Friday, March 25, 2022

Education and Skills You Need to Work as a Mental Health Counselor

Education and Skills You Need to Work as a Mental Health Counselor

If you are interested in a career where you can help individuals, couples, and families through personal problems and support them in overcoming mental health struggles, conditions, and psychiatric disorders, then you might have considered working as a mental health counselor. 

The role of a mental health counselor involves working closely with clients to help them overcome anything from stressful situations to more serious psychiatric disorders that are having an impact on their everyday lives.  As society becomes more and more aware of mental health and the need to care for our mental wellbeing, and the stigma around seeing a therapist begins to wane thanks to more awareness being raised online and more people speaking openly about their experiences, the demand for good mental health professionals is on the rise. 

Keep reading to find out more about how to get into a career as a mental health counselor and the skills you will need to develop to be successful. 

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

To become a licensed mental health counselor, you will need to first complete a relevant bachelor’s degree in a subject like psychology. You will then go on to get the necessary graduate-level education before completing postgraduate clinical work experience under supervision. Once you have completed all of these steps, the final step is to pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor exam, which will permit you to apply for a license to practice in your state. Overall, this will usually take around 8-9 years in total. 

1 – Undergraduate Degree

Ultimately, you will need to get a master’s degree in a relevant field such as psychology or mental health counseling to work in this role. However, before you can enroll on a master’s program, you will usually be required to have a relevant bachelor’s degree. 

Entry requirements may vary depending on the school and program that you apply to, so if you already have a bachelor’s degree, you may not need to go back to school to get another one to get into your dream career. Psychology, human services, sociology, and anthropology are some common majors chosen by bachelor’s degree students who go on to become a licensed mental health counselor. 

2 – Master’s Degree

The next step in the process of getting into this career is to get a master’s degree. You can find degree programs designed to prepare – this post on how to become a clinical mental health counselor from St. Bonaventure University explains more. You may want to consider spending some time working in an entry-level position in the field of psychology and mental health before you enroll on a master’s degree, as this may strengthen your application. 

3 – Postgraduate Clinical Work

Once you have obtained a master’s qualification, you will need to get a number of clinical hours to qualify for a license. This will usually be done at your first job after you graduate. You’ll also spend ‘supervision hours’ working directly with a licensed professional who will review your cases and your approach to treatment. 

4 – Pass the Exam

The final step which will allow you to qualify to get a license to practice is to pass the exam that is required by your state licensing board. This will usually be either the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam or the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification. Once you have passed this exam, you can go ahead and apply for a license to practice in your state, which usually involves a small fee. 

Counseling Skills You Need to Succeed

As a career, counseling is all about being able to build effective and productive relationships with your clients so that you can help them reach their full potential and overcome problems that they are struggling to deal with on their own. 

To do this effectively, you will need to develop a certain skill set. A mental health counselor who is competent and skilled will have the ability to support their patients throughout their treatment plan and help them achieve their goals of overcoming various issues and leading a more fulfilling life. As you complete your education and get work experience, it is important to focus on developing various counseling skills that you will need to develop better relationships with your clients. 

What are Counseling Skills?

Any good counselor or therapist knows that a solid relationship is essential to having a positive impact on their clients or patients. In counseling, the therapist provides an example of a secure attachment to clients who may have an anxious, disorganized, or dismissive-avoidant attachment style due to personal experiences in their lives. While healing an attachment style may not be the basis of the therapy and may never even be discussed in sessions, security is the foundation of a thriving relationship where the client can feel safe, heard, seen, and able to express themselves. 

The relationship between the counselor and the client is built on a solid foundation of counseling skills and qualities including empathy, understanding, and respect, which you may already possess naturally as a human being and will have the chance to develop further as you train to become a mental health counselor. 

As a therapist, your skillset will be able to help you and your clients achieve various goals such as helping clients improve a wide range of personal skills, manage problems, improve relationships, and better understand themselves. Some of the most important skills that you will need as a mental health counselor include:

Communication and Listening Skills

Good listening and communication skills are the foundation of any relationship that you have with your clients as a counselor. To be effective in this role, you will need to be able to listen to understand your clients, and able to communicate information to them clearly in a way that they can understand. Therapists will need to focus on everything that a client is telling them with total concentration. It’s important to be able to put your own biases or opinions to one side and approach the situation with objectivity. 

