Mental health counselors are compassionate, open-minded people with a passion for helping others. They offer support and a safe place for patients to discuss their innermost fears and feelings. Counselors can be found in a variety of settings, from clinics, hospitals and care homes to correctional facilities and private practice. Online counseling has also become an effective method of treatment, reducing costs and enabling people to avoid the fear of stigma.
Millions of people in the US are affected by mental health issues every year, but not everyone knows where to get help or can afford it. In some communities, there is still a stigma attached to mental health, which prevents people from seeking help when they really need it.
As is the case with most health conditions, if mental illness is not treated in time, it is likely to worsen. When trying to cope with mental illness, resistance to disease weakens, affecting the body in general, and if left untreated, mental illness can manifest in physiological problems.
Fortunately for us all, qualifications in mental health counseling are now more easily obtained through online options with universities and colleges. And with the rising number of people dealing with health issues, there is no shortage of jobs out there.
Your career in mental health counseling
Whether your passion lies with helping abused women and children, crisis support, LGBT rights or advocacy, you can specialize in whatever area you choose. An online master’s in mental health counseling with St. Bonaventure University prepares you for a career in the vocation of your choice. You can work while you master the advanced skills necessary to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.
Below, we discuss the options open to mental health counselors, and provide some advice that may help you decide on the route to take.
The rewards are many for mental health counselors who choose to go it alone in private practice. They can choose the times they work, making sure that their hours fit in around a busy family life. Private practice can be operated from a room or two in the counselor’s home or in a suite of offices in an area of their choice. They can choose their décor to create a calm, relaxed atmosphere that’s conducive to successful therapy.
Good time management and organizational skills are necessary for a successful private practice, as is a thorough knowledge of and adherence to the various state laws regarding practice. Other setup requirements are correct documentation and licensing of the practice, and also professional liability insurance.
The safety of patients may be a concern in some areas, along with privacy and confidentiality. Patients need to feel comfortable when visiting a counseling practice and know that there are no risks involved.
Counselors in clinical settings
Patients who have been admitted to hospital for treatment will be suffering from some form of anxiety. For children, it will be separation anxiety as they battle to understand why they are there, and why their parents have left them. Adults fully understand the need to be in the hospital, but concerns about their health status, the cost of being there, the fact that they have had to call in sick at work, and any number of other responsibilities they have left behind cause feelings of anxiety.
Hospital staff are trained to pick up depression and anxiety in patients and will call in a hospital counselor. Sometimes all that is necessary is a prescription for a sleeping or calming drug, but in some cases, more in-depth counseling may be necessary. Hospital counselors also see to it that when the patient leaves, they have good advice and can take care of themselves.
Counselors will recommend a regime of exercise and healthy food, with plenty of rest. This also involves counseling the family on the proper care of the patient once they leave the hospital. They assist the family in finding the resources necessary for the patient’s continued health.
Some general hospitals have psychiatric wards, and for mental health counselors, starting out in this type of environment will ensure that they get the maximum amount of experience in the least possible time. They get to see a wider range of socioeconomic factors that influence mental health, as opposed to, say, a private practice in an affluent suburb. This is the ideal way to start out and build up valuable experience.
Inpatient, outpatient, and residential care
A patient will have inpatient or outpatient counseling services depending on the severity of the case. Inpatient facilities include hospitals and clinics where patients stay overnight or for an extended period. This provides invaluable training experience for the counselor, as previously mentioned.
A clinical outpatient center offers one-on-one counseling or group sessions involving people with similar problems. After the session is complete, the patients return home.
In more severe cases, patients will be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for observation and treatment. There are many large psychiatric hospitals in the US, and for the mental health counselor who is starting out, the training received in one of these institutions would be ideal for ensuring success in their future career in the field.
It is said that in cases of severe mental stress, treatment in a residential care facility outweighs the benefits of outpatient services for many reasons. Residential treatment sometimes resembles that of inpatient or hospital treatment. However, it tends to be in a more intimate, homely setting.
Residential programs offer 24-hour supervision in a supportive environment, as opposed to inpatient facilities, which may be overcrowded and, due to other patients’ mental instability, sometimes unpleasant. Besides counseling, group sessions and other activities that enhance wellbeing, residential homes ensure that their patients lead a healthy lifestyle by including a proper diet and exercise in their regime.
Inpatient care is still preferable to outpatient care, as without the support of nurses and counselors, once a patient goes home, temptation kicks in and they often revert to their old lifestyle habits.
As a counselor in a private residential mental health care facility, you would be working with fewer patients in an environment that is more relaxing and conducive to healing, resulting in better patient outcomes.
From a mental health counselor’s point of view, there is no need to reside in the residential home, and employment can be on a full-time or contractual, hourly paid basis with, possibly, a 24-hour emergency standby as part of the contract. A residential environment is likely to be more relaxed and aesthetically pleasing from the counselor’s point of view, and the patient outcomes are likely to be of a better quality than in a clinical outpatient setting.
Many community health organizations and child protection agencies provide home counseling to people who are unable to travel to the centers due to illness, disability, transport issues or a lack of financial means. In some instances, home-based therapy is more beneficial for the patient. Children in particular feel more comfortable in their own surroundings, whether at their dining room table or in the lounge. Therapists and patients tend to build closer relationships in this setting. At the same time, therapists get to see and experience the patient’s home life and circumstances, which can be helpful with the counseling. In this way, the therapist can ensure that the patient’s basic needs are being met at home.
