What's A Mental Health Professional?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Many individuals have an idea of what counseling might look like or what a counselor does. However, the counseling career can be as unique as those working in it. Licensed professionals 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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What can a mental health counselor do for me that a friend can't?

Understanding the role of a counselor

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

The criteria for becoming a licensed professional 

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 additional 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. After obtaining a master’s degree and a license, some counselors enter non-public practice.

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 that licensed professionals 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 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 professionals 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, discuss their concerns, and help them find other resources and appropriate care.

With a legal release form, counselors can communicate with clients’ other providers to develop treatment plans that enhance overall wellness. 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 professionals?

There are various types of health counselors, including the following: 

  • LCPC: Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
  • LCSW: Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  • 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. Family therapists may help individuals and couples navigate complex family dynamics and experiences.

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.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

How to select the right professional for you

Therapists, counselors, and licensed clinical social workers are trained to do clinical work with diverse populations. In addition, there are various specialties counselors can consider. For example, a licensed marriage and family therapist can assist clients seeking relationship guidance. Counselors can also practice various talk 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 professional for symptom support. Others might attend a weekly support group and meet with a counselor afterward to discuss their experiences. Combining group sessions with individual therapy may be a useful approach for people who want professional help and peer support. 

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 professional

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 one-on-one practice, or ask friends and family for references. However, in-person counseling can be expensive, time-consuming, and stressful for some people. 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 receive treatment 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 talk therapist 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 can provide high-quality support, guidance, and advice to clients facing various challenges, including substance use, personal concerns, or relationship problems. If you're interested in learning more about what a mental health counselor does and how their services might benefit you, consider reaching out to an online or in-person provider for further guidance and personalized treatment plans. Take the first step toward improved emotional health and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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