Counseling Psychology Definition

Division 17 of the American Psychological Association (APA), known today as the Society of Counseling Psychology, has endured several challenges in formulating and refining a description of what defines it as a specialty. Prior to the creation of Division 17, the core of counseling as a profession had primarily been in vocational guidance. In 1946, Division 17 of the APA, titled the Division of Counseling and Guidance, was created. Although counseling psychology became a separate division at this time, the division still lacked a defining description that separated it as a unique specialty. Since Division 12 (Clinical Psychology) was already well established, the Division of Counseling and Guidance was encouraged to establish standards for training and practice in the same way that clinical psychology had. It wasn’t until 1951 that the field of counseling psychology emerged as a separate specialty. It was during this year that the job title of counseling psychologist came into use.

In 1951, Division 17 sponsored the Northwestern Conference on the Standards for Training Counseling Psychologists. During this conference participants discussed defining descriptions of the roles and functions of counseling psychologists. It was also during this time that the name of Division 17 was changed to the Division of Counseling Psychology. Under this new title the description of counseling psychologists included the following:

Within this new definition, counseling psychologists extended their role beyond the primary confines of vocational guidance and attempted to help people with all types of life adjustments. However, there continued to be conflicts regarding the status and proper focus of this new specialty. Another conference held in Atlanta in 1987 provided increased clarity on the focus and status of counseling psychology. At this conference the “valued characteristics” of counseling psychology were explicated. These characteristics included an emphasis on positive mental health, strengths-based adjustment and coping, empowerment of individuals, advocacy, political involvement, and direct teaching of skills. Promotion of mental health was not only encouraged at the individual level but extended to groups and systems. Counseling psychology was considered to impact development across the entire life span, to address adjustment and satisfaction in vocational as well as personal spheres, and to incorporate prevention and remediation strategies. In addition, viewing people and their behavior within a sociocultural context influenced by variables of culture, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and sociohistorical perspectives was also considered of paramount importance.

In 1999, the APA published the Archival Description of Counseling Psychology that recognized and affirmed counseling psychology as an applied specialty. The current definition and parameters of the profession are described as follows:


  1. American Psychological Association, Division of Counseling and Guidance, Committee on Counselor Training. (1952). The practicum training of counseling psychologists. American Psychologist, 7, 182-188.
  2. American Psychological Association, Division of Counseling and Guidance, Committee on Counselor Training. (1952). Recommended standards for training counseling psychologists at the doctoral level. American Psychologist, 7, 175-181.
  3. American Psychological Association. (1999). Archival description of counseling psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 27, 589-592.
  4. Blocher, D. H. (2000). The evolution of counseling psychology. New York: Springer.
  5. Kagan, N. I., Armsworth, M. W., Altmaier, E. M., Dowed, E. T., Hansen, J. C., Mills, D. H., et al. (1988). Professional practice of counseling psychology in various settings. The Counseling Psychologist, 16, 347-365.
  6. Munley, M. H., Duncan, L. E., McDonnell, K. A., & Sauer, E. M. (2004). Counseling psychology in the United States of America. Counseling Psychology Quarterly, 17, 247-271.
  7. Pepinsky, H. B. (1984). A history of counseling psychology. In D. H. Blocher, (2000), The evolution of counseling psychology. New York: Springer.
  8. Rude, S. S., Weissberg, M., & Gazda, G. M. (1988). Looking into the future: Themes from the third national conference for counseling psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 16, 423-430.
  9. Super, D. E. (1955). Transition: From vocational guidance to counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2, 3-9. Whiteley, J. N. (1984). Counseling psychology: A historical perspective. The Counseling Psychologist, 12, 3-109.

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