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Coaching vs. therapy: Do you need a coach, a therapist, or both?

July 21, 2022 - 20 min read

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Coach vs. therapist 

Mental fitness vs. mental health 

When to seek support from a coach vs. therapist

No matter what, a coach can help 

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

 Carl Jung, psychiatrist 

We’re all on a journey. But the journey to self-actualization isn’t a linear, check-the-box type of path. 

We show up as whole people in our careers, our personal lives, and our relationships. We each bring a unique perspective, background, and experience to our own journey of bettering ourselves.

At different times and different stages, we need different support. Oftentimes, this depends on what is happening in our lives and what we’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes we’re bettering, sometimes we’re surviving, sometimes we’re struggling.

You could be looking for support for yourself or trying to support a team member or an entire organization. But when it comes to finding the right support, it helps to understand what support looks like. For many, it starts with this question. What’s the difference between coaching and therapy? 

Coaching versus therapy may appear binary in nature. It can feel like a forked road, a choice that leads you down a singular path. 

But when we dig into what coaching versus therapy really means, there are quite a few gray areas. It’s not as clear-cut as it seems. In fact, paths can cross. Paths can intersect and work alongside one another. And sometimes, you can hop off of one path and follow the other. Oftentimes, these paths lead to the same destination: a better you. 

Let’s discuss key differences between coaching and therapy. We’ll also talk about what it means to take care of your mental health versus strengthening your mental fitness. And hopefully, you’ll walk away from this article with a clear idea of what path you want and what you need. Because when it comes to coaching vs. therapy, you have more options than you may think. 

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Coach vs. therapist 

Before we get into what path is best for you, let’s understand what we mean by coaching versus therapy. Here are seven key characteristics to keep in mind. 

Therapists treat mental illness 

Therapists are trained mental health professionals with the goal of treating mental illness. In the last few years, we’ve seen a brimming mental health crisis. The onset of COVID-19 brought the mental health conversation to the forefront, which has helped to reduce some stigma (though we still have plenty of work to do).  

Let’s take a look at the data. First, it’s estimated that one in four people live with a diagnosed mental health condition. Recently, it was reported that 60% of college students are living with mental health issues.

Anxiety disorders, while highly treatable, affect around 19% of the US population. When we look at anxiety among adolescents, that number rises to nearly 32% of US teens experiencing anxiety. 

We know that mental health is a spectrum. Some people exist in more severe areas while others are experiencing moderate or mild symptoms of mental health issues. Regardless of where you are on the scale, if you’re living with a mental illness, enlist the support of a therapist. 

A trained therapist will be able to help devise a personalized mental health care plan for you. For example, I was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety in 2020. Sometimes, I also experience depressive episodes. My mental health ebbed and flowed as I went through different experiences in life, scaling up and down that spectrum. 

For a period of time, my therapist prescribed medication to help me weather challenging points in my life. But today, I’m medication-free and feel much better equipped to handle what life throws at me.

Between working with my coach on how to proactively care for my mental fitness and working with my therapist on how to take care of my mental health, I have a multi-pronged, personalized approach to how to better myself. 

What can make this more confusing is that both psychologists and licensed mental health counselors may provide therapy or be referred to as a therapist.

In addition, the terminology, requirements for licensing, and the ability to prescribe medication vary from state to state. In most states, therapists cannot prescribe medication unless they are medical doctors (typically a psychiatrist).

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Coaches build mental fitness 

At BetterUp, we’re in the business of building mental fitness. Our professional certified coaches help you strengthen your mental fitness through coaching sessions. 

But what is mental fitness? And what good does mental fitness do? At BetterUp, we define mental fitness as a proactive approach and practice that ignites well-being, performance, and growth. It’s accessible to everyone. And because mental fitness is for everyone, everyone can benefit from having a coach in the corner of their growth journey. 

In a time where uncertainty, change, and unpredictability are at all-time highs, we know it can feel like the world is spinning around you. An investment in your mental fitness is an investment in you — a practice that will help cushion the steepest of falls and allow you to reach new levels of greatness. 

Let’s take a look at the science behind coaching. We’ve studied the impact of mental fitness and coaching on our Members. In fact, we’ve found that a mentally fit workforce reports these stats

  • 34% more engaged at work
  • 22% more creative at work
  • 24% higher social connection  
  • 28% higher meaning and purpose
  • 65% greater happiness
  • 59% higher life satisfaction
  • 43% higher optimism

Beyond that, we also took a look at people who start out in the “I’m feeling stuck” stage (low overall well-being). Of those who started coaching with BetterUp, 77% significantly improved their well-being after just 3-4 months

If mental health is a spectrum, we know that pre-pandemic, 55% of people are languishing. In other words, there’s a massive middle, an entire segment of the population that’s experiencing an absence of mental health. But with BetterUp, you can build your mental fitness to slide up that scale instead of slipping down it. It starts with a good coach. 

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Therapists require more education and credentialing  

Because psychotherapy requires medical professionals to diagnose and treat mental health problems, there are additional license requirements. This is another key difference between a coach and a therapist. Psychotherapists generally have licensing boards to pass, some specific to the state in which they practice. 

Therapists and psychotherapists have higher levels of professional education, like a master’s degree or even a doctorate degree. Some are licensed clinical social workers, like my therapist. While each training program differs based on specialization, therapists require higher credentials. 

Most coaches are trained, licensed professionals 

There are many types of coaches. Don’t worry: professional coaches don’t go without professional training. But there are different credential requirements (and governing bodies) when it comes to the world of coaching. 

