What Is a Mental Health Counselor?

Published on: 16 May 2017
mental health counselor client couch

The basic definition of a mental health counselor is simple. Understanding all of what the term can mean, however, is more complicated.

Mental health counselors are licensed professionals who help people manage and overcome mental and emotional disorders and problems with family and other relationships, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They communicate with clients to understand their problems and develop strategies to improve their lives.

Depending on the context, “mental health counselor” can refer to a specific license rather than the actual work. Mental health professionals can earn the proper mental health counselor license, but their daily work might not involve counseling. Before or after their clinical work, many become administrators, educators, or consultants. Nonetheless, most professionals who advertise themselves as mental health counselors provide mental health support as their primary source of income.

To receive an appropriate license, mental health counselors need to have earned a master’s degree in a relevant psychological field, completed a specific number of hours of clinical training under a supervisor, and passed the licensing exam in their state. There are a few names for the licenses and profession, including:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor [LMHC]
  • Licensed Professional Counselor [LPC]
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor [LCPC].

These licenses vary by state, although LMHC is the most common.

Clarifying the Terms: Mental Health Counselor vs. Therapist, Psychologist and Social Worker

Many people use the terms “mental health counselor,” “therapist,” and “psychologist” interchangeably. It is often a matter of preference, branding, or a feeling that one word best suits an identity. Unfortunately this creates confusion among professionals and potential clients.

Unlike “mental health counselor,” “therapist” is not a license nor is it listed in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is an umbrella term to describe various mental health professionals who primarily work with clients to improve their mental health. “Psychologist” is also an umbrella term that describes mental health professionals. It does, however, tend to refer more often to people who conduct research. Mental health counselors can conduct research as well, but they usually work primarily with clients.

People who have social work licenses can also provide counseling and refer to themselves as mental health counselors. Social workers can also fall under the umbrella of therapists or psychologists.

Considerations When Looking for a Mental Health Counselor

If you are searching for a licensed professional to help you cope with mental health issues and improve your life, remember to look past licenses and job titles. Widen your search using all of the terms discussed in this article. When you find a potential match with a “mental health counselor,” check their specialization and what their work entails. For example, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker [LCSW] who calls himself a mental health counselor could end up being a better fit than a LMHC.

Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

If you’re interested in becoming a mental health counselor, start by considering where you are in your career and what field you’re looking to join. Do you already have a master’s degree? What are your salary expectations? What population do you hope to work with?

Here are some resources that can guide you:

Looking Beyond the Words

When you see terms that describe mental health professionals, remember to research beyond the basic definitions. Each term has different connotations that sometimes distract from what is most important. Ultimately it is a mental health professional’s skillset, experience, and work that defines them.

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