No matter how rich, no matter how good-looking or talented, everyone has struggles. If you’ve faced what you thought of as an insurmountable challenge and were helped through it by a relative, a friend or a trained professional, you know the difference it made in your spirit and your outlook.
If you want to pay forward the support and encouragement you received, become a transformative power in other people’s lives and create a rewarding career for yourself at the same time, you might want to consider becoming a mental health counselor.
For the experience you’ll gain and the contacts you’ll make, you’ll probably want to start out working in any one of a great number of agencies, individual and family services, hospitals, or other facilities. But when you’re ready, you can open a private practice with all the benefits of working for yourself. It’s a career with no age or physical limits. Here’s your guide to mental health counseling.
What Does the Work Entail?
As a mental health counselor you might choose to work with the general population or specialize in counseling children, teenagers, families, the elderly, the incarcerated, the addicted or another type of specifically defined group.
Although they may engage with the same populations, mental health counselors are not the same as psychiatrists. While their training equips them with a firm understanding of the principles of psychotherapy and psychopathology, they typically approach their work from a “wellness” rather than “sickness” point of view. This holistic approach focuses on helping people learn to encounter problems in mentally healthy ways, articulate their feelings and gain an understanding that allows them to engage fully in their own lives.
Some of the work involves helping people cope with difficult life events that challenge us all, such as physical illness, death of loved ones and marriage and other relationship problems. Counselors, in particular those who treat younger patients, often deal with emotional, behavioral and developmental issues as well as eating disorders. In other cases, counselors work with people who have clinical issues like bipolar disorder, OCD, PTSD, anger management and depression.
Mental health counselors often work in conjunction with a health care team that may include physicians, nurse specialists, psychologists and social workers.
Where Are the Jobs?
Depending upon the kind of counseling you want to pursue, you might work for a governmental or community family services program, a residential or outpatient mental health clinic or substance abuse center, a veterans facility, a hospital, a rehabilitation center, a program for the homeless, a prison, a public or private school or another kind of organization that provides mental health counseling.
What Are the Requirements?
All states in the U.S. require mental health counselors to have master’s degrees. The good news is that you can earn your degree in a CACREP-accredited online counseling program while you maintain your current employment. You don’t need to have an undergraduate degree in social work, sociology or psychology.
Once you’ve achieved your master’s degree, most states require that you complete a specified number of supervised hours of clinical experience. There’s also state licensure and continuing education throughout your career to keep you informed and current so you can best serve your clients.
Beyond the educational requirements, a successful mental health counselor will have a genuine interest in others and be open to meeting and engaging with all kinds of people, be an excellent listener and have well-developed senses of compassion, observation and social perceptiveness. Warmth, approachability and a sense of humor are traits that are useful in any setting but especially for putting clients at ease and giving them the feeling of security that allows them to open up.
What Does the Future Look Like?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 23 percent growth rate in the field of mental health counseling through the next eight years, which is much higher than average for other professions. One contributing factor to the expansion of openings in the field is that more and more people are seeking treatment for substance and alcohol abuse, and another is that it’s become more accepted in general to seek counseling for other life issues. In addition, mental health counseling has become more accessible as insurance companies continue to add coverage of these services to their plans.