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Essential skills for mental health counselors

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It is not always the most discussed health issue, but mental health affects a significant portion of the US population every year. This includes people from all walks of life and professions. Sometimes a traumatic life experience such as the loss of a loved one leads to a mental health decline, while other times it may seem to come out of nowhere. Regardless of the reason behind the struggles, however, the reality is that millions of Americans across the country need mental health care.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 53 million people (21% of the adult population) experienced some form of mental illness in 2020. This translates to one in five people, and the youth aren’t faring much better. In 2016, nearly eight million (16.5%) people aged six to 17 experienced mental illness in the US. Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health issue in the country by far, accounting for nearly 20% of all reported problems. 

Given the high prevalence of mental health issues among both the adult and youth populations in the US, it might come as no surprise that mental health counseling is incredibly important. But what exactly do mental health counselors do, how do they help, and what skills do you need to have in order to be a great counselor? 

What is a mental health counselor?

A mental health counselor helps people who are struggling with mental health issues by using psychotherapy techniques and methods. Counselors are critical in the recovery process and are uniquely poised to help not only the individuals struggling with mental health problems but also the financial burden this kind of health issue places upon the country. Major depressive disorder alone leads to about $210 billion in economic strain every year, for example, and it’s not even the most potentially debilitating disorder on the list. 

Mental health counselors can do more than help people directly, and their expertise stands to benefit not just the one in five American adults living with mental health issues but also everyone who might be impacted by the staggering costs related to them. Counselors help individuals with behavioral, emotional and cognitive issues and may specialize in treating individuals, groups, families or communities, or even a combination of these. 

Since mental health issues can strike regardless of your location, profession or even previous good health, mental health counselors must be flexible about where they work. Counselors can be found in a wide array of places, including:

  • Schools
  • Mental health clinics
  • Private practices
  • Community health centers
  • Hospitals
  • Correctional facilities
  • Colleges and universities
  • Businesses 
  • Government agencies
  • Social service agencies

People typically see mental health counselors because they are experiencing symptoms of a mental health crisis such as anxiety, but counselors can also often help with comorbid issues. “Comorbid” refers to issues that exist simultaneously and are tied to each other. Substance abuse and grief, for example, are often comorbid with each other as well as depression and anxiety. Not everyone will experience all these issues at the same time, but some people might and may need help with more than just one potential issue. 

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How can a mental health counselor help?

Mental health counselors often frame things with a humanistic perspective. That means they don’t just focus on the dysfunctional symptoms someone is exhibiting but also consider the factors that led to the mental health issue in the first place. Many mental health struggles are the result of normal life experiences, with people often reporting difficulty adjusting to new stages of their lives or dealing with loss, be it of a loved one, functional ability, or one’s physical health. 

By keeping the human element in mind and helping patients to understand the triggers of their mental health disorders, mental health counselors give people the information they need to cope with stressors in the future. The focus on overall wellness rather than very narrow sets of symptoms makes mental health counselors a critical element in not only helping patients heal from mental health struggles but also preventing them in the future by educating patients about the different factors influencing their mental wellbeing. 

How do you become a mental health counselor?

A good education serves as the foundation upon which a counselor’s “toolbox” is built. If the foundation can’t support the weight and use of the toolbox, it will be incredibly difficult to use any of the tools to their full potential. Picking the right program is critical, in other words, and this importance begins with your bachelor’s degree and continues through to your graduate and post-graduate degree. 

The minimum amount of education that mental health counselors must complete are a master’s degree as well as supervised practice under the guidance of a licensed mental health professional. Licensing and certification requirements can vary from state to state, but here are some of the general requirements you will need to fulfill before you can begin practicing.

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Mental health counseling licensing requirements

Before you start seeing patients on your own, you must complete at least 2,000 to 3,000 hours of practice under the supervision of a licensed professional. You must also complete a state licensing exam and, in some states, a test is given by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). Mental health counselors can also become certified. This is in addition to licensure and education requirements and is a voluntary step. Keep in mind that every bit of experience counts when looking for a job. Your potential clients and employers alike might find the certification to be quite appealing.

While these steps may sound straightforward, the truth is that you will need to put in a lot of time and effort to become licensed mental health professional. The good news is that if you are motivated and dedicated, you can complete the requirements and start helping people as soon as possible. 

How can I get a head start on my career as a mental health counselor?

It is never too early to start thinking about your future career! If you are planning out your student journey, it might be helpful to research the top mental health counseling graduate programs in the country to prepare. St. Bonaventure University is a well-respected provider of excellent education and one of the best online graduate programs for mental health counselors in the United States. 

In addition to picking the right program and studying hard, you can take the time to understand some of the important skills mental health counselors need. Practicing these skills as much as possible can help make your first few sessions with patients a smoother experience. Future patients will appreciate your grasp of them, too!

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Important skills in mental health counseling

In addition to the education and licensing requirements discussed above, there are a few skills that mental health counselors must fully grasp before they can begin to practice to their full potential. It would be difficult to name each and every skill that counselors should study, but here are some of the most important. 

Interpersonal skills

The ability to interact with patients and build a rapport is a core requirement of the mental health counseling field. When you work with someone on their mental health, they will likely be examining some unpleasant emotions and experiences. Would you want to tell your deepest secrets to someone you don’t like? Building a relationship with clients allows them to feel comfortable enough to honestly communicate with you, which, in turn, better enables you to help them through their mental health crisis.

