What are the distinct differences and similarities between therapists and coaches?

I get this question, I’d say every other month, because I am both.

I view myself as sort of a hybrid model if you will. I have a master’s degree in social work with over 20 years of experience in private practice counseling. I am also a life coach with three certifications so I do feel that I am equipped to address some of the questions that people ask me from time to time.

Let’s go through quickly some differences between a therapist and a coach.

The first that I think about is regulatory standards.

If you are a therapist then you are required to be licensed and abide by certain ethics in the state in which you live. The state of Ohio, where I live, is regulating therapists, to have passed a licensure exam, completed a certain level of education. In my case a master’s or above and we have to be supervised by another social worker with the highest standard for at least two years. 

There’s a lot of regulation when it comes to being a therapist which I think makes really good sense. Every two years you have to keep your licensure active by submitting continuing education courses. So every two years I have to take at least 30 hours of CEUS that are approved by the state in order to maintain my license.

A coach doesn’t have to do any of that. As it stands today in 2021 there is no regulation for coaching. However, there are many life coaching organizations, schools that are certifying coaches in their methodologies. Sometimes they have their own standards that you have to maintain to keep your certification as a coach but those are not regulated by any state boards, city or country. There’s no involvement from the government at this point in time.

Now, let’s look at some locations and the format in which each provider helps somebody. I would say there’s so much overlap because these are both helping professionals but the format can look and feel different.

As a therapist, I traditionally see people face to face except when the pandemic started, I meet them on video. For the most part, when you’re in therapy with a therapist you’re going to see that person in person or in their office.

Whereas with a coach, I have been on phone calls with coaches. I have been coached on zoom, face time or pretty much any other format you can think of. So coaching can be done in a variety of different formats that feels good to the coach and to the client.

If we think about the sort of different scopes of practice.

Many therapists will focus on substance abuse or on marriage and family, they’ll do couples counseling primarily. For me, I only see adults. So if a child or adolescent comes to me, I refer them to a therapist that primarily sees adolescents and children.

Therapists tend to have a scope of practice and operate within that and refer to other therapists who have a different scope. While Coaches traditionally also have what we call niches. Many coaches will see and address any sort of client that wants to take their life to the next level.

In the area of payments, some therapists take insurance. They have to go through a process called Credentialing and Paneling where the insurance company really cross-checks the therapists to make sure that they’re licensed and have all the credentials to be on the insurance panel. There are also therapists who only take private pay or do a combination of both. However, a coach does not take insurance and all of it is out of pocket. There’s no insurance company involved at all.

I think we also need to talk about mental health conditions.

I do not like to use the word disorder but therapists are trained to diagnose people. We have a manual the DSM in which we are able to assess and diagnose clients who meet criteria for specific mental health conditions whereas coaches do not have that ability to do so and often do not work with somebody that wants to really address a mental health condition.

If you are not functioning really well in one area of your life, for example, you’re having a lot of panic disorder and you’re avoiding going to certain meetings at work or social obligations because that anxiety is really taken over. Then that might be somebody that wants to see a therapist because it’s starting to interrupt their activities of daily living.

Whereas a coach really wants to see somebody that’s already got the baseline pretty much covered. They want to talk about a big goal or a business venture or some mental block that’s keeping them from going to this next level.

Therapists are kind of below and coaches are up high but having said that I’ve worked with a lot of therapists who are trained in solution-focused techniques and are really doing primarily a lot of goal setting and future-oriented therapy. However, they are trained to talk about trauma and things in childhood whereas many coaches are not. I do think that that’s an important dynamic to understand and realize if you’re trying to pick between the two.

There’s a lot of crossovers, therapists talk about the future. They talk about goals but they are trained and often do talk about people’s pasts. A coach is really talking about the present and the future but there’s a lot of overlap. I see that many people are in therapy talking about their goals and their futures and sometimes go into the past but I think those are key distinctions if you are looking or trying to decide, should I be talking more to a therapist or to a coach?

I really think the best is having both.

If someone has a history of depression and they have a therapist on board, maybe even a psychiatrist, and then they also have a coach because they’re talking about maybe a business goal that they have. It’s awesome when the two providers connect and talk together about the client so that everyone is on the same page and complementing one another.

I hope this is helpful. If you have any specific questions about the differences between a therapist and a life coach, I invite you to schedule a connection call with me. I’d be more than happy to address those because I’m practising both.

When in doubt, I think having both is not a bad way to go.

Have a great week everyone!

Mind Your Strength,

Melanie Shmois

Melanie Shmois, MSSA, LISW-S

Melanie Shmois, MSSA, LISW-S, is a licensed social worker, holding a Master’s Degree (MSSA) from Case Western Reserve University and a B.A. in Sociology with a minor in Spanish. After spending 2 decades helping others achieve their mental and personal goals, Melanie worked with Master Coach Instructor, Brooke Castillo, and became a certified Life and Weight Coach through the Life Coach School.


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