What is a Counselor?

The word counselor can mean different things to different people. A counselor is someone who gives advice or counsel. It can also refer to someone who provides therapeutic treatment, often to people with emotional or mental health issues. According to the dictionary, one who counsels is a person who offers ideas, opinions, guidance, and recommendations. A counselor is generally thought to be knowledgeable or an expert in his field, having obtained the necessary counselor certification and licensure that qualifies them to offer counsel.

There are many different types of counselors. Therapists help people address their mental health or emotional problems. Therapists typically guide their patients to the point of self-realization, so that recovery or improvement can begin. School counselors can serve in the role of academic advisor, or they can be licensed therapists in elementary or secondary schools. As academic advisors, they advise students on the course of study they need to follow in order to meet graduation requirements. Lawyers offer legal advice. In other words, professional counselors can be found in any number of settings, ranging from educational institutions, non-profit organizations, mental health facilities, to law enforcement agencies.

Many professionals in the field of counseling have their own private practice where they provide direct, one-on-one counseling and treatment services to individuals, couples, and families. In this scenario, the professional helps people with marital or relationship issues or provides therapy for entire families. They frequently help people work through substance abuse or other lifestyle problems.

Regardless of the type of counseling an individual provides, he has gone through extensive training and fulfilled specific educational requirements to be able to practice. Counseling professionals have a minimum education level of a four-year bachelor’s degree, while many possess post-graduate master’s or doctoral degrees. During the graduate study period, they typically are required to perform a certain number of hours of supervised, clinical practice or an internship. Once they have completed their internships, they may have fulfilled all educational requirements and may, at that time, receive their professional certification. It is important to note, however, that different states, and even different counties, have established their own criteria for licensing. There may be additional examinations and/or field work required in order to receive licensing to practice in another state.

Beyond their conferred degrees and professional certification and license to practice, many professionals opt to voluntarily continue their education to receive additional certifications in specialized areas of their practice. They may choose to join professional organizations that offer these certifications, along with the support and guidance needed to obtain them. These additional certifications enhance a counselor’s credentials and professional skills which also expands their career opportunities.

Depending on the type of counselor, he may be required to re-certify every two to three years. This recertification is necessary to ensure he stays abreast of advances in care and available treatment options, as well as changes to or new legislation or regulations that impact their profession.

All counselors, regardless of their chosen profession, should all share the same key attributes of excellent listening and communication skills as well as a significant level of knowledge in their field and a desire to help others. Certification allows these individuals to provide guidance in just about any area of expertise, from legal and financial, to emotional, mental, and scholastic to help others resolve their individual problems.

Medical Field

Medical field counselors work in a variety of settings and with a variety of individuals who face problems requiring professional advice and assistance. They can be found in schools, colleges, and universities, as well as in hospitals or private clinics. Often they work in mental health facilities. In general, they manage a patient’s clinical care by performing individual screenings, making assessments, and developing specialized care and treatment programs.

To be effective, they must be excellent communicators with above-average speaking and listening skills. They must be able to appropriately communicate information to clients and also fully comprehend what clients say to them, in order to provide appropriate care and treatment.

  • One example in the medical field is a genetic counselor. This professional works with people to help them understand (and adapt to if necessary) any medical, family, or psychological implications of genetics regarding specific diseases. These health professionals have specialized graduate degrees; they are trained and experienced in both genetics and counseling. While most today are board-certified, certification is not a legal requirement to practice.
  • Another type of certified medical counselor is one who specializes in diabetes counseling. Health care and medical professionals who provide specialized education on diabetes include registered nurses, dieticians, pharmacists, and others. They can earn additional credentials, such as a Certified Diabetes Educator, or become Board Certified in Advanced Diabetes Management.

Medical professionals such as physicians and nurses can obtain a separate holistic health certification from an accredited college, university, or school that specializes in natural and holistic health studies. The services these professionals offer emphasize total wellness of the mind, body, and spirit, as well as emotional well-being. Holistic health programs are also available online or via distance learning. While certification in holistic health counseling is available at both undergraduate and graduate levels, it is not standardized nor does it constitute a legal license to practice. However, due to an increased demand for complementary and alternative health care treatment, professionals can obtain holistic certification in various areas, including: chiropractic, acupuncture/acupressure, massage, nutrition, music, homeopathy, herbalism, and midwifery.

In light of the numerous medical fields and specialties that exist, education and training requirements vary greatly. In addition, states have their own licensing requirements which all medical professionals need to understand in order to legally practice their field. In most cases, an individual who performs any type of medical counseling can enhance his credentials and resume by obtaining relevant certifications.

