Mental Health Counselor  What They Do

Just the Facts


Mental Health Counselors Career Video



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dotIt's easy to get through the good times on our own. But when the times get tough, we might need someone to help us handle life's challenges.

Whether it's a breakup, the death of a loved one, depression, stress or some other type of crisis, mental health therapists are there to assist those in need.

dotMental health therapist is a general term for people who work in the mental health profession. They also go by job titles such as mental health workers, mental health counselors, and marriage, family and child counselors. All of these specialists deal with improving a person's peace of mind.

"As one gains more understanding of the kinds of issues that humans commonly experience over the years, then you begin to have a sense of what people need in order to make it through challenging experiences," says mental health therapist Daniel Keeran.

"Whether it's a relationship experience, a marital issue or problem, whether it's a coping with loss or other kind of problem or issue, it's very gratifying to be able to help that person work through that issue and benefit from the interaction, and see them actually make progress," says Keeran.

dotPsychologists and psychiatrists are also mental health professionals, but these are protected titles. Only people with the required licensing and training can call themselves a psychologist or psychiatrist. Psychologists normally have a PhD, while psychiatrists are medical doctors with an MD.

By contrast, anyone can use the terms therapist and counselor (for example, you might see "financial counselors" at your bank). Therapists aren't required to be licensed in most jurisdictions. However, a big advantage of being licensed is that insurance companies may reimburse your clients for the services you provide.

dotAt their initial meeting with a client, a therapist will get a case history and background information about the patient. They will then devise a schedule of treatment and begin the healing process. After each session, the therapist takes notes on the case and the patient's progress.

Therapists may spend time accessing a patient's eligibility for social assistance or insurance, and sometimes refer patients to other therapists. Therapists can also give life skills courses.

Therapists can work at a variety of locations, although most of their work is done in an office setting. They can work for large institutions such as hospitals and therapy clinics, or they can run their own private clinics.

They can also work for private companies, the government, the military and nonprofit organizations.

dot Therapists generally work their hours around patients' schedules. This means that they have to be willing to work outside of 9-to-5 office hours.

It can be difficult to leave your work at the office when you're a therapist. Always thinking about your clients' problems can lead to burnout. "I do think there really is [a risk of burnout] because some of the issues are so intense that we're working with," says therapist Trisha Swinton.

Swinton says therapists can manage stress by having a good network of friends, as well as other therapists, with whom to brainstorm and debrief. She says therapists need to, "[M]ake sure they have some good outlets for keeping their own stress and anxiety down, and not to... bring home these issues to your own personal life."

This is a job well suited to physically challenged people. For example, someone who is hearing impaired may be better able to assist a deaf patient, either by using sign language or by simply better understanding the patient's condition.

Just the Facts

Want a quick overview of what this career is about?Check out Just the Facts for simple lists of characteristics.


At a Glance

Improve peace of mind

  • More states are requiring licensing
  • Sometimes therapists have to hospitalize patients
  • There is no standard educational pathway