The role of clinical mental health counselors

The job description of ‘counselor’ covers many different specializations, but generally the role is regarded as a collaboration between a client and a professional in which the counselor helps the individual to identify solutions and goals to help deal with problems that are causing emotional issues and impacting on their life. It could involve improving communication skills, facilitating coping mechanisms, promoting positive behavior change or strengthening self-esteem.

The remit of counselors, therapists and psychologists are sometimes confused by those not involved within that working world. Basically, counselors are focused on general therapy that could apply psychologist’s research, whereas psychologists tend to focus on evaluation, providing interventions for patients with specific disorders by utilizing diagnostic test administration and consultation with healthcare professionals. 

Counseling is usually focused on a specific issue for a limited amount of time, whereas therapy is designed to assist clients in understanding themselves, their patterns of thought, feelings and behaviors.

Clinical mental health counseling

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults in the US live with a mental illness, which in 2020 was 52.9 million people ranging in severity from moderate to severe. This indicates there is a real requirement for more and more people with the right qualifications to help those in need. 

Clinical mental health counselors provide guidance to people who are seeking help with issues that affect their lives and how they function. These can include personal, marital, behavioral, vocational or rehabilitative problems. Certified counselors can have expertise in certain areas such as family and couples counseling, addiction counseling, or working with victims of trauma and abuse.

Combining traditional psychotherapy with practical problem solving, the counselor aims to create a realistic path for positive change and the resolution of problems. They coordinate with social workers, psychiatrists, long-term treatment services and support groups to design and help implement care strategies. The overall goal, whatever the issue the client is dealing with, is to help guide clients to mental wellness.

Types of mental health counseling

There are many opportunities to help clients in a variety of mental health specializations. Substance abuse counselors, for example, work with clients with chemical dependencies on drugs, alcohol or other substances. As well as working with the client, the counselor may also work with their families, and may be involved in working with the client on court-ordered treatment, interventions and programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Behavior disorder counselors can help their clients deal with behavior disorders that can disrupt home lives, school or work, which may mean attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or conduct disorder (CD).

Licensed mental health counselors (LMHC) are expected to address a range of mental health concerns, developing treatment plans and coping mechanisms to help clients learn to live with their diagnoses.

Mental health counselors can work in many settings, including inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, correctional facilities, hospitals and private practices. Some addiction counselors work in residential treatment centers where clients live during their recovery period.

Qualities of a good mental health counselor

Mental health counselors will deal with people who are at their most vulnerable, grappling with things that are impacting their lives negatively and seeking solutions. Therefore, as well the academic qualifications required to practice, soft skills and experience are equally as important.

Interpersonal skills and the ability to develop a strong working relationship with clients is crucial to encouraging them to respond to strategies and treatment. In counseling, this is known as ‘therapeutic rapport’. This aims to make each patient feel respected and safe and is important as the whole process asks them to share their most personal thoughts, fears and concerns with their counselor.  

Good active listening skills are vital, both verbal and non-verbal, meaning a counselor will not only listen closely but will also ask questions to ensure there is mutual understanding, plus restating and rephrasing the client’s words to verify the full comprehension of both parties.     

Excellent verbal communication is also very important, as not only will counselors be finding out about their client’s issues, but they also must develop treatment recommendations and decide how they will work towards effective solutions. They need to be able to clearly express and explain these crucial steps both professionally and empathetically.    

Empathy is hugely important. It differs from sympathy — that is feeling sorrow for someone else’s misfortunes — whereas empathy is understanding another person’s feelings. It is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, sensing their challenges and feeling as if they are your own. This will help client’s feel more secure when you are discussing treatment recommendations with them.

Problem-solving skills are another key part of the toolkit of a successful mental health counselor. You will be helping clients with a variety of issues, working with them to come up with workable strategies, so creative thinking about the issues at stake will be important in coming to the best solutions. 

Benefits of mental health counseling

Mental health counseling can be beneficial to many people, not just those who are struggling with their mental health. Benefits include improving interpersonal and communication skills, learning suitable management of emotions and how to express them, and gaining some relief from anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Counseling can also help clients learn to manage stress more effectively, improve self-acceptance and self-esteem and gain more confidence in decision making-skills.

How to become a mental health counselor

The steps to becoming a mental health counselor vary between states so it is important to check what is required in the area in which you want to practice. Generally, however, you will need to obtain a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a counseling-related subject like psychology or sociology. Then you will have to progress to studying for a master’s degree in mental health counseling from an institution accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), although this is not necessary in every single state.

The next stage is to gain hands-on experience through graduate and post-graduate internships under the supervision of licensed counselors. You will then be able to apply for your licensure. Once this is done, you can apply for various mental health counseling certifications. It is then important to embark on your career with the expectation that you will be studying throughout, as counseling is a career in which lifelong learning is important, whether it be through courses, exams or keeping up to date on changes and improvements within the field by reading different kinds of literature and magazines.

Doing the right course for you

Once you have decided to become a counselor, it is important to find the right place to study with the course that is best for your needs. 

Walsh University Online offers its students three specializations in the Master of Arts in Counseling and Human Development program, including Clinical Mental Health Counseling, School Counseling and Dual Clinical Mental Health and School Counseling. 

Areas covered include orientation to the profession, introduction to the stages and strategies within the process, and the development of attending skills and case conceptualization abilities.

It is 100% online and students do not have to visit the campus, so they can complete the degree in their own area. It also provides field experience support, and in-depth coursework that instills specialized and foundational counseling education to help you gain the career you want.

Advisors are on hand during the application process should you require any more information about the course or what is expected during your studies.

Job prospects

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of mental health counselors is expected to grow 22% from 2021 to 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations, with about 43,600 openings for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors expected per year, on average over that decade. 

In a 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association, most Americans have positive views about mental health disorders and treatment with a total of 87% of adults surveyed agreeing that having a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, with 86% believing that people with mental health disorders can get better. So, by becoming a counselor, whether it be specializing in mental health or not, you will not only be assisting those who need help but could also be contributing to the general positivity of people’s attitudes to their mental health going forward.

In a job that helps people navigate difficult life experiences, helps them set goals and provides emotional support, mental health counseling will provide a rich and rewarding career in which you will make a real difference to the lives of individuals and their families by not only getting the right qualifications but also by employing your own interpersonal skills and personality.

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