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10 ‘Secrets’ Mental Health Counselors Want You to Know

As a community mental health and addictions counselor and a person with severe mental illness, I understand the perspectives of both counselor and client. I may be unique in my experience of mental illness, but my experience of counseling is common to other counselors. Here are some “secrets” that we counselors share.

1. We’ve likely “been there.”

People become counselors for a reason. Most counselors I know have struggled with anxiety and/or depression at some point in their lives. Many counselors have experienced trauma. Many have family members with mental illness. Many addictions counselors are in recovery from addiction. Our life experiences help us understand our clients, have empathy and share skills or insights that have personally helped us.

2. We’re not the experts.

We may have spent plenty of time in school, going to trainings, researching theory and techniques… but you are the expert on your life, not us. We are resources you can use on your journey to good mental health. We are here to help you however we can.

3. We worry we aren’t doing enough.

After sessions, we sometimes worry about whether we handled the session well, or whether we came off the wrong way. We sometimes worry about whether we are being effective and making a difference. We worry about our clients. My co-workers and I talk about how we wish we could do more for our clients but there is only so much possible.

4. We want your feedback.

Please tell us what’s working and what doesn’t seem to be working. We are able to modify our approach and skills. We want to know what is most comfortable and helpful for you. Counseling is most effective when we get your feedback.

5. We often feel like we’re working for insurance companies, not clients.

So much of what we do is to ensure that insurance companies will reimburse for our services. It dictates how we do our assessments and diagnoses — how we create treatment plans, and how we structure sessions. Insurance companies keep becoming stricter so we keep needing to keep up. It’s continually frustrating for us.

6. In community mental health, we’re often overworked and underpaid.

I have a master’s degree and a counseling license, but you would likely be surprised at how little they pay me. We have to meet strict productivity standards, so we don’t schedule lunches but schedule eight clients back to back. We eat our lunch in five-minute breaks between clients and rush to get our paperwork in on time. It’s exhausting. But still, we work hard every day to do the best for our clients. Unfortunately, due to the low pay and rigorous schedule of community mental health, counselors often don’t stay long but move on to a higher paying counseling job after getting some experience.

7. We sometimes still struggle with our own mental health.

Counseling is a stressful job. Although I have techniques and knowledge to improve mental health, I still struggle with my own issues. Often, clients assume I must be the picture of mental health since I am helping clients improve their own. No, I still struggle. I personally have severe mental illness, so I know I won’t ever be completely stable, but I use the same coping skills I teach to my clients. As a counselor, I work to make sure that my own personal issues do not affect my counseling.

8. We aren’t all the same.

Often, clients tell me, “You counselors all say the same things.” That’s not quite true. We may use similar approaches to other counselors and teach some of the same coping skills, but we have a wide variety of approaches and styles. When we meet a new client, we might start by teaching the popular coping skills other counselors often teach. We teach these skills since they have been shown effective in research with a wide variety of clients. But as we get to know the unique needs of each client, we can expand into different approaches and techniques. We are all trained in a wide variety of techniques, plus we bring in our own counseling style and unique specializations.

9. Counseling is more about the relationship than the results.

There are no guarantees in counseling, but we try to create a safe space where each client feels accepted and valued. Once we create that space and are open to the healing process, great things can happen. I have seen clients transformed, and I have clients who still struggle every week. As a counselor, I am here to accompany my clients wherever they are.

10. Everyone can benefit from counseling, but counseling may not be for everyone.

Everyone has issues they could use help with. Everyone could benefit from a safe space with a compassionate person who would like the opportunity to be supportive. But, at the same time, not everyone likes counseling. Some people find other activities or settings more therapeutic than sitting with a stranger and sharing their thoughts and feelings. If counseling isn’t for you, I’m not offended. But I believe everyone can find benefit in it if they are open to it.

If these “secrets” haven’t scared you off, I encourage you to give counseling a try. There are many counselors out there who are like me and would like the opportunity to support you. Clients often tell me they are surprised at how helpful counseling is. If you are struggling, please reach out to someone for help. We as counselors are equipped to help you.

Photo by Jeffrey Wegrzyn on Unsplash