What is Counseling?

Updated May 18, 2023 | Tessa Cooper

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What Is Counseling?

Many people grow up hearing the word counseling. Schools often employ counselors, and some families benefit from group or individual counseling. The American Counseling Association defines counseling as "a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals."

Counselors use a variety of therapies, including electromagnetic therapy and talk therapy, to help people process their emotions. Counselors do not prescribe medication. However, they may refer patients to psychiatrists.

In this guide, we discuss what it takes to become a counselor and how counseling specialties differ.

Common Questions About the Counseling Profession

Do I Need a Degree To Be a Counselor?

Counselors need at least a bachelor's degree to practice. Mental health counselors who practice independently need a master's degree.

Do I Need a License To Be a Counselor?

Private practice counselors need a license to practice. State licensing boards set varying requirements. Many states rely on the National Board for Certified Counselors to administer exams.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Counselor?

Becoming a licensed counselor takes 6-8 years. The length of time varies based on personal schedules and degree requirements. Counselors who do not pursue licensure may only spend four years on their education.

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What Do Professional Counselors Do?

Counselors evaluate patients' current mental health states and needs. They then form a treatment plan. Counselors sometimes work with patients' families. They may do this when counseling teens or people with drug addiction. Counselors often engage in talk therapy and cognitive behavior therapy with their clients.

Professional counselors work with many different people. Some counselors may specialize in counseling people with a certain type of emotional or behavioral disorder. Others work with a certain age group. Counselors can also align themselves with a religion, like Christianity, to offer a unique service.

Counseling programs prepare students to succeed in the field. Counselors need strong listening, record-keeping, and communication skills. They must demonstrate empathy and maintain client confidentiality. Counselors must also know how to report child abuse.

Difference Between Counseling, Psychology, and Social Work

The counseling, psychology, and social work fields intertwine. Professionals in these fields may work together to form treatment plans for clients. This section discusses the similarities and differences between these three areas. We also outline the education and training requirements for each.

  • Counseling

    Most people begin with counseling on their journey toward mental health. Counselors work in mental health clinics, schools, and hospitals. They need a bachelor's degree in mental health to practice. However, many employers prefer candidates with a license. Licensure requires a master's degree and lets counselors practice independently.

    During their studies, counseling students learn theories and techniques. Most programs include a hands-on clinical component. Learners typically select a concentration that aligns with their career goals. Some counselors aspire to work with couples, while others may prefer to assist students at public schools.

  • Psychology

    Psychologists perform similar services to counselors. However, they need a more advanced education. Most psychologists hold a license and a doctorate. As a result, they usually work with people with more severe mental health issues. They typically provide disorder-specific therapy.

    Psychologists commonly provide diagnostic services. They give tests and form observations. They also study patients' medical histories. Psychologists typically see their patients less frequently than counselors.

    These professionals may contribute research to the mental health field. They conduct experiments on new therapy types and evaluate their effectiveness.

  • Social Work

    Social workers advocate for clients who do not currently possess the skills they need to live independently. They advocate for systemic change among communities that lack adequate resources. Social workers often work in government and clinical settings. For example, they may help elderly patients make care arrangements after a hospital stay. Or, they may intervene on a child's behalf during a family crisis.

    Some social workers receive training to provide psychotherapy services. They make follow-up visits to evaluate a situation's progression. Social workers need a bachelor's or a master's degree to practice. Most employers prefer degrees from programs with accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education. States set varying licensure requirements for social workers.

Types of Counseling

Counseling methods differ depending on the session type. Counselors often act as neutral third-party listeners and occasionally offer objective feedback. However, counselors rarely offer advice or tell people how to respond in certain situations. Instead, they offer strategies and encourage clients to rely on their intuition to make positive choices. Here, we take a closer look at how types of counseling vary.

  • Individual Counseling

    Counselors provide individuals with coping strategies for daily life and challenging times. They encourage clients to process their emotions and allow themselves to express feelings healthily. Some counselors help clients develop skills for managing anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Couples Counseling

    These professional counselors work with spouses and life partners to help them maintain healthy relationships. Couples often pursue counseling during challenging seasons, like after a layoff or infidelity. Some of these professionals counsel friends and business partners.
  • Family Counseling

    Family counselors typically host sessions between parents and their children. They establish session guidelines so participants can support one another and their emotions. These counselors typically offer coping strategies for anxiety, conflicts, and stress in family relationships.
  • Group Counseling

    Professional counselors may also host group therapy sessions. In these sessions, the counselor ensures participants treat each other respectfully. They may ask questions to spark dialogue. They create a safe space for people to share vulnerable information. Counselors help participants understand themselves and each other better.

Counseling Careers and Specialties

Aside from specializing in who they work with, counselors can also specialize in issue types. Choosing a niche for a counseling career may help learners qualify for advanced jobs. However, niching down too much may limit opportunities. Learners should aim to strike a balance. For this reason, many counselors choose multiple complementary specialties.

Virtual counseling lets counselors work with clients in any location. Some counselors hold licensure to practice in multiple states for this reason. See below for an outline of common counseling careers.

  • Mental Health Counselors

    Mental health counselors work with people experiencing problematic thought patterns and behaviors. They also work with clients undergoing difficult life experiences. These professionals primarily provide talk therapy to help patients cope.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) combines data for mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorder counselors. The organization projects jobs for these professionals to grow 23% from 2020-2030. These counselors earn a median $48,520 annually. Mental health counselors need a master's degree to practice independently.

  • Substance Abuse Counselors

    Substance abuse counselors help clients struggling with drug or alcohol abuse. They also help clients access community support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous. Substance abuse counselors teach patients healthy coping mechanisms and how to manage withdrawal symptoms. They may also help people establish their careers after a prolonged relapse.

    Substance abuse counselors help clients take steps to repair relationships the substance abuse damaged. These counselors may work for hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, or government agencies.

  • Rehabilitation Counselors

    Rehabilitation counselors help people with disabilities live independently. Some rehabilitation counselors specialize in helping people with physical or developmental disabilities. Others help people with severe mental or emotional issues.

    Rehabilitation counselors often work closely with social workers. They help clients graduate from assisted living facilities to independent homes. They help them find jobs, secure government assistance, and find socialization opportunities.

  • Marriage and Family Counselors

    Marriage and family counselors host group sessions between couples and families. They must maintain neutrality and create a session environment where people feel safe to share their true feelings. These counselors may help families dealing with affairs or addictions.

    The BLS projects jobs for marriage and family counselors to grow 16% from 2020-2030. These counselors earn a median $49,880 annually and need a master's degree to practice independently.

  • School Counselors

    School counselors help students overcome learning barriers. They allow learners to share their behavior and emotional struggles with them. They help students process feelings and work with teachers to implement individualized education programs. They may also help students struggling with hunger or neglect.

    The BLS projects jobs for school and career counselors to grow 11% from 2020-2030. These professionals earn a median $60,510 annually and need at least a bachelor's degree to practice.

  • Career Counselors

    Career counselors work at high schools and colleges. Some may work at community career centers. They help people identify their strengths and interests. These counselors then offer suggestions on potential career paths.

    Career counselors help high school students apply for colleges. They offer advice on best practices for creating resumes and gaining work experience. Some career counselors host career fairs and mock interview sessions. These professionals need at least a bachelor's degree to practice.

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