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) reported there are about 71,000 licensed coaches globally according to its 2020 study. And of those 71,000 coaches, 99% reported completing coach-specific training. 

At BetterUp, our coaches are professionally trained and certified coaches. We’re building the world’s largest network of certified coaching. At BetterUp, our coaches are mental fitness professionals.

A science-backed approach to coaching, BetterUp looks at evidence-based methodologies of positive psychology. These science-backed methods help us to guide coaching training. We also run certificate-style courses accredited by the International Coach Federation. These courses help coaches continue to grow their skills. 

But coaching is not a substitute for therapy. Coaching can certainly feel like a therapeutic relationship. After all, you're working one-on-one to solve your problems. But if you’re living with a mental health condition, also seek out the support of a therapist

Coaches and therapists have their own specialties and areas of expertise 

Coaches and therapists overlap in some areas. For example, coaches and therapists both have specialties and different areas of expertise. 

For therapists, different types of therapy and specialties include: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) 
  • Talk therapy 
  • EMDR therapy (including past trauma) 
  • Depression, anxiety, and anxiety disorders 
  • Marriage and family therapy 
  • Addiction and eating disorders 
  • Significant life milestones or transitions (including grief, loss, and trauma) 

At BetterUp, different specialties include: 

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Coaches and therapists both work on creating long-lasting behavior changes

While modalities and approaches will differ, coaches and therapists can share the same goal. Both types of professionals put together action plans. And with these habits, clients create long-lasting behavior changes

Of course, each scenario is addressed differently. For example, I set goals for myself with both my therapist and my coach. My goal was simple. I wanted to live a happier, healthier life, one where I could achieve my life goals. 

In therapy, we work on addressing my automatic negative thoughts. I still do EMDR therapy on a weekly basis to help alleviate the impact of trauma and reduce my triggers. And for a period of time, I was prescribed medication. 

In coaching, we work on addressing limiting beliefs and imposter syndrome. My coach challenges me to shift my perspective, especially when it comes to self-compassion and my inner critic. 

Coaches and therapists are both invested in helping you better yourself  

Lastly, coaches and therapists share a common goal. They are both invested in helping you better yourself. 

Therapy sessions and coaching sessions alike are designed to help you build the skills you need to thrive. And no matter where you are in your life journey, everyone can benefit from support. 

Larry McAllister, VP of Global Talent, NetApp, shares how a whole-person approach has helped NetApp's workforce thrive. 

Mental fitness vs. mental health 

We’ve talked some about the difference between coaching vs. therapy. But when we peel back the layers underneath, it comes down to mental health vs. mental fitness. Let’s take a minute to determine what we mean by mental health.

Mental health 

  • Mental health is a spectrum and people exist up and down the spectrum of mental health 
  • Some people live with severe mental health conditions and illnesses while others manage more mild or moderate symptoms 
  • One in 4 people live with a diagnosable mental health condition in the U.S.  
  • Mental health and illness require clinical care and attention
  • Mental health can be improved by building a strong mental fitness but mental health and mental fitness are not synonymous 

Mental fitness 

  • Mental fitness is a proactive practice that ignites well-being, performance, and growth
  • Mental fitness helps you become more resilient, realize your potential, and thrive 
  • Mental fitness is a proactive approach to caring for your mental health 
  • Mental fitness is a routine that can be accessible no matter someone’s experience with mental health and self-improvement, abilities, or access to resources
  • Mental fitness does not replace the need for clinical mental health care 
  • Mental fitness aims to give everyone more tools to help support themselves 
  • Through diverse mental fitness routines, you can build catered programs to support your well-being 

BetterUp’s Chief Impact Officer Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex sat down with Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and BetterUp Science Advisor, Blu Mendoza, BetterUp Member, and Chloe Kim, professional snowboarder and Olympian, to talk about mental fitness

When to seek support from a coach vs. therapist

Your health challenges will help guide what type of mental fitness or mental health care to seek out. Here’s how to know when you need support from a coach versus a therapist. 

For a trained mental health professional 

  • You live with a mental health condition (i.e. depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, or others) 
  • You require mental health treatment or medication from a healthcare professional 
  • You want better ways to care for your mental health in general
  • You’re experiencing more frequent symptoms of poor mental health that need addressing 

For a coach 

  • You’re looking to build a mental fitness practice as a supplement to your therapy practice 
  • You are looking for career advice, grief support, or help to address burnout 
  • You’re seeking ways to battle caregiver fatigue 
  • You want better techniques for managing stress 
  • You want to invest in your physical and nutritional health 
  • You want to be proactive about how you care for your mental health
  • You’re looking to enhance your inclusive leadership skills 
  • You want to become a better communicator 
  • You want to invest in your personal growth and professional development 
  • You want to perform better at work  
  • You want to become a better overall leader 

No matter what, a coach can help 

The question of a coach versus a therapist doesn’t have to be binary. With BetterUp, you can take control of your mental fitness journey. A coach will help you create a customized plan that works for you. 

And if you live with a mental health condition, supplementing your mental health care plan with a coach can only help. You’ll be better equipped to cushion any bumps along the road, no matter what stage of life you’re in. 

If you're looking to galvanize a thriving workforce, coaching is ready for you. With BetterUp, you're making an investment in your people and their well-being. Building a mentally fit workforce starts with access to virtual coaching

Get started today. Together, we can unlock your full potential

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Published July 21, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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