The Mighty Logo

What Is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

It’s estimated that more than one in five adults and one in six children in the United States live with a mental health condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), respectively. As the number of people impacted by mental health conditions continues to grow, the importance of mental health treatment does, too.

In this article, we’ll discuss a particular type of mental health professional — clinical mental health counselors — and answer frequently asked questions: what do they do, will they be a good fit for your needs, and how do you find one? Keep reading to learn more about clinical mental health counselors.

What Does a Clinical Mental Health Counselor Do?

A clinical mental health counselor differs from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker. Still, they all have one thing in common: they are trained mental health professionals who provide counseling services to clients seeking mental health care and support.

According to the American Counseling Association, clinical mental health counselors are “mental health service providers, trained to work with individuals, families, and groups in treating mental, behavioral, and emotional problems and disorders.” They may also be trained to treat substance use disorders.

As mentioned, a clinical mental health counselor differs from the other mental health professionals listed above. For example, clinical mental health counselors are unable to order medical tests or prescribe medications (psychologists and social workers also cannot do this, but psychiatrists can).

Clinical mental health counselors also do not require a doctoral degree (psychiatrists and psychologists do). Instead, their educational requirement is a master’s degree — specifically, a Master of Science (MS) — often in counseling, mental health counseling, or a similar concentration.

In addition to their degree, clinical mental health counselors must have a counseling license for the state where they practice. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this requires them to complete a certain number of hours of post-graduate counseling services supervised by a licensed counselor. Some states also require them to complete a supervised internship and one or more certification exams. The most common exam requirement is the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). This exam and the counselor’s state licensure are delivered by the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Why Choose a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

Clinical mental health counselors tend to be forward-focused, guiding you through short-term issues and life challenges. As a result, a clinical mental health counselor’s work may be more likely to offer short-term care and determine a set number of sessions to provide support. So, if you are hoping to work together with a trained mental health professional to address a particular experience or challenge, a clinical mental health counselor may be a good fit.

Finally, we want to note that “counseling” and “therapy” are often used interchangeably, but they are different. Counseling, as we mentioned, tends to focus more on specific, short-term issues, whereas therapy (also called psychotherapy and talk therapy) is typically a longer-term process.

What to Expect in Mental Health Counseling

Mental health counseling is a powerful tool for improving your mental health. Understanding how it works can help you feel more prepared for your first appointment. While there are many different types of counseling, and each counselor has their own style, there are some general things you can expect.

During the Initial Assessment: Many clinical mental health counselors will provide you with an opportunity to book a free 15 to 30-minute phone call to determine if you are a good fit for each other. In this first session, the counselor will likely start with a few questions. Here are common questions to expect during the first appointment:

  • What brings you to counseling?
  • Have you been in counseling before?
  • What are you looking for in a counselor?
  • What are you hoping to get out of counseling?
  • If you have been in counseling before, what has worked well in the past and what hasn’t?

You may also ask them any questions you may have, like their approach to therapy, any specific techniques they use, or if they have experience working with clients whose situations are similar to yours.

Finally, if your counselor does something that makes you uncomfortable, you have the right to speak up or find a new counselor. And if you decide your counselor doesn’t feel like a good fit after a few sessions, don’t be afraid to switch.

During the Counseling Process: Once you find a counselor who is a good fit, you and your counselor can determine the best day and time to meet. During the counseling process, you and your counselor will work together to address your short-term issues and life challenges. While individual counseling goals vary, a common goal of counseling is to develop healthy coping skills.

How to Find a Qualified Mental Health Counselor

While there is no exhaustive list or database to support you in finding a qualified clinical mental health counselor, we do have some tips to help your search:

  • Ask your primary care provider for a referral
  • If you have health insurance, check with your insurance company to obtain a list of in-network counselors
  • Ask your friends, family, colleagues, or health care providers for recommendations
  • Search online by specialty, location, and insurance coverage
  • And once you’ve found a few options, check credentials (i.e., are they licensed counselors) and reviews

Costs and Financial Considerations for Mental Health Therapy

The cost of mental health counseling can vary depending on the type of counseling, the experience of the counselor, and the location of the practice. Some health insurance plans cover mental health counseling, but there may be copayments, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs, so it’s essential to check your coverage with your insurance company.

But if you don’t currently have insurance or you have high out-of-pocket costs, there are still ways to get affordable mental health counseling. Some counselors offer sliding scale fees, which means they charge based on your income and ability to pay. Many non-profit organizations also provide free or low-cost mental health counseling services.

Confidentiality and Ethical Practices

It’s important to understand that both privacy and confidentiality are essential parts of mental health counseling. Your counselor is ethically and legally obligated to protect your privacy and the information you share with them. However, there are limited circumstances when your counselor may be required to break confidentiality. These include, but are not limited to:

  • If you are a danger to yourself or others
  • If you are a child and your counselor suspects abuse or neglect
  • If you are court-ordered to seek counseling

If you do have any concerns about your privacy, your counselor will be able to answer any questions you may have.

How to Evaluate if Your Mental Health Counselor Is Helping

It’s essential to be able to track your progress in counseling. Here are a few things to consider when determining if your mental health counselor is helping:

  • Do you feel better after your sessions?
  • Can you use the skills you learn in counseling in your everyday life?
  • Are you reaching your counseling goals?
  • Do you feel safe and comfortable with your counselor?
  • Do you feel like your counselor is listening to you and understanding your needs?

When it comes to your mental health care, you are in charge. If your counselor isn’t a good fit for you, or you’re not seeing the desired results, it’s time to find a new counselor.

Getty image by Fiordaliso

Originally published: November 8, 2023
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home