A mental health counselor is a mental health professional who provides a variety of services to clients with mental illness. Under the care of a counselor, a patient can be evaluated, and a number of treatment options can be recommended. To practice as a mental health counselor, someone generally needs to complete a masters degree in counseling or a related field, followed by two years of clinical training working with patients, and successful completion of a certification exam. People may be required to attend continuing education classes to maintain their certification, depending on where they practice. Many also belong to professional organizations to maintain professional credentials.
Mental health counselors can work in public or private practice, handling patients who may be referred by other professionals, or who may seek out counseling independently. These counseling professionals look at internal and external factors which play a role in mental health, evaluating patients in a series of interviews and using this information to provide constructive advice to improve the patient's mental health.
Many people with mental illness can benefit from seeing a mental health counselor. The counselor may provide psychotherapy and other therapeutic options, referring the patient to a medical doctor or psychiatrist as needed for medical interventions such as prescription medications or more intensive therapies. The mental health counselor can also connect patients with community services they may find useful, in addition to helping patients find benefits and other assistance.
Employment in this field is quite variable. Mental health counselors may be employed by the government, various school systems, private companies, and clinics, including community clinics and private clinics. As a general rule, the more experience and training a mental health counselor has, the more jobs will be available, with correspondingly higher salary and benefits packages. Individuals interested in working in the mental health field who enjoy interacting with people and taking a holistic approach to therapy may enjoy careers in this area.
People who pursue careers in mental health counseling often choose a specific area of focus, such as couples counseling, substance abuse counseling, working with older adults, counseling children, and so forth. Specialization helps counselors deliver the most effective services to their clients, and to pursue areas of particular interest. For some specialties, there are professional organizations which people can join to keep up with the latest in the field and to have an opportunity to network with like minded professionals.