Therapists often work in teams in this setting, particularly when responding to crisis calls. They can also work around their family schedule and plan their therapy sessions to suit themselves. It eliminates the need for a daily commute into an office, thus saving time.
There is a downside to this type of therapy. There may be a lot of distractions in the home, such as noisy children or loud music. Lack of privacy will mean that the patient is not comfortable discussing their issues with the counselor, and the therapy session will be ineffective. Distractions may impinge on the therapist’s time, creating a billing dilemma over whether they should stop the clock or bill for the wasted time.
Home-based therapists must make their boundaries clear and stick to them.
Community health centers
Federally qualified health centers treat patients from historically disadvantaged communities across the US, regardless of their financial circumstances. Mental health care in community centers means less stigma attached to mental illness, and the ability to identify patients’ needs in the early stages. In addition to counseling services, community centers are able to provide shelter for patients in the form of safe housing and employment opportunities.
Without community-based treatment, many mentally ill people commit crimes and are arrested. It then falls upon the courts to place them in mental institutions. Studies show that the number of mentally ill people in prison outnumbers that of people in mental institutions at an estimated ratio of three to one.
Therefore, the importance of the role that mental health counselors play in community health centers cannot be overestimated. They raise awareness in the community about mental health and help identify people in need of assistance. With a focus on the rights of the individuals being treated, the basic interventions used include individual counseling, group counseling and medication. In addition, they can promote social activities such as board games, art lessons and fitness classes to improve social and health-related competencies within the community.
Community-based health centers also offer crisis counseling in the form of walk-in centers or call centers for issues such as natural disasters, veteran crises, suicide prevention, and general lifeline centers for depression or even loneliness.
Homes for the elderly
Mental health issues in elderly people are sometimes difficult to identify and treat due to their high comorbidity. Most people older than 65 have at least one chronic ailment, and this figure escalates once people reach 85 years of age, with the side effects of the medical intervention possibly leading to organic mental syndromes – that is, reduced brain function that is not due to psychiatric illness.
Due to the natural process of aging, both from a physical and a neurological point of view, a degree of dementia is common in many elderly people. As they become less communicative, other health issues are harder to identify, and when people realize that they are losing cognitive function, it often leads to severe depression. Mental health counselors in senior healthcare centers can recognize the symptoms and administer medication where necessary. Involving the residents in activities such as bingo or board games or inviting guests in to sing or play musical instruments helps to relieve anxiety and depression, which are all too common in these settings.
According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, approximately 37% of people in prison have a history of mental health problems such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and personality disorders. These people are being locked up, often for petty crimes, instead of receiving treatment in more suitable institutions. As a result, mental health care in prisons has become essential as they treat and advocate for prisoners’ rights to healthcare.
Prisoners with mental health issues fall prey to victimization more easily and find it more difficult to adjust to the institutional environment, which exacerbates their mental condition. Many reports show that it’s mostly the mentally ill who commit suicide and end up in isolation because of their inability to understand and follow prison rules. As a result, they tend to spend longer in prison than other prisoners. This highlights the need for mental health counseling in correctional facilities.
Psychiatrists in correctional facilities do a mix of individual and group counseling, where they teach prisoners healthy ways of dealing with their anger and fear and how to interpret various situations. These methods have been shown to decrease depression, hostility, anxiety and psychoticism and have helped reduce reactive criminal thinking.
The costs of keeping psychiatric prisoners are also far higher as additional staffing and medication expenses mount up.
Mental health and the workplace
Clinical environments often require their counselors to be available after hours and on weekends. For parents, this is not an ideal situation, as their time spent with family is important. As a graduate in a mental health discipline, you can offer your services to insurance companies and large corporations. You can lend your expertise to the insurance claim process while working hours that fit in with your family’s and chosen lifestyle.
Alternately, you can contract with various large organizations and serve as a counselor to staff who are overworked and not coping with the pressures of life. Your input would be invaluable to management as you empower their staff with coping skills and help to identify individuals who need additional counseling. As staff realize their potential, they become more motivated, which causes an increase in production. You can also advocate for facilities within the organization to help staff relax and build better relationships with their peers.
Educational facilities require the services of mental health practitioners who can help students cope with the workload and peer pressure. Teaching them coping skills and helping them with study methods takes the pressure off teachers and parents and empowers students to move forward with their careers.
Non-profit organizations and mental health care facilities
Many non-profit organizations (NPOs) offer mental health counseling services to communities and individuals who are financially challenged. A large percentage of adults and children are unable to seek help due to financial constraints, and the need for NPO mental counselors is growing.
As in community centers, mental health care NPOs support and educate communities on healthcare and lifestyle while identifying individuals who need assistance in the way of counseling or medication.
Science and research
With evidence-based practice in clinical settings becoming the norm today, research is necessary for advancement in the mental health arena. For a graduate in mental health counseling, the value of research is obvious, and with a couple of years of experience behind them, scientific research may be an appealing option. You could get involved in meaningful research on the various methods of counseling, for improved patient outcomes and a satisfying job experience.
We are still trying to come to terms with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected people worldwide. The repercussions caused by the loss of loved ones, uncertainty, loss of employment and side-effects of medications have sent the incidence of mental health issues soaring. Now more than ever, there is a dire need for professional counselors who can change the lives of those in need.