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What is mental health counseling?

June 27, 2023
Young depressed woman talking to female counselor about her mental health during session.

Mental health counseling guides people through the emotional, psychological, and social challenges of modern life. A mental health counselor is a skilled professional with an in-depth knowledge of the human experience and how thoughts affect behaviors. Keep reading to learn about mental health counseling, including how counselors practice and how people benefit from their services.

What is counseling?

Counseling is one type of service under the mental health umbrella. While there is some overlap between the roles of mental health professionals, each has its own scope of practice.

Counseling is typically short-term and goal-oriented. Clients see a mental health counselor to get help with personal challenges, such as divorce or grief. It's a different process than psychotherapy, which is longer-term. Therapy is more likely to involve the exploration and healing of past wounds.1

That said, therapy and counseling are closely related and may blur into a single experience. Counseling and talk therapy both may involve discussing a client's prior experiences, and treatment often has concrete goals. Therapists may refer to themselves as counselors and vice versa. A counselor or therapist may diagnose a mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety. However, counselors are not medical doctors and may not prescribe medication.2 Counselors often refer clients to psychiatrists or general practitioners for medication needs.

Types of mental health counseling

Mental health counselors provide many different types of services. Some focus on a particular need, such as substance use disorder or use or trauma. Others prefer to work with a certain population, like teens or children. One of the most common distinctions is clinical versus forensic counseling. If you're considering a career in mental health counseling, you will likely take one of these paths.

What is clinical mental health counseling?

Clinical mental health counseling is an individualized service that helps people resolve problems in their lives. It may take place one-on-one or in a group setting.

According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, clinical counselors "combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach."3 The result is a flexible service that adapts to the client's needs, offering a path forward.

Clinical counselors work in various settings, including private offices, community health centers, and group mental health practices.4 The process varies depending on the client's needs as well as the background and approach of the professional clinical counselor.

What is forensic mental health counseling?

Forensic mental health counseling is the application of counseling expertise to the legal process. Forensic counselors work with civil and criminal defendants, incarcerated individuals, and trial witnesses.5

A forensic counselor's day may involve evaluating someone's mental health conditions and competency to stand trial or assessing a convicted person's progress toward rehabilitation. Some forensic counselors work in family law, examining family dynamics and recommending arrangements to align with a child's best interests.

Forensic counselors do not determine guilt, innocence, or fault. Their role is to determine the motivation behind an individual's behaviors or mental health condition and offer recommendations for treatment and humane legal proceedings.

Theories of mental health counseling

Effective counseling depends on a good fit between the client and the counselor's approach. Counselors draw on their knowledge of counseling theories and practices to develop a method they believe in. These are four of the most common theories influencing modern practice:

Cognitive counseling

Cognitive counseling stems from the belief that human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected. Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive-focused therapy facilitates emotional healing by helping clients change harmful thought patterns.

Behavioral counseling

Behavioral counseling techniques facilitate change by helping clients moderate their outward behavior. For example, in dialectical behavior therapy, clients work on managing intense emotions to increase tolerance through coping strategies.

Psychoanalytical counseling

Psychoanalytical counselors believe that early experiences influence future thought and behavior patterns. By exploring clients' inner lives, psychoanalytic counseling seeks to understand those patterns and make desired changes.

Humanistic counseling

Based on a belief in the inherent goodness of human beings, humanistic counseling aims to help people reach their full potential. The focus is on free will and human agency, so the mental health counselor takes a non-directive approach. The client determines the direction of discussion, while the therapist serves as a compassionate guide.

Who do mental health counselors serve?

Mental health counselors work with individuals of all ages, races, and ethnicities.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported an increase in the number of adults seeking mental health services, from 19.2% to 21.6% in two years. The percentage is highest among adults aged 18 to 44, 23.2% of whom receive mental health care services.6

Counselors may work with couples, families, or individuals of any age. Some focus on one-on-one sessions, while others offer group sessions. Options depend on the counselor's approach and where they work. Some clinical mental health counselors specialize in working with individuals with certain mental health disorders, substance use disorder, or with individuals in specific situations like older people in nursing homes or children being adopted.

What are the benefits of mental health counseling?

Mental health counselors serve a critical purpose in today's demanding, fast-paced society. They help people understand their emotions, identify their behavioral patterns, and address life challenges to promote mental well being.7 Here are three of the primary benefits:

More effective communication

Mental health counselors help clients navigate difficult emotions and interpersonal interactions. Clients learn how they respond to different people and the motivations behind those responses. If the client desires, the clinical mental health counselor can help them develop more effective coping methods.

Better insight into behaviors

When working with counselors, clients examine how their own minds work and how they behave in various situations. The counselor serves as a reflection and provides insight to help the client understand their tendencies. In time, the client learns what behaviors work and don't work to help them reach their goals.

More stable emotional states

A primary goal of therapy for many clients is symptom reduction for depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Mental health counselors provide clients with coping mechanisms and can recommend the client see a psychiatrist or physician to provide prescriptions.

Required qualifications to become a licensed mental health counselor

NOTE: Because qualifications and laws vary state-to-state, it's critical to check the state board of counseling where you plan to work in order to find out the specific requirements for clinical mental health counselors in that area.

Mental health counselors must have a state license to practice independently. All states require a master's degree from an accredited institution, and most require at least 60 semester hours of graduate-level coursework.8

Most states require counselors to have at least two years of supervised experience before applying for licensure. If you choose to become a mental health counselor, you'll spend those years working as an intern under a licensed counselor who will evaluate your skills and help hone your technique with patients.9

You must also successfully complete your state's licensing exam or exams. All states and the District of Columbia require successful completion of at least one of the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) licensing exams, if not both.10

Meet the demand for mental health counselors with a master's from Marquette

Counselors are in high demand, and there aren’t enough trained professionals to keep up.11 You can help meet this pressing need with an online Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Marquette University. Centered in a tradition of service and intellectual curiosity, the program prepares students to meet the needs of diverse patients and even includes a specialization option in child and adolescent counseling.

To learn more about how you can make a difference as a clinical mental health counselor, speak with an Admissions Outreach Advisor today.