“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
People generally understand the value of going to the doctor at least once or twice a year, just to keep track of their overall health. Yet while most people at least have a primary care physician, not everyone has a general therapist, and few know when to start looking for one. All too often, we neglect our mental health and emotional well-being, only looking for help when a problem has escalated into something much more urgent. Surveys have found that among adults with any form of mental illness, 60 percent received no treatment.1 That is why, before providing preventative or even maintenance services, counselors are often responding to a crisis.
The popular image of therapy as involving a couch and a clipboard only scratches the surface of what real world counseling entails. From assisting a family intervention with substance abuse, to battling bullying in schools and encouraging kids to go on to college, counselors are often the first mental health professionals a person sees in a crisis. While individuals may eventually move on to longer term or specialized therapy, a counselor is there to help individuals recognize and work through the immediate impact of their mental health challenges.
In a sense, counselors are something akin to Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), but for behavioral, rather than physical, health emergencies.
Mental Health EMTs
When an ambulance arrives on the scene, their first priority is basic life support: stabilizing patients so they can be moved to the hospital for more comprehensive treatment. Similarly, in a mental health emergency, crisis counselors are there first and foremost to help patients cope, opening the door for further care and recovery. Recognizing and confronting the existence of a mental illness or emotional crisis is a major hurdle for many, and thus one of the most important and challenging elements of what counselors do.
But, unlike calling an ambulance for a medical emergency, patients in need of mental health services are often unable or unwilling to get the help they need. The long history of stigmas surrounding mental illness, as well as a general lack of awareness of what is even considered a psychological disorder, can keep many patients in need of counseling from seeking treatment.1
What a teacher may write-off as “misbehavior” may actually be a child struggling with emotional problems at home. What a busy adult may call “fatigue” may actually be a symptom of some deep-seeded stress disorder. Americans have all sorts of euphemisms and rationalizations they use to dismiss, rather than deal with, everyday instances of mental illness. Too much of this kind of masking and neglect, and little problems can escalate into full-blown crises.2
No matter when counselors get involved with treatment, they are not just providing critical services, they are also fighting misinformation, denial, and neglect to better serve their patients and communities.
Counselors in the Community (the Human Service side)
Unfortunately, many victims of mental crises who would be better served by a counselor do end up having someone dial 911, with the result that prisons and hospitals wind up housing the mentally ill. There are more than 200,000 of individuals with serious mental illness (like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) who are homeless; nearly double that number wind up in prison or in jail. For hundreds of thousands of others, their ailments land them in hospitals, adding to the problem of wasted resources and skyrocketing healthcare costs.3
That is why in addition to specializing in working with families or in schools, counselors will often develop a skill set adjacent to that of a social worker through a Master of Arts in Human Services or MAHS program of study. These certified counselors may in fact work alongside licensed social workers as part of a community team, non-profit organization, or even managing volunteers in order to make mental health services available to particularly vulnerable groups.
The work of Human Services professionals can range from intervening on behalf of the homeless, aiding the rehabilitation of prisoners, bringing mental health services to rural or other marginalized communities, or even advocating for public policy reform to better serve the emotional needs of the population. They are even part of crime prevention programs, seeking to stop behavioral health crises from escalating through intervention and strategic partnership with police and schools.
Of course, many families and individuals will confront mental illness not just as a chronic disorder or genetic disability, but as a sudden, acute event triggered by a traumatic life experience. Like any other unexpected injury, emotional trauma can be quite sudden, and is best treated by a similarly rapid and targeted response. Trauma counselors specialize in helping individuals and communities cope with the aftershock of a highly emotional ordeal, and cope with the mental and emotional consequences or side-effects of those experiences.
Public awareness of post-traumatic stress (and related anxiety disorders) has grown in recently thanks in large part to increased recognition of how combat experiences affected members of the military and their families.4 Unfortunately, active combat is far from the only source of traumatic stress in the lives of many Americans.
From car accidents to losing loved ones, natural disasters to surviving a deadly disease, there are countless ways a person can develop post-traumatic stress. In an age where mass shootings and similarly violent stories dominate the news and social media, it is even possible for people to develop secondhand traumatic stress that requires counseling to manage and overcome.5 Fortunately, it is becoming more common for disaster-relief efforts to incorporate counseling services to help victims recover physically, financially, and emotionally.6
Mental health emergencies can be every bit as serious and potentially life-threatening as any medical emergency. It takes a special commitment to serving and educating others to provide the kind of care these situations require. If you want to get on the front lines of helping those in crisis to cope, survive, and rebuild in the wake of a trauma, or undo the damage of neglecting their emotional well-being, consider getting your Master’s in Counseling or Human Services today.