Seeing a counselor of any type can be an intimidating prospect for some people and might even seem like an admittance of failure for others. However, taking that first step could open the door to a future ripe with overcoming fears and obtaining self-realization. Read on to find out the different types of counselors, how they treat patients, where they work and more.

What is a Counselor?

Counselors are professionals who assist individuals and groups with their personal problems in order to help them become more self-sufficient. Individuals that specialize in mental health counseling concentrate on promoting optimum mental health through various programs and services. They help individuals deal with suicidal impulses, anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, addictions and substance abuse, stress management, job and career concerns, marital problems, educational decisions and issues associated with aging. They often work closely with other mental health professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers to ensure that all of the patient’s needs are being met. They frequently conduct research and report their findings in professional and trade journals.[1,2,3]

Types of Counselors

Although certain counselors can provide educational and career assistance, there are two specific types of counselors that specialize in a person’s emotional well-being and mental health. These professionals are mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists, whose specialties range from addictions counseling to adolescent and gerontological counseling.[1,2,3]

How do Counselors Treat Patients?

Beginning with the interview process, mental health counselors make observations that help them determine a treatment plan that will accomplish their client’s goals. They often use personality, aptitude and psychological tests to determine more precisely the needs of a particular patient. More specifically, mental health counselors typically perform the following:[1,2]

  • Diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression
  • Encourage clients to discuss their emotions and experiences
  • Help clients process their reactions and adjust to changes in their life, such as divorce or layoffs
  • Guide clients through the process of making decisions about their future
  • Help clients develop strategies and skills to change their behavior or cope with difficult situations
  • Coordinate treatment with other professionals, such as psychiatrists and social workers
  • Refer clients to other resources or services in the community, such as support groups or inpatient treatment facilities

Where do Counselors Work?

Mental health counselors are employed in a variety of settings including private practice, hospitals, correctional institutions, mental health clinics, schools and universities, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, halfway houses and residential care facilities. They may work long, irregular hours including nights and weekends.[1,2]

How do I Become a Counselor?

All states require mental health counselors to have a master’s degree and a license to practice.[2]


A master’s degree in counseling or marriage and family therapy is required. A bachelor’s degree in most fields is acceptable to enter a master’s-level program.

Counseling programs prepare students to recognize symptoms of mental and emotional disorders and to use effective counseling strategies. Marriage and family therapy programs teach students about how marriages, families and relationships function and how they affect mental and emotional disorders. Both programs typically require a period of supervised experience, such as an internship.


Mental health counselors must be licensed. Licensure requires a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. In addition, counselors must pass a state-recognized exam and complete annual continuing education classes. Contact information for state regulating boards is available through the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Marriage and family therapists must be licensed. Licensure requires a master’s degree and two years of supervised clinical experience. Like counselors, marriage and family therapists must pass a state-recognized exam and complete annual continuing education classes. Contact information for state regulating boards is available through the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.


  1. Mississippi Hospital Association Health Careers Center. Mental Health Counselor. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from
  3. American Counseling Association. What is Professional Counseling? Retrieved May 19, 2013, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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