The impact of the nation’s mental health crisis cannot be understated. In 2020, the economic cost of treating mental health conditions in the United States was estimated at $280 billion. The price tag is high, but so are the consequences of leaving mental illness untreated. Poor mental health, coupled with a lack of available mental health services, can be devastating on both a personal and societal level.
With more than 20 years of experience in mental health and substance use counseling, Dr. Shelley W. Reed works in many different settings with people with severe and persistent mental health-related challenges. In addition to her role as a professor in the clinical mental health counseling master’s program that is offered through Troy University’s Division of Counseling, Rehabilitation, and Interpreter Training, Dr. Reed continues to work in the community with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Trojan Suicide Prevention Coalition.
Dr. Reed explains how everyone experiences mental health, good or bad, and it’s the job of mental health counselors to help prevent people with mental health concerns from slipping into a crisis that is detrimental to their well-being and can impact their work, families, friends and the larger community around them.
“Mental health therapy provides personal growth and helps individuals with a variety of mental health concerns like depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Reed. “As counselors, we provide support and guidance to help individuals grow and develop their mental health wellness. I don’t like the term ‘mental health disorders.’ I prefer ‘wellness.’ I like the positive side of it.”
Are Issues in Mental Health Becoming More Visible?
While the importance of mental health has always been on the radar, Dr. Reed suggests several recent factors have given it greater visibility.
“I think there is an increase in awareness, which is a great thing,” says Dr. Reed. “But in the same breath, millions of people experience mental health issues or a mental health diagnosis every year. So, it really should be even more visible.”
Dr. Reed says factors like the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a major toll on mental health in America.
“We can’t ignore the impact the challenges we’ve experienced have had on our mental health in the last two years since the pandemic,” says Dr. Reed.
According to Dr. Reed, the pandemic has had an especially damaging effect on the mental health of younger generations.
“The social isolation, the disruption to the learning environment, having to change to virtual — it just isn’t conducive to good mental health,” says Dr. Reed. “The pandemic also caused changes in routines and sleep patterns which are critical for mental wellness. Those weren’t slow changes. They happened quickly, and that adjustment was just extra difficult on adolescents who are still developing.”
Mental Health in America
One TROY alumnus knows full well the impact that mental health challenges can have and how access to trained counseling can make all the difference. As a teenager, Robert “Brahm” Fay faced numerous mental health challenges and a difficult living situation. Today, he credits the support he received from counselors for helping him turn his life around.
“Being homeless as a youth, I had a lot of counselors in shelters,” says Fay. “They helped me get a GED when I was 17. As well as counseling, they also helped me access practical support. For example, vocational rehabilitation helped me get a bicycle so that I could ride to Valencia Community College for my first two years.”
Thanks to this support, Fay has come a long way since riding his bike out of a homeless shelter and into school. As a graduate with a Master of Science in Counseling and Psychology from TROY, Fay is now a licensed mental health counselor at Thriveworks and draws on his personal experience to help others. And a big part of that involves looking forward.
“As licensed mental health counselors, we will use a flashlight to look into all the nooks and crannies of a client’s past,” says Fay. “However, as a case manager who earned a GED in a homeless shelter, I’m putting a spotlight on their future.”
Fay was fortunate to receive the help he needed to change his situation. But, for too many others, these services aren’t always easy to access. They are often only made available or sought out when individuals reach a crisis point and find themselves seeking urgent medical care, entering rehabilitation programs or being processed in the criminal justice system.
“One of the biggest challenges for individuals experiencing mental health issues is accessing care or services,” says Dr. Reed. “There are many barriers to accessing treatment, whether financial or just the lack of available resources. As a result, the need has increased but the ability to provide for that need is still somewhat limited.”
Overcoming the Stigma of Seeking Mental Health Therapy
According to Dr. Reed, other roadblocks continue to prevent people from accessing mental health services.
Despite growing public awareness of the importance of mental health, Dr. Reed explains that the fear of being stigmatized still prevents people from seeking out the counseling they need.
“Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are committed to education, support and advocacy programs to reduce this stigma,” says Dr. Reed.
Dr. Reed explains that many people facing mental health issues are often very good at hiding their problems. Unfortunately, this reluctance to seek help can often lead to masking these issues with alcohol or drugs.
“I think we’re all good at wearing those masks and hiding our problems,” says Dr. Reed. “Then, at some point, it breaks.”
Often, it takes the intervention of a family member or loved one to help individuals struggling with mental health recognize that they need help. In other cases, individuals find their route to mental health therapy through the courts and criminal justice system.
Regardless of how someone begins working with a counselor, there is little doubt that the process saves lives.
“Saving people from suicide is a real thing,” says Fay. “I typically bring up the topic in a casual manner in each session. I’ll say things like, ‘Here we are. I am glad we have both made it.'”
How to Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor
Just as there are no quick fixes to the mental health crisis, there are also no shortcuts to becoming a mental health counselor. Individuals seeking support need to work with fully qualified and licensed counselors to get the professional help they need.
As more people talk about the mental health crisis, social media has provided a route to market for unqualified “experts” to share their views. Some of these people may be well-meaning, but untrained. Others, much like snake oil salesmen of the past, are selling unproven treatments. But, according to Dr. Reed, both types are equally dangerous.
