Differences Between Coaching and Psychotherapy

Should you work with a therapist or a coach?

Photo Credit: Getty Images / Craig Smallish.

If you are interested in changing your life for the better, speaking with someone on the outside of your life can be extremely helpful. Psychotherapy and coaching are two services that have helped countless people live their best lives, but they are often confused, as there is a great deal of overlap between each of these fields. In this article, we will discuss five differences between coaching and psychotherapy, so that you can decide whether it makes sense to find a psychotherapist and/or a coach to help you along your journey.


Psychotherapists treat mental illness; coaches do not

One of the most important distinguishing factors between psychotherapists and coaches is that psychotherapists are trained to help people who are facing mental illnesses, and coaches are not. Even though a great deal of stigma exists around mental illness, mental health problems are more common than ever, impacting about one in four Americans at some point in their lifetimes. If you are seeking help for a common mental health problem such as depression, anxiety or Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychotherapy is the way to go.

Past vs. future orientation

Generally speaking, coaching is more focused on helping you achieve your future goals, while psychotherapy tends to have more of a past and present focus. That being said, many coaches should be able to help you understand how the past contributes to your present, and psychotherapists can help you achieve your future goals.

Even so, the focus on psychotherapy is more on healing from the past, while the focus on coaching is more on getting you to where you wish to be next.  

Differences in payment

Because psychotherapy is about treating a mental health problem, it may be covered by your insurance company if you meet the criteria for a mental health disorder and the insurance company deems psychotherapy medically necessary to help you get better.

Coaching is typically not covered by health insurance because the focus of coaching is not on treating an illness. 


In order to legally provide psychotherapy, one requires an advanced degree and a state license to practice. To obtain a license to practice psychotherapy, one needs to meet certain criteria which include an exam and a certain number of supervised hours of practice. While there are many certification programs for coaching, there are no governing boards for life or success coaches. Despite a lack of a governing board in the field of coaching, many coaches offer tremendous services and some originally practiced as psychotherapists.

Offering of services

Psychotherapists face more restrictions than coaches in terms of where and how they are able to offer services. They must be licensed in the state in which they practice, for example, while coaches can work throughout all of the United States and internationally. Psychotherapy is more traditionally offered face to face in an office, while coaching happens frequently over the phone or via the internet.

Even so, some psychotherapists offer services over the phone or via the internet and some coaches have offices in which they see clients. Some coaches choose to meet with clients in a public setting, which is more rare for psychotherapists.

The above differences are generalizations, and do not apply to all psychotherapists and coaches. In reality, the differences between two psychotherapists or two coaches may be greater than the difference between a coach and a psychotherapist, depending on who they are. If you are not clear on whether or how to choose a psychotherapist or coach, interview a few from each profession and ask them about their approaches. Do your research to make sure that their backgrounds are legitimate, and choose the one that feels right for you.

Congratulations on taking this step. Successful people need support.


National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 

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