Social Worker

Experienced, qualified social workers enjoy great rewards from the job they do in regularly changing and even saving the lives of others who are disadvantaged or in difficult situations. Social workers provide counseling services and help those in need find the right resources to help them manage and overcome their problems. Social workers differ from other human services professionals in that they focus on both the individual in need as well as that person’s current environment. These professionals can work in government agencies, schools, drug treatment clinics, police departments, and other support institutions. They can also offer counseling services on a private basis.

Social work dates back to the late 1800s, when specific values and ethics came to define the profession. These values include respecting human dignity, understanding that people can be influenced by their environment, and working to change social inequities. Social workers address a broad range of problems that can occur in a variety of situations as they provide much needed health care treatment to individuals of any age and in any geographic location. In addition to providing individual counseling or psychotherapy, social workers also assist families and groups and help communities improve the social and health services they offer.

To practice social work, an individual must have extensive knowledge of human development and human behavior and understand the interactions of individuals and families with a community’s social, economic, and cultural organizations. Social workers need to be familiar with sociological, legal, economic, and psychological standards. To qualify to become a social worker, an individual needs to start by obtaining a bachelor’s degree with a major in sociology, psychology, or human services. While individuals with a four-year degree may be able to obtain a job in many social work agencies, many continue their education by pursuing their master’s or Doctoral degrees to be better prepared to work in their chosen careers.

Students in post-graduate studies programs for social work typically work outside the classroom in a clinical internship, perhaps at a school or a government social work agency. These internships offer aspiring social workers the opportunity to gain first-hand learning experiences about the different types of clients who need social work support services, as well as the regulations and laws that impact the work they will be doing. Once the student successfully completes his internship, he will receive his degree and can then start work toward obtaining his social worker counselor certification.

To obtain a social worker certification, an individual must complete approximately 3,000 hours of supervised clinical work. This takes about two years to complete. Initially, trainees will be given relatively small or easy cases, and, as they gain experience over time will begin to work on more complex, involved cases. Some states require only this supervised work period for the individual to receive his social worker certification. Other states, counties, or potential work scenarios will require the social worker to pass a certification test to demonstrate full understanding of the social worker profession, including the ethics and legal procedures by which they must abide.

Some social workers enhance their credentials by obtaining memberships and additional certifications from organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers. These organizations require the social worker to pass even more examinations in order to receive their certification. The time invested in obtaining college degrees and professional certifications are a clear indicator that these professionals are dedicated to helping people of every age and from every background, wherever they may be located.

School Counselor

The school and guidance counseling profession grew out of a need to provide high school students with information about potential careers and options for their future. In addition to helping students make that transition, school counselors also provide expertise to support student growth and development. In today’s global economy, students need to be able to learn skills that give them the knowledge and confidence they will need to compete. School and guidance professionals are the key to facilitating these imperatives so that today’s students succeed in future endeavors and are eventually capable of leading our country.

Today’s professionals must keep pace with their ever-changing, ever-evolving role in young students’ lives. They must work to support a school district’s mission of increasing student achievement, and may help formulate lesson plans that break down a student’s barriers to learning so that he can acquire the appropriate competencies for his age and grade level.

They are also closely involved in individual student planning-- perhaps the most rewarding part of a counselor’s career. Student planning involves reviewing and assessing a student’s academic situation, understanding his future education and career objectives, and then working actively with the student to determine the best options for him in terms of academic choices to ensure that his goals are met. Counselors must be prepared to make psychological assessments and help a student work through any emotional issues that could potentially prevent the student from reaching his potential.

They must also provide responsive services such as individual or group counseling, consulting with parents and teachers, developing peer support, and referring students to other specially-qualified professionals. The objective with these types of support services is to help a troubled student improve social and academic performance.

There are specific responsibilities and life skills that they must address. Examples include anger management, college preparation, evaluations, group and individual counseling, self-esteem development, career counseling, and many more.

Individuals interested in a career in school counseling will need to initially obtain a two-year associate’s or four-year bachelor’s degree in the area of psychology or counseling. One good way to determine your true level of interest in this specialty is to volunteer as a mentor in organizations that work with children and youth, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Once you have made your final decision to continue on the path to this career, you will need to obtain a master’s degree in school counseling. From here, you will complete the requirements for certification as required by your state. These requirements include completing a minimum supervised practicum and internship and passing the necessary examination. Note that additional requirements may need to be met in order to obtain licensure.

Marriage Counseling

Marriage and family counselors help families and couples by providing counseling on marital and family problems. They look at the family structure to determine where issues originate and then devise a plan to help couples and families resolve their issues. Family counselors help children and adolescents with behavioral problems or emotional difficulties. Marriage counselors help couples with marital difficulties, infertility, and infidelity. They help people deal with depression, substance abuse, and much more. This requires training and education in psychotherapy and family systems. They focus on understanding the behaviors within a relationship that are symptomatic of the problems within the relationship.

