Careers That Change Lives: Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Being an active listener is an important skill for a counselor.

Being an active listener is an important skill for a counselor.

Few professions in the world today have a bigger impact on our ability to live happier, healthier and more productive daily lives than clinical mental health counseling.

This has been the case throughout the history of the profession, from its roots in the early 1900s to the adoption of comprehensive training standards for mental health counselors in the 1980s, to its inclusion as a primary mental health profession by the Center for Mental Health Services and National Institute of Mental Health in 1992.

But given the social upheaval happening across the globe in 2022, when it comes to careers that change lives, clinical mental health counseling is as important today as it has ever been.

“It isn’t just all the things that are happening around the world that’s bringing about a heightened focus on mental health counseling, it’s the fact that we have much easier access to information about those things that are happening,” says Dr. J. April Upshaw, Assistant Professor of Counseling at Troy University.

“When we have more access to information about things that are happening around the world, we feel closer to those things, and it can bring about more anxiety and concern,” Dr. Upshaw says.

For that reason and many others, she says, more and more individuals are deciding to seek the help of a mental health counselor. 

What Is Clinical Mental Health Counseling?

Typically lesser known than the related professions of psychologist, psychiatrist and social worker, a mental health counselor works with individuals, couples and families to identify cognitive and behavioral concerns and develop treatment goals to work through those issues.

“There are several types of counselors and therapists,” says Riley Ham, a clinical mental health counselor who completed the TROY program in 2020 and is now in private practice. “A clinical mental health counselor focuses more on assessing mental health challenges and utilizing interventions to better assist clients in day-to-day life. We are taught a variety of interventions, theories and methods to help clients in most any situation.”

In her work as a private practitioner, Ham spends most of her time working with individuals in an office setting and throughout the local school systems in south central Alabama. She says most of her elementary-aged clients are dealing with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and challenges in their home and family environments.

“When working with my teen and adult clients, the most common issues are difficulties with anxiety, depression and adjustment,” Ham says. “I have worked with clients of almost any background you could imagine.”

Is the Field of Clinical Mental Health Counseling Expected to Grow in the Future?

Even after mental health counseling established itself alongside psychology, psychiatry and social work among the professions providing mental health services, it still took time for the field to achieve real growth.

A key reason is the social stigma that has historically been applied to mental illness, dissuading people who were in need from seeking out mental health therapy.

That stigma, however, has been decreasing in recent years. According to a report by HealthPartners Institute, from 2017 to 2019 there was a significant increase in the number of people who feel comfortable talking about their struggles with mental illness, as well as more individuals who are willing to seek help.

This is another factor that has contributed to the substantial growth in counseling careers over the past several years and is fueling the expected growth well into the future.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) estimates that the demand for mental health counselors will increase 23% between 2020 and 2030. The BLS cites this level of growth as much faster than average for all other occupations, with the expected addition of more than 75,000 substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors nationwide in that timeframe.

While the exponential growth in clinical mental health counseling makes it an attractive career option, so too do the variety of roles and settings in which counselors may find themselves practicing.

Working directly with clients is the most common professional path, but counselors also have the option of taking roles in management, leadership and facility administration.

Additionally, you’ll find  mental health counselors working anywhere from mental health clinics, private practice, hospitals and community health centers, to schools, businesses, colleges and universities, social service agencies and government agencies.

“I have held several leadership roles in previous jobs, such as a mental health coordinator,” Ham says. “What I love about private practice is although you have a supervisor, you are in a sense your own boss. In most cases, you make your schedule and have a lot of unique opportunities to better build your skill sets.”

What Skills Make Someone a Good Fit for Clinical Mental Health Counseling?

Anyone who successfully fulfills the necessary academic and credentialing requirements can move into a career as a mental health counselor. That said, there are a variety of personal characteristics, traits and skill sets that can make someone a particularly good fit for the field.

“One of the most important skills a person needs to have as a counselor is to be an active listener,” Dr. Upshaw says. “I say ‘active listening’ because clients often come to therapy to address what they think is the concern unaware that their concern might be the symptom of a larger concern. Counselors are actively listening for the root cause of the problem to find the best approach for a resolution.”

Equally important, Dr. Upshaw says, is patience.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “It’s very important to be patient with the work you’re doing and with how your clients are progressing to make sure you’re bringing realistic expectations to what you’re trying to accomplish together.”

