What's A Mental Health Counselor And How To Find One

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated August 2, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many individuals have an idea of what counseling might look like or what a mental health counselor does. However, the counseling career can be as unique as those working in it. Licensed mental health counselors can offer mental health advice, education, and training in various therapeutic methods and specialties, such as anxiety disorders or coping strategies. In addition, a client does not have to have a mental health condition or severe symptoms to see a counselor.

If you're considering making an appointment with a guidance counselor, it can be beneficial to know what their job entails and how to find one near you.

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Understanding the Role of a Mental Health Counselor

A licensed professional clinical counselor is a mental health professional providing guidance, counseling, and support to clients experiencing a vast range of concerns, including mental health conditions such as adjustment disorders, distressing symptoms, stress, life changes, relationship concerns, and other issues. They have at least a master's degree in clinical counseling, psychology, or a related area. Although counselors focus on mental health, they can offer advice for more than mental illness. Many counselors offer career, school, and life guidance, as well as mental health services.

The Criteria For Becoming A Counselor 

Mental health counselors differ from coaches and other mental health professionals offering advice due to their professional training. They are required to obtain a master's degree or higher, a certain number of clinical hours of training, and a state license, which requires a licensing exam. Licensed professional counselors must keep up on continued education courses to ensure they receive the most accurate and up-to-date research contents.

Aside from a thorough academic understanding of mental health challenges, counselors must uphold an ethical code. Many follow the official American Counseling Association (ACA) code of ethics or the American Psychological Association (APA) version. These licensed professionals are trained not to allow personal bias to impact how they treat clients.

Ways A Mental Health Counselor Can Make a Difference

Below are a couple of the duties and responsibilities of a counselor. 

Separating Self From Career 

Professional counselors are trained not to allow their personal beliefs to affect their relationships with their clients negatively. Instead, they offer bias-free professional help as the client meets their goals. For this reason, licensed counselors may not give opinions or talk about their personal lives. Instead, they might consider how a mental health counselor can help them make informed decisions.

If an ethical issue arises, the professional may monitor clients and pay attention to how their personal beliefs affect the client's goals. In some cases, counselors may choose to end the therapeutic relationship if they believe it might negatively impact the client's mental health progress.

Advocating For Their Clients  

Mental health counselors often work as advocates for their clients. For example, a client might experience injustice or a challenging situation requiring support. In these incidences, their professional clinical counselor can advocate for their needs, help them find resources, or discuss their concerns.

With a legal release form, counselors can communicate with a client's other providers to ensure a complete treatment plan is formed. They might also refer clients to other treatments. At the same time, counselors help their clients learn how to advocate for themselves. If they struggle to make decisions, form plans, or ensure success, the counselor can teach them coping mechanisms and help them form long-term plans.

What Are The Different Types Of Counselors?

There are various types of counselors, including the following: 

  • LCPC: Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
  • MSW: Master of Social Work
  • LMHC: Licensed Mental Health Counselor
  • LCMHC: Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
  • MFCC: Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor
  • CADC: Certified Alcohol And Drug Counselor
  • CAC: Certified Addiction Counselor 

You can also find school guidance counselors, career counselors, and counselors working in a specialty like depression or anxiety. School counselors often work in K-12 schools or universities and may offer college application guidance, bullying support, and academic guidance. A career counselor may help clients apply for jobs, take aptitude tests, or learn their professional strengths. 

According to the American Mental Health Counseling Association (AMHC), clinical mental health counselors are highly skilled professionals who provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy. They diagnose mental health conditions and combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change, addressing issues such as eating disorders, panic disorder, personality disorders, and substance use disorder.

How To Select The Right Mental Health Counselor for You

Therapists and counselors are trained to work with diverse experiences. In addition, there are various specialties counselors can consider. For example, a licensed marriage and family therapist can help clients seeking relationship guidance. Counselors can also practice various therapy modalities, including popular forms of treatment like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or trauma-informed counseling. 

The first counselor with whom you interact may not seem like the best fit, which can be normal. Counselors tend to specialize in different issues depending on personal interest, aptitude, and advanced clinical training. If you don't find the support you need from one provider, you can try others. If you have a specific symptom or situation with which you want support, you may be able to find a counselor specializing in that area. You can also consider asking for a referral from your primary care physician if you struggle to find options.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, choosing a mixture of support providers personalized to your needs can be essential. For example, someone might see a psychiatrist for medication and a mental health counselor for symptom support. Others might attend a weekly support group and meet with a counselor afterward to discuss their experiences. 

When looking for a counselor, it can be beneficial to note that psychiatrists or medical doctors are the only type of mental health provider who can prescribe medication management and monitoring services to clients. Some counselors may offer diagnoses, while others might not. Often, official psychological testing is done by a psychologist or psychiatrist with a doctorate.  

Exploring Options With A Mental Health Counselor

There are various options available to those who wish to seek professional help from a mental health counselor. For example, you can ask your doctor for a referral, make an appointment at a local mental health clinic, search for counselors in private practice, or ask friends and family for references. However, in-person counseling can be expensive, time-consuming, and stressful for many. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) also recommends considering online counseling if you're unsure about visiting a mental health counselor in person. 

With online therapy, you can attend sessions from home at an affordable cost. In addition, you can choose whether you meet with your therapist over the phone, via video, or through live chat sessions. One study on internet-based therapy for bipolar disorder found that 95% of clients reported an increased quality of life after treatment, more so than the control group or those who attended in-person therapy.  

If you're interested in speaking with a mental health counselor online, many platforms are available, including BetterHelp for individuals, and Regain for couples. Both platforms offer over 30,000 therapist options, with counselors specializing in various mental health concerns and types of therapy.


A mental health counselor provides high-quality support, guidance, and advice to clients facing various challenges, including substance abuse, personal issues, or relationship struggles. If you're interested in learning more about “what is a mental health counselor?” and how their services might benefit you, consider reaching out to an online or in-person provider for further guidance and personalized treatment plans.

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