Yes, they are different. Want the short explanation or the ridiculously long one?
Here’s the short version: The terms “therapy,” “counseling,” and “coaching” can each refer to one or more specific disciplines, or to innumerable nonspecific practices, AND they can all refer to something either inside OR outside of mental health which may or may not require credentialing or licensure. So if you aren’t sure what a person means when s/he uses one of these terms, ask, and don’t feel bad if you’re still confused. Keep asking. It’s that person’s job to make it clear.
Here’s a longer explanation (grab a snack and get comfy):
“Therapy” is short for “psychotherapy,” which is a general term for a service provided by mental health clinicians. Outside of the mental health world, “therapy” can also refer to physical therapy, occupational therapy, rehabilitation therapy, and more. When I say “I’m a therapist,” people often (rightly) ask me, “What kind?”
“Counseling” is frequently used synonymously with “therapy,” but be aware that it can mean “mental health counseling” (a specific discipline) or any number of other types of counseling, within or beyond mental health and with or without licensure. For example, attorneys (a licensed field) are frequently referred to as counselors and their work is considered legal counseling. On the other hand, I’ve met a number of people who self-identify as counselors and then quickly backpedal when they realize they’re talking to a real one. When I say “I’m a counselor,” people are once again correct to ask me what kind. My answer is “mental health”; a few of the many other legitimate answers are “marriage,” “family,” “pastoral,” and “addictions.”
Another source of confusion is the names of specific types of psychotherapy, many of which you’ve probably heard of, such as “cognitive-behavioral therapy” or CBT (and then there are “cognitive therapy” and “behavioral therapy,” both of which are different from CBT), “psychodynamic therapy,” “insight-oriented therapy,” “talk therapy,” and on and on. Some of these are umbrella terms for others: talk therapy and insight-oriented therapy cover most types of psychotherapy for adults, and CBT and psychodynamic are two of hundreds of approaches that a therapist can use.
Some therapists use one approach exclusively; others use several according to the clients’ needs in what is called an “eclectic” approach. If I were to say “I’m a Gestalt therapist,” that would mean I practice psychotherapy using only the Gestalt model (which I don’t; I’m eclectic.) By the way, “eclectic” can mean that the therapist has the ability to draw from several approaches skillfully and spontaneously, similar to a person who can speak multiple languages, or it can mean s/he is a jack of all trades and master of none. (Great, more ambiguity.)
Coaching is another term that can mean a specific discipline (e.g. athletic coach) or something more nebulous (life coach, performance coach, financial coach, etc.). There are people who have achieved coaching credentials, and then there are people who refer to themselves as coaches by virtue of their experience or training in a field relevant to their coaching (which might be legit, although it often irks those who have paid for formal coaching training). Unfortunately, there are some who use the term with no educational or other legitimate basis, because it’s an easy-entry type of self-employment and there is no law against it. Wanna be a life coach? Poof, you’re a life coach, which is a huge misfortune for legit life coaches.
Coaches are not therapists. Some people are BOTH a coach and therapist, but being one does not automatically accord the use of the other title. A properly skilled, trained, and credentialed coach is a helping professional whose role is different from that of a therapist: A rudimentary distinction is that coaches focus on the present and future, while therapists also consider the impact of the past. When I’m working with business clients within the scope of my industrial psychology degree, I call it either consulting or coaching … but not psychology, which would confuse it with therapy.
If you think this whole thing sounds like a combination of “Who’s on First?,” a Seinfeld episode, and a fever dream, I’m with you.