Along with strong verbal communication skills, you will also need to work on improving your abilities when it comes to non-verbal communication. In this role, you’ll need to be aware of clients’ body language and other non-verbal cues to get a well-rounded idea of what they are telling you and pick up on how it may be affecting them in order to ask searching questions to prompt them to consider how they might deal with the issue differently going forwards. 

Awareness and Reflection

Being aware of your clients is one thing, but to be effective as a therapist, you will also need to have a healthy dose of self-awareness. Mental health counselors are humans too and working in this role it is inevitable that you are going to face situations where something from your personal life might come up for you. Whether it’s a similar situation that you have been through or a personal feeling that you have about a specific issue, being able to immediately spot this and be aware of how it might affect the treatment or advice you provide is crucial. 

It’s also important for you to be aware of and able to recognize feelings both emotionally and physically. Reflection is a crucial skill for mental health counselors that ties into this. This is a complex skill that requires an ability to be aware of the message that clients are trying to get across in a session and reflect what they have heard back to them. 

Along with this, to reflect effectively, therapists should also be able to accept corrections to their understanding of what has been said. 

And finally, a good therapist should also be able to reflect on themselves over time, being aware of how they are performing and committed to continuous improvement. 

Reflecting Feelings

Being able to reflect back what a client has said to you is at the basic level. As you progress in your counseling education and get real-world practice in supervision and clinical work experience, you will need to learn to reflect back not only words and meanings to your clients, but also how they feel. This requires a strong level of emotional intelligence to understand what your clients are saying and be aware of how they are feeling about what they are confiding in you. 

To do this effectively, you will need to become very skilled at picking up verbal and nonverbal cues, including vocal, verbal, facial, and body language messages along with being aware of your own emotional reactions. To be an effective therapist, it’s important that you’re not just listening to the surface message but also figuring out the deeper meaning in order to help your client where it matters the most. 

Challenging Skills

As a therapist, you will need to become skilled at challenging your clients’ perceptions with empathy and tact. This skill is important in therapy as it allows you to offer new perspectives to your clients and help them reframe how they view events, problems, and situations. 

To be able to effectively challenge your clients in a way that makes them consider a different perspective, you will need a strong skill-set of reflecting thoughts and feelings, using empathy and respect to ensure that your client knows they are heard and understood, and validating your client’s current feelings and perspective before challenging them. 

For example, you might do this in a way that provokes thought by asking your client to back up their negative self-beliefs or simply pointing out some alternatives that they may want to consider. Being able to do this in a way that supports and empowers the client rather than putting them down is crucial for therapy to be effective, which is why it is one of the most important skills you can learn. 

It should always be coupled with good counseling communication skills, including avoiding messages that begin with ‘you’ that could be taken in a negative way, and being aware of the clients and their limitations to avoid pushing them too far. 

Helping Skills

While all counseling skills can arguably be classed as helping skills, there are certain skills that you will use while working in this role that are specifically for the purpose of helping and supporting your clients. The ability to ask open questions, for example, is important for mental health counselors to be able to encourage their clients to elaborate on their internal frames of reference.

Even something as simple as asking a client how they feel about a situation can open up a discussion that can be useful for uncovering the meaning behind something that has been said or getting to the truth of a matter for both yourself and your client, who may not even be aware how they are really feeling about something or how it is actually affecting them. 

These skills involve a keen awareness of the emotional messages that are tied into the conversation. To be effective, therapists should be able to offer a balance between direct guidance and being emotionally attuned to their client. 

How to Improve Your Counseling Skills

Many of the skills that you will need to become an effective mental health counselor can simply be improved as you get more practice. Since it takes between eight and nine years to qualify as a mental health counselor from getting your bachelor’s degree to passing the exam and applying for your license, this gives you plenty of chances to practice these skills and develop them further, even in your everyday life. Even though you may not yet be licensed to practice as a therapist, learning and practicing these skills can help you support family and friends, get to know new people better, and improve your personal relationships while developing the abilities you will need to be successful as a counselor in the future. 

With an increasing number of people now seeking support for their mental health, good counselors are in high demand. With the right education and skills, you can get into a unique career that gives you the chance to make a huge impact on the people you work with. 

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