being “certified” when they have done no actual work beyond paying a fee on the internet to get their certification. So, make sure the certifying body is reputable like ICF, for example.

It is also important to note that in some new and emerging coaching specialty areas there is no certification available. For example, Career Break Coaching or Expat coaching. Some of these coaches may be certified in other areas but they may not be certified in the specific area they are providing coaching to you because it’s not available yet. That’s not a bad thing, just something for you to understand. It is then very important for you to get as much information as you can from your prospective coach and about the coach before you hire them, as I laid out in my previous blog post. You may also find that many people who call themselves coaches are actually in fact consultants or advisers. So, it’s very important to ask questions and get information so that you have clarity about the coaching service that you are buying and receiving.

Approach or orientation
A key difference between a coach and a therapist is their approach or orientation to helping a client solve an issue. Coaches usually work with their clients to reach future goals while therapists spend a lot of time looking into the past to understand where a mental illness/disorder may have developed in the present.

Therapists are able to make a diagnosis of a mental health disorder/illness and then make recommendations for treatment. Coaches cannot make diagnoses or recommendations for the treatment of a mental illness/disorder. Unless the coach is also a licensed mental health service provider, to do so could be a violation of a local, state, or federal law.

With therapy, the patient or client has a diagnosed mental illness that requires treatment; or they are suffering from some other issue that is based or relevant to mental health/wellness. A therapist will often delve into the past to determine how best to support the client's treatment. They will look at family history and family history of the specific illness or like illnesses etc. So, a lot of their work involves looking backward to support what needs to happen going forward. But the treatment is often rooted in supporting the cure or stabilization of a specific mental illness. The therapist may also recommend prescription drug treatment or therapy or refer the patient or client to receive a prescription drug or therapy if the therapist themselves are not licensed to write prescriptions.

A coach is generally hired to help a person meet a future goal. While their past life history and challenges may inform the approach to helping them, the coach is not required to delve into their mental history. While aspects of their client's mental state may come into play it is not central. Coaches are not licensed to prescribe drug therapy, unless the coach is also a licensed Psychiatrist, though they may refer a client to a therapist if they see signs that mental health treatment is needed or they should, from an ethical standpoint, make such a referral.

Another key area of difference relevant to coaching versus therapy is how you pay for the service. With therapy, you can often get your health insurance to reimburse or cover the cost of your treatment. With coaching the cost is always going to be out of pocket unless it is covered by your employer. Sometimes you can get certain types of coaching (executive, career development, and/or life) covered via your professional development benefit. Consult your Human Resources department to see if this is a benefit provided by your employer.

In conclusion, my key advice is when determining whether you need a coach a therapist, or both, focus on your goals for the experience. Are you seeking support managing an existing mental illness or do you need support creating a life plan? If you seeking assistance setting goals and plans to improve your future life and self, then a coach may be the right path for you. If you are seeking assistance dealing with emotional trauma or a mental illness a therapist might be the better choice for you. If you are seeking to deal with the emotional trauma that might be blocking your ability to move your life goals forward, perhaps you need both a therapist and a life coach.

Ultimately you should do your homework, and then choose the path and approach that is best for you. An informed consumer is always in the best position to make the best decision.

Looking for a Life or other type of coach who can help you get on the right path for your life? You can Find a Coach right here The BlackWomen Coach™ Directory. Search for and find a coach who will understand you and your lived experience by searching at the link HERE. then scroll down to find a coach based on the category you are seeking.

If you are interested in learning more about understanding the difference between a coach and a therapist, here are links to a couple of articles I found helpful:

Should You See A Therapist or A Life Coach?

Executive Coach or Therapist? It’s Getting Harder to Tell the Difference

5 Differences between Coaching and Psychotherapy

About The Author

S. Anne Marie Archer is the founder and creator of The BlackWomen Coach™ Directory. She is an HR consultant who specializes in advising her clients on exiting discriminatory and illegal hostile work environments with separations with severance (their “coins”) so that they can engage in the radical redesign of their lives. You can learn more about her work, or reach out to her for HR advice and HR consultations by visiting her website



Author Avatar

About Author