It’s also important for anyone considering a career as a mental health counselor to be diligent, persistent and understand that their clients are counting on them, Dr. Upshaw says. “Everyone has hard days, including counselors,” she says. “But you have to have the diligence and persistence to work through it because your clients are relying on you to be there for them.”

Ham agrees and adds that bringing an open mind and as broad a perspective as possible are other characteristics that will help one succeed as a mental health counselor.

“I have found that you must have passion, empathy and an open mind to be an effective counselor,” she says. “You will work with clients from every situation imaginable, so it is crucial to be able to see past your own biases in order to assist them better.”

How to Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor

The Clinical Mental Health Counseling Certificate program, one of five post-graduate certificates offered at TROY, is designed for master’s-level counselors who want to enhance their skills with advanced training in diagnosis and treatment planning for mental health disorders.

In addition to robust theoretical course work and immersive instruction from expert faculty, students in the program also are required to complete a practicum and two internships, where they can apply what they’ve learned in real-world practice settings. Together, the practicum and internships are completed typically in six to 12 months.

While individuals interested in counselor careers can choose from several colleges and universities that offer post-graduate programs, there are significant differences in the TROY program that set it apart, Dr. Upshaw says.

While the convenience of online programming has compelled many schools to transition their offerings to a model that allows them to be completed entirely online, TROY does things a little differently. The Clinical Mental Health Counseling Certificate program at TROY is a hybrid model that is completed 40% online and 60% in person, blending convenience with the value that comes from face-to-face teaching and learning.

“While a number of institutions have gone to a virtual model where the entirety of the counseling program is completed online, TROY still utilizes in-person courses and face-to-face teaching,” Dr. Upshaw says. “This lets our students be a lot more hands-on with the learning and instruction, and I think provides students with a deeper level of engagement.”

Since TROY is a smaller-sized teaching institution, students gain a higher level of personalized instruction and mentorship from full-time faculty.

“Our professors are rolling up their sleeves and teaching on a very individualized basis, as opposed to a huge university where they’re usually spending more time doing research,” Dr. Upshaw says. “Our students get more personal connections with full-time professors and get to know them. If I have a student who’s not in class, I know it, so I’ll reach out to that student to find out what’s up.”

Dr. Upshaw says that another aspect that sets the TROY program apart is that faculty are still actively practicing in clinical counseling in addition to their teaching responsibilities.

“When we talk to students about different scenarios that are happening out in the field, they can be assured that it’s coming from a very current and real-world perspective,” she says.

As a graduate of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Certificate program, Ham says there’s a wide range of key benefits it delivered throughout her experience, from academic advising to close relationships with faculty mentors to the essential skills she developed.

“I spoke with my academic advisors at TROY to determine what I would need to get to where I am today,” Ham says. “I can think of countless skills I was taught through TROY’s counseling program. I was required to take courses such as Theories, Diagnosis and Treatment Planning, Human Development, Evaluation and Assessment, Group Therapy and several electives in areas I was passionate about.”

Ham says the combination of current, relevant course offerings, personalized instruction from faculty and the overall hands-on nature of the program all contributed to making it a valuable and fulfilling academic experience for her.

“My two favorite classes were Group Therapy with Dr. Berry and Evaluation and Assessment with Dr. Hodges,” Ham says. “These classes allowed us to be hands-on with assessments and different types of intervention styles. I found it to be a very effective form of learning.”

Clinical Mental Health Counselor: A Fulfilling Career

For many professionals who ultimately enter the field as clinical mental health counselors, their initial interest came from a simple desire for a career helping individuals and families to live happier, healthier daily lives.

The Clinical Mental Health Counseling Certificate program at TROY serves as a powerful path to bring focus to their desire and gain the preparation necessary to be at their best when it comes to working with clients.

“For me, one of the best rewards is knowing that each day will be something new. I have found this job to be fulfilling because I know each day I have the opportunity to make an impact in someone’s life,” Ham says. “It’s the opportunity to see other people grow and become better versions of themselves. I love helping people come to realizations and giving them the tools they need to improve and cope with various challenges.”

Ham credits the program at TROY for delivering on its promises, positioning her to achieve her current and future career goals as a mental health counselor and preparing her to provide the best possible care for her clients.

“I cannot express enough how much TROY’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling prepared me for my career,” Ham says. “I thoroughly enjoyed getting to learn under people who have such a broad range of experience and insights.”

To learn more about TROY’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling Certificate Program, visit the counseling certificates program page where you can request more information and begin your application.