What is Counseling?

If you’re considering counseling as a career, it’s important to understand the roles, expectations, and responsibilities of a counselor. According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), a counselor is someone who, “empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”

Counseling is a collaborative effort between a client and a counselor, and counselors work with individuals to develop a professional relationship that will help them navigate and better deal with a variety of issues. Different specialties exist in the field. Depending on where you work and who you are working with, you may employ individual counseling or group counseling to help clients deal with issues such as communication, coping skills, self-esteem, goal setting, behavior change, and behavior management. Counselors aim to work with clients until the problem at hand is resolved.

Only individuals who meet certain educational, training, and licensing requirements can provide counseling. Every state and the District of Columbia requires professional counselors to be licensed to legally practice. There are several levels of professional counselors, and requirements vary by jurisdiction. Regardless of geography, becoming a licensed professional requires gaining a master’s degree or doctoral degree in counseling from an accredited institution—which takes a significant commitment of time and effort. Additionally, professional counselors must complete supervised clinical training after graduation as well as meet continuing education requirements once they begin practicing.

What Professional Counselors Can Do to Help

From working with individuals to groups and organizations, the scope of practice for a professional counselor is far-reaching. According to the ACA, roughly one in four Americans will experience a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year [PDF, 725 KB].

Professional counselors employ a variety of skills and techniques to help their clients overcome challenges and face difficult issues. They empower clients to implement positive mental and behavioral strategies that can help them lead more fulfilling lives.

Counselors work with clients on a wide range of issues. They may include:

  • Life changes, including divorce, career changes, adapting to college life, and returning from military deployment
  • Grief after a traumatic experience, such as losing a loved one
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia
  • Personal relationships (e.g. with family, roommates, friends, spouses, or partners)
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity issues
  • Goal-setting in personal, relationship, career, and educational contexts

The issues mentioned above do not represent an exhaustive list, as there are many other situations that counselors may help with.

Professional counselors rely on providing well-established treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and interpersonal therapy to help individuals work through their problems. Though treatment plans vary depending on the individual and their personal situation, at the core of all counseling practice is the aim to help people lead more fulfilling lives.

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Types of Counseling

If you want to become a counselor, it’s important to understand the different types of counselors that exist. Different types of counselors work with different clients, provide varying services, and address a range of distinct issues.

Below are descriptions of a few common types of counseling:

Individual counseling. Individual counseling is a personal, individualized approach to counseling that helps people work through difficulties in their personal lives. Individual counseling may address issues such as mental health, life adjustments, and substance abuse.

Couples counseling. Issues and disagreements between couples aren’t unusual—but when escalated, they may require the help of a professional counselor. Whether a couple is dealing with issues of closeness or more serious problems like aggressive behavior, this type of counseling provides tools for resolving conflicts and rebuilding relationships.

Group counseling. Group counseling may be a viable option for people experiencing issues that others are also dealing with. Knowing they are not alone can help clients reach important goals, know that they are being held accountable, and develop management strategies. Common topics addressed in group therapy settings include substance abuse, anger management, working through trauma, and more.

Family counseling. Family counseling may be necessary for a variety of reasons including the loss of a family member, changes in family dynamics, or family conflict. Sometimes, family counseling is conducted with all family members present, while other times it may work with family members individually.

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Not only are there various types of counseling, but there are also different types of specialized counselors. The kind of counseling you wish to provide may be an important aspect of choosing your program.

Below are a few career options available to professional counselors:

Counseling vs. Psychology vs. Social Work

The fields of counseling, psychology, and social work are similar in their goals, but different in their approaches and practices. Understanding both the similarities and differences may help you make the best decision for your career.

Counseling differs from psychology in that professionals in the two fields typically obtain different degrees, complete different training, and implement different strategies and approaches in their practices. Though both professions may assess and treat mental disorders, psychology generally takes a more narrow approach to mental disorders, while counselors implement a more holistic approach. Psychologists generally approach mental disorders from a clinical standpoint, while counselors often focus on talk therapy combined with evaluating various factors of a client’s life.

Learn more about mental health counseling and clinical psychology.

Counseling differs from social work in that professionals in the two fields typically obtain different education and training. Unlike counseling, some levels of social work only require a bachelor’s degree in social work, though social workers must obtain a master’s for certain jobs, like a clinical social worker. Both require state licenses, but the process and requirements to obtain a license are different.

Social workers tend to focus on a broader range of issues than counselors—so while social workers may address mental health as part of their practice, social workers don’t focus as narrowly on the mental health of their clients, and instead may work with institutions and other health professionals.

Learn more about mental health counseling and social work.

Further Reading

If you’ve decided you want to pursue counseling as a career, it’s important to explore the options available to you. As mentioned above, becoming a professional counselor requires obtaining a master’s degree in counseling. There are several ways to obtain this degree, and exploring different degree pathways may help you choose a program that suits your lifestyle and needs. Many traditional, on-campus programs offer a master’s in counseling, but there are also many programs that allow you to obtain an online counseling degree.

Understanding the roles and responsibilities of being a counselor may help you decide if a career in counseling is right for you. Conducting research, reading interviews with current counselors, or seeking advice from professionals in the field are all ways to get an idea of what it’s like to be a counselor.

Last updated: August 2020