“I’m all for people talking about mental health if it encourages people to access legitimate services when needed,” says Dr. Reed. “But I’ve seen things on social media that are very dangerous. Sometimes, the way it’s presented might prevent people from getting help. Or it could result in people getting treatments they don’t need or aren’t evidence-based on the recommendation of someone who’s not trained or licensed in the field.”
The only legitimate route to becoming a licensed mental health counselor is to first get a master’s degree from an accredited program like TROY’s.
“Every state has different requirements for getting that license,” says Dr. Reed. “Because TROY has campuses in Florida, Alabama and Georgia, we are geared toward helping our students become licensed in those states.”
Mental Health Counseling Strategies
Dr. Reed explains that trained and licensed mental health counselors have more than 350 different counseling theories at their disposal.
“In the master’s program, we cover many different strategies,” says Dr. Reed. “We engage in a lot of reflection to understand where these strategies fit with the individual student’s personality because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Then, we try them out and see what works best.”
All the counseling strategies featured in TROY’s program have their foundation in evidence-based practices.
“These theories have been found in research to be effective,” says Dr. Reed. “They might look different for someone with a substance use disorder versus someone with a personality disorder. So, we try to individualize the therapy based on the client’s needs.”
Students are taught to deliver these individual therapies in a variety of settings.
“There are many different treatment modalities,” says Dr. Reed. “These include individual counseling, group counseling, family counseling and crisis stabilization. It’s all about providing services based on need.”
According to Dr. Reed, students in the program learn to develop the skills required to help them build trust with their clients.
“Building trust can take time,” says Dr. Reed. “One of the original theories we study talks a lot about building trust, showing genuineness and empathy and what they call unconditional positive regard, which is essentially about acceptance without judgment.”
One strategy Fay regularly calls on in his practice is an approach he calls, “I need to shut up and listen!”
“I’ve learned a lot more from clients using the golden silence method,” says Fay. “I think my talking is pushing, while my silence is pulling. My clients then realize that all their answers have been there all along.”
Fay explains that as a counselor, he helps people unleash their inner power and discover precisely what’s inside.
“I like to inspire my patients,” says Fay. “I see that they thrive from adopting grit, fortitude, inner strength, desire, passion, verve and how to harness all of these internal talents. We all have inside of us the answers we are seeking. Most challenges are related to this understanding being unmet or misunderstood.”
Learning to Build Relationships That Foster Better Mental Wellness
Because the counseling program at TROY focuses so much on building relationships, the clinical mental health master’s is taught primarily face-to-face, in person. However, as Dr. Reed explains, there is another fundamental reason why the program is not offered online.
“One of the important things with clinical mental health counseling programs and licensure in most states is that your master’s degree is accredited by CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs),” says Dr. Reed. “We are a traditional CACREP-accredited program at TROY. So the majority of our courses have to be offered in person.”
Dr. Reed explains that TROY accommodates the needs of its many non-traditional students by offering evening and weekend classes across nine campuses in three states. While some classes are available online, most must be taken in person.
Community experience is also central to the clinical mental health master’s. Students in the program have the advantage of learning from a faculty that, like Dr. Reed, is still fully engaged with work in the community.
“Our faculty has such a wide array of experience that students don’t just get one example of working in the field, but so many different experiences,” says Dr. Reed. “This experience doesn’t go unnoticed by the student body.”
Fay describes his experience at TROY as life-changing.
“Not being hyperbolic, but everything in my life has changed,” says Fay. “I am always reflecting on what I have learned and mindful of what is next for me to come to understand.”
Jobs in Mental Health
Recognizing the challenges of managing the mental health crisis in America, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the demand for licensed mental health counselors will increase by 22% in the decade leading up to 2031, adding 77,500 new jobs to the field.
The BLS estimates that approximately 43,600 openings for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors will need to be filled each year. Many of those job openings will result from the need to replace workers who retire or otherwise exit the labor force.
These jobs will be available across various settings, including mental health centers, community health centers and private practice.
Whatever the practice setting, counseling is a career unlike any other. As a licensed mental health counselor, Fay experiences many highs and lows.
“I shed tears of joy at least once or twice a week,” says Fay. “When appropriate, I also share tears of sorrow with my patients. I enjoy being present and mindful, and my people can feel it.”
So what advice would Fay offer to anyone interested in following in his footsteps and becoming a licensed mental health counselor?
“ABD: Always Be Documenting,” says Fay. “Whether in class, the field or the clinic, make a digital footprint of everything. That, and be nice to insurance carriers; the more panels, the better. Oh, and be kind. You may be representing people like me.”
As for the TROY graduate counseling program, for Fay, it was simply transformative.
“This is the best life I have ever lived. I go to sleep grateful — I wake up grateful. Naturally, everything is still happening at the speed of life, just like the rest of us. The TROY difference is that I am daily refreshed with remembering my meaning, purpose and value.”
Learn More About Preparing for a Clinical Mental Health Counseling Career
To learn more about how a master’s in clinical mental health counseling can help you launch a career promoting better mental health awareness and tackling the mental health crisis, visit TROY’s counseling master’s program page.