What Is A Mental Health Counselor And What Isn’t

By Sarah Fader |Updated March 31, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Dutil , LMHC, LPC

What Can A Mental Health Counselor Do For Me That A Friend Can't?

Everybody has an opinion and a certain point of view. Many people love to gossip and dispense advice, especially when asked. We also like to think we know way more about life and the people living in our world than we actually do. Many times we feel that we are in a fantastic position to give out advice, perhaps even more so than other people. With this mind…What is a mental health counselor except someone who tells people what they should be doing? I can do that! You may be thinking to yourself. In reality, there is a lot more to the mental health counseling profession than simply handing out opinions and advice.

The Mental Health Counselor Advantage

The first, and perhaps most important difference between a mental health counselor and your average person on the street lies in the training a professional mental health counselor receives. A professional advertising as a mental health counselor typically has at least a master's degree in counseling psychology, while many can claim even more qualifications on top of that…a master's degree is the absolute bare minimum. This is required for every counselor before they can obtain a clinical license.

Aside from a thorough academic understanding of mental health issues, counselors are required to fulfill various other professional criteria before they can obtain a license to practice. These include passing additional clinical examinations, completing a supervised work experience under a more experienced licensed counselor (similar to an apprenticeship) and follow an extremely strict ethical code, such as when the confidentiality of a patient's details is at stake and needs to be protected.

Secondly, professional mental counselors are trained not to allow personal bias and prejudices get in the way of their work with clients. We have a negative tendency to judge the lifestyles and beliefs of other people. A professional counselor is trained not to allow their personal beliefs to affect the relationship with their clients and to provide assistance on whatever treatment goals the client wants to obtain. A professional counselor will put aside their personal opinions and meet their clients wherever they are at in order to ensure a professional, helpful relationship is developed and maintained.

Finally, mental health counselors are designed to be advocates for their clients. We all have come across situations where we were not prepared to deal with the circumstances or we don't understand that our rights or boundaries are being violated. In these incidences, a professional mental health counselor is trained to help plead the cause for a client's rights or needs. They can help communicate with other medical professionals or people in authority on behalf of their clients. At the same time, counselors help their clients learn how to advocate for themselves, if they have struggled with doing so in the past. Being able to advocate for ourselves is crucial in learning to be healthy assertive adults.

What is a Professional Mental Health Counselor

There are many types of counselors in various career fields. For instance, in many colleges and universities there are counselors who help students choose a major or choose classes for the upcoming semester. These counselors offer general guidance but are not trained to work with mental illness or behavioral health issues. A school guidance counselor might help you select what college or university to apply too. A travel counselor will help you pick the best vacation package and help you select the best prices. All of these counselors are trained to provide assistance in a very narrow field.

According to the American Mental Health Counseling Association (AMHC), clinical mental health counselors are highly-skilled professionals who provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy. They combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution. In other words, these graduate educated professionals are trained to be highly empathic, active listeners who also diagnose mental disorders and offer solution oriented feedback to their clients when asked. They help their clients set up goals and hold their clients accountable for working on those goals.

In addition to their initial graduate school training, in order to remain licensed as a clinical mental healthcare professionals, professional mental counselors must complete several hours of continuing education in the counseling field every year. These continuing education classes include learning about issues such as ethics, new advancements in counseling techniques and proper clinical diagnosis.

What Can A Mental Health Counselor Do For Me That A Friend Can't?

Where to Go When Seeking Help?

If your computer is broken, you would call someone experienced in solving IT problems; if you need to have your car serviced, you will look for an automobile mechanic. After all, you probably wouldn't ask a friend to fix your computer or your car, even if they said they could.

Mental health counselors are trained to work with people and their specific circumstances. The first counselor you interact with may not be the best fit for you though. Just like in other professions, different counselors tend to specialize in different issues depending on personal interest, aptitude, and advanced clinical training such as mood disorders, psychosis, addiction and so on. If you're struggling with it, chances are there is a counselor who is experienced in working with it. Therefore, if the first counselor you meet isn't a good fit, don't give up! Look for or ask for a referral for another professional counselor.

If you are seeking help for any kind of mental health issue, it is a good idea to first speak to a general therapist or mental health counselor to determine the actual nature of the problem facing you. The outcome of this process may surprise you; for instance during this process you may learn the difficulties you have at work or in your love life are actually much deeper in their roots than you thought. Any mental health professional will be happy to refer you to a colleague who can provide you with the best care from another counselor with extensive experience in your specific kind of issue, or to a psychiatrist if psychiatric tests or medication might be required.


While we should all strive to be kind and supportive to one another, mental health counseling really isn't something your average friend or family can provide. However good a friend's intentions are, handing out thoughtless advice on mental health matters can do more harm than good at times. Just because someone means well, doesn't mean they have the ability to help you. Besides, your friend or family member is not an impartial third party, they are already biased since they are so close to you. If someone is suffering from a mental health issue, which can range from severe clinical depression to simply not being able to handle the stress of recent life events, there is a world of difference between professional counseling and someone's ordinary opinions.

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