In addition to making people comfortable and willing to talk, excellent interpersonal skills also allow counselors to create a shared understanding with their patients. This is another aspect of building a therapeutic rapport and helps demonstrate to your clients that you understand what they’re telling you – that you realize the difficulties they are experiencing and are qualified to help them through them. This makes developing an effective treatment plant much easier. 

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Self-reflection

This skill might catch some off guard. After all, mental health counselors are responsible for helping other people to reflect – why do counselors need to complete the same exercise? 

It is critically important to look at yourself just as closely as you do others. Feeling well, acting well and thinking well are three components of a successful career, and the latter is one of the most important of them. When you “think well”, you take your own mental health into your hands, ensuring that you are honest about your reaction to a particular patient. How can you relate to what they are saying and what do you think will help them recover? Use yourself as an instrument to help uplift others while safeguarding your own mental health. 

Listening skills

Because you are building a treatment plan based on your client’s needs, listening is an important skill for any mental health counselor. This is not quite as straightforward as it sounds, however, because “listening” for counselors is a bit more nuanced than it might be in other professions.

Counselors must be able to read “between the lines.” Sometimes clients will omit things, either consciously or subconsciously, which will say just as much as anything they explained to you verbally during the session. Understanding those nonverbal cues allows counselors to better understand what their clients are experiencing and the ways in which the issues are impacting them. 

In addition to reading between the lines, good mental health counselors will understand how to listen without judging. Your client came to you to get better, and judging their actions and feelings is not conducive to a healing relationship. Counselors must also understand how to listen without evaluation. Listen to everything your client has to say before you form an opinion about their mental health struggles. Jumping the gun and making up your mind before patients have had the time to fully express themselves is a great way to frustrate them. 

Flexibility

There are a few different ways in which mental health counselors must be flexible. Flexibility with scheduling, for example, can help increase the number of people able to pursue mental health counseling. The need for flexibility runs deeper than just scheduling issues, however, and applies to a counselor’s mindset. 

You must understand – or have the ability to understand – differences in cultures and relationships across cultural bounds. When you are able to shift world views to more closely relate to your client’s experiences, you will be able to better help them recover. With that said, sometimes the most flexible option is to refer patients to other counselors. Not all patients will be a great fit for your expertise, and that is okay – the most important thing is that you are honest with yourself and your client and do whatever you can to connect them to the right counselor. 

Communication skills

You might assume that communication skills are included in some of the other skills we’ve discussed above, but they are too important to lump together with other categories. Communication skills are imperative to your success as a mental health counselor. More specifically, verbal communication that is clear and concise is just as important as the ability to listen well. 

Once you have listened to your clients, you will need to develop a treatment plan to help them find solutions. This plan will need to be discussed with your patients, which means that you must be able to articulate what you are recommending and why you are recommending it. Give them a clear assessment of your observations regarding their issues and why you think the plan you have developed is the right choice for their needs. 

Note that this information does not need to be relayed in a single breath. It is okay to take some time before you speak to gather your thoughts before you begin speaking. This can often help ensure that you speak with the proper tone and with the best choice of words. 

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Problem-solving

Do you have what it takes to help clients puzzle through their emotions and experiences until you can find a solution to their struggles? Mental health counselors must have good problem-solving skills. Some clients will need help with a specific issue, for example, such as stress or a loss of self-confidence due to some specific event (be it the loss of a job or something else). In these instances, the solutions are often more clear-cut and easier to discover than they might be with other issues. When clients come to you for help with more general mental health struggles, the obstacles and objectives are often much less clear. 

Counselors must be able to listen to their clients’ needs and problem solve with their overall health in mind. What negative thoughts and emotions are being expressed by your client? Do you understand where those issues originated and how they might be impacting other aspects of their life? These are just a few of the questions that will need to be answered as you work your way towards a solution. 

Empathy

Empathy is yet another critical component of mental health counseling success. Because patients are often reliving some of the worst moments of their lives, the ability to empathize with their situation is imperative. This does not mean you have to sympathize with them – sometimes you might not. But you must be able to put yourself in their lives for a moment to understand their thoughts, their feelings, and their challenges. 

Empathy is a must-have skill for mental health counselors in just about every situation imaginable. 

Pros and cons of a career in mental health counseling

We know that mental health counseling is important, but do you know how it might affect your life? You must consider both the benefits of the job as well as some of the drawbacks. 

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Pros

Many mental health counselors find that their biggest accomplishment is directly impacting other peoples’ lives for the better. When you are able to connect with a patient and set them on a better path that boosts their overall health and leads them to happiness, it is an incredibly rewarding experience. From preventing psychological distress to repairing trauma that already exists, being a mental health counselor can take you on an incredible journey. 

Cons

Nothing is perfect, and while counseling can be a very rewarding career, it is not always easy. Sometimes you might not be able to help a patient. You might have to deal with patients who are angry, combative, or emotional, which can put your own safety in jeopardy. If you know that you cannot live with these potential issues and overcome them to do your job, you might want to look elsewhere for a career. That is not a judgment – not everyone is right for every career. Consider your own strengths and weaknesses carefully.

Are you ready to begin a career in mental health counseling? Keep the information above in mind and use it to build a collection of skills and professional accomplishments.