They can usually help couples work out their relationship problems in just a few therapy sessions. The therapist will ask both members in the couple about their goals, beliefs, roles, and more as they relate to the relationship. They analyze both the good and the bad in the relationship, and help couples learn how they can work together to solve their problems.

Individuals who wish to enter this field must complete a graduate-level college program, as well as clinical and licensing requirements before and throughout their career. To start on your career toward marriage counseling, you should first obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree with a major in psychology, social work, or family psychology. Students will study coursework in the areas of social psychology, sexuality, sociology, and interpersonal relationships. Many bachelor’s degree programs require the student to fulfill an internship or clinical practice in order to graduate.

Once the student has obtained his bachelor’s degree, they will go on to complete their master’s degree in marriage and family counseling or another related field. The coursework for the master’s degree typically includes group therapy, substance abuse, counseling theories, human sexuality, adolescent psychology, and more. These professionals also need to satisfy state licensing requirements which include passing the necessary examinations. They will receive hands-on experience in marriage and family therapy by completing a practical internship during which they are supervised by a professional. While most states do not require it for licensure, many go on to obtain a doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy. Those who complete this graduate-level program typically pursue careers as academic marriage counseling educators or researchers.

After completing the required educational prerequisites and clinical work, a licensed marriage therapist must next obtain state licensure. State licensing is the final step before an individual can begin practicing as a marriage therapist. States may have their own licensing examinations or they may use a standardized examination from the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.

Professionals with master’s and doctoral degrees can further expand their knowledge by obtaining a certification in marriage and family therapy. Certification courses will give them specialized skills that can increase their career options and add value to the degree(s) they already possess.

These professionals help couples in relationships whether they are married or not. They are trained to help anyone who wishes to improve their relationship with a spouse or significant other. In addition, marriage counselors help couples work on potential problems before they get married and also provide counseling to couples who are divorcing so that they can appropriately work out child custody and other issues. Marriage counseling exists to help couples learn how to effectively deal with their problems which ultimately improves their mental and physical health, as well as the health of their relationship.

Financial Counselor

Many individuals and families today seek guidance and advice from a professional financial counselor. The professionals help individuals navigate through myriad financial products and offerings and take responsibility for their own retirement planning. Understanding one’s finances is critical to meeting financial objectives. Unfortunately, not everyone has the knowledge and skills needed to set appropriate financial goals, establish and build a good credit record, or reduce and/or eliminate debt.

Financial counselors work with individuals and couples to educate them on how to better manage their personal finances. Financial advisors provide counseling and advice regarding retirement funds, investments, insurance policies, and sometimes sell specific financial products. While financial advisors may earn a commission from sales of these financial products, financial counselors may charge clients only a nominal fee and do not usually sell investment opportunities.

People in this field can work in hospitals where they help patients with insurance plans, providing advice on the different ways patients can pay for the plans. Some work at debt management agencies where they educate customers on how to budget and make the best financial use of money they may have just borrowed from the agency.

In order to have a complete and clear idea of a client’s finances, the professional will meet with the client. The client should bring all relevant statements and documentation relating to his finances: bank statements, tax information, credit card statements, and other bills. Using all of this financial documentation, the counselor will determine both the total debt and net worth of the client. If warranted, he may also perform a credit check to gain a better understanding of the client’s credit score and history.

As needed, once the initial financial review has been completed, the financial advisor will develop a payment plan to help the client pay down all bills, advising on which bills should be paid first, such as those with the highest interest rates. If the client is interested in consolidating debt, the professional will contact the client’s creditors to arrange for all bills to be combined into one and then establish a payment plan the client will follow each month.

In order to be a serious contender for this job, an individual should have a bachelor’s degree. Coursework should include advanced math, economics, and interpersonal relations. The bachelor’s degree should be in business, finance, or accounting. While some employers may hire applicants with only a high school degree or equivalent, this is not the norm; the job applicant will have to have demonstrated prior experience in financial counseling. Once hired, if the employee provides good, professional service to a client, the client will have more confidence and trust in the job the person is doing and may eventually refer other clients to them.

Financial professionals who wish to enhance their performance and stay abreast of industry trends can complete one or more certification courses that provide them with a solid foundation of skills. These professionals can obtain certifications in credit and financial counseling, housing counseling, and more. Certification means that the individual has demonstrated complete understanding of the skills needed to provide effective financial counseling to clients. To ensure that they are up-to-date on financial subject matter, some financial associations require counselors to demonstrate they have earned continuing education credits, in some cases, on a biannual basis. Consistent training on relevant financial topics is necessary for counselors to maintain their certifications.


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