What Do Counselors Do?

Counselors are helpers.

They work with clients to identify problems that cause emotional struggles and identify goals to resolve those problems. To reach those goals, they show people how to develop skills for daily living, make action plans to deal with obstacles and prepare for potential challenges. Counselors can work with individuals or groups of people in treating mental, behavioral and emotional problems and disorders.

Dr. Norman C. Gysbers, who has 55 years of experience in the field and is past president of the American Counseling Association (ACA), describes some key qualities and skills of effective counselors in the organization’s 2014 VISTAS Online publication [PDF, 678 KB].  They include:

  • Purpose: Gives meaning to work and fosters collaboration, making it possible to set goals and plan strategies to achieve them.
  • Risk Taking: Requires observations to be thorough, considers all possible outcomes and allows flexibility when done with intention.
  • Perseverance: Uses discipline to come up with a goal, strategy and then proceed, adjusting as necessary to reach the goal.
  • Patience: Maintains calm while listening to suggestions and feedback and understands that change takes time.
  • Resilience: Reframes difficulties, recovers from disappointments and learns from challenging experiences to inform how to approach similarapproach to similar problems.

While some counselors focus on mental health, counselors also have specialties in other areas such as addictions, children and adolescents, couples and families, military veterans and more.

Counselors differ from clinical social workers, who can perform case management and advocacy services. Counselors also differ from psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, primary care physicians and psychiatric pharmacists, who can prescribe medication.

Different Types of Counselors

Counseling work may vary.

Types of counseling include:

  • Individual: One-on-one help with anger, addiction, depression, anxiety, career changes, parenting, school and other obstacles in life.
  • Couples: Guidance for setting realistic expectations, resolving conflicts and coping with disappointment, infidelity or grief.
  • Family: Assistance with issues affecting the family system–relationships, structure and communication– which could result from loss, a major move, unemployment or infidelity.
  • Group:  Facilitating awareness and sharing of coping strategies among clients who struggle in similar areas such as divorce, addiction, domestic violence, anger management and more.

Whether working with an individual, couples, family or group, counselors may choose specialty fields, such as addictions, child/adolescent, gerontological, LGBTQ and military. Two common specialized career paths are mental health counselors and school counselors.

Mental health counselors use psychotherapy and problem-solving to help clients deal with mental health problems. Their services include assessment and diagnosis, treatment planning and utilization review, brief and solution-focused therapy, alcoholism and substance misuse treatment, psychoeducational and prevention programs, and crisis management, according to the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA).

School counselors support students in academic achievement, personal/social development and career development to help students become productive, well-adjusted adults, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

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Where Do Counselors Work?

Counselors are employed by a range of organizations and operate in different workplaces from private offices in their homes to private specialty clinics and large private universities or public hospitals. Mental health counselors work in hospitals, mental health centers, community health centers, prisons and private practice. As the job title implies, school counselors work in private and public schools. College and career counselors work in private and public colleges and private practices, while couples and family counselors work in mental health centers, community health centers and private practices. Military counselors are in Veterans Affairs hospitals, clinics, medical centers and private practice.

Requirements to Become a Licensed Counselor

Becoming a licensed counselor involves a variety of steps. To become a licensed counselor (regardless of specialty) you must have a master’s degree in counseling. If you choose to pursue one, you can earn an online counseling degree.

Once you have earned your master’s, you need to meet licensing and certification requirements for counselors, which can vary by state and specialty, but typical requirements include:

  • Clinical supervision hours: Accredited master’s programs require an on-site practicum or internship for graduation, and they might count toward this requirement. Some states may require additional field work hours.
  • Background check: Some states may require references in addition to fingerprinting and proof of identification.
  • Counselor examination: Passing a counseling exam that the state either administers or recognizes. Most states require either one or both the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). And some states may add the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) Examination for those who wish to work with people who live with physical, mental, development, and/or emotional disabilities.
  • Additional certification for specialties: The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers certifications for specialty areas, such as Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC), Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) or National Certified School Counselor (NCSC).
  • Continuing education: State standards may require a minimum number of continuing education units (CEUs). These are available through professional counseling organizations, including the ACA’s CE Opportunities site.

Contact your state licensure board for information on specific requirements to practice counseling where you live.

Counseling falls under the category of community and social service occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If you like the idea of improving the well-being of others, you have several career possibilities in addition to counseling. Some of them include:

  • Marriage and Family Therapists. These professionals perform various clinical services for mental health issues affecting families and other relationships.
  • Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). These type of social workers engage in psychotherapy but also can manage cases and do advocacy.
  • Board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs). People who work as BCBAs implement behavior analysis assessments and evaluations to identify appropriate strategies to improve specific behaviors.
  • Psychologists. As a psychologist, you’ll study the mind and behavior to apply what you’ve learned to help improve the well-being of people living with mental and behavioral disorders.

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Jobs in community and social service occupations are not going away. The category is expected to grow 11 percent from 2018-2028, according to the BLS. That will add about 306,200 professionals in these fields.

Last updated: July 2020