What Is Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and Why Is It Important?

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A lady laying on a couch while speaking to her counselor

A revolution is underway in mental health care. Awareness is spreading about the pervasive, damaging effects of untreated mental illness, and the knowledge that treatments are available to minimize and eliminate that damage is spreading, too. As a result, health care providers, government officials, citizen groups and organizations are joining forces to promote outreach to people in need of mental health care. At the core of these efforts are clinical mental health counselors.

Clinical Mental Health Counseling Is Important to Total Patient Care

What is clinical mental health counseling? It’s helping people from all walks of life solve the problems they face, according to U.S. News & World Report. Applying their real-life experience and professional training, clinical mental health counselors coordinate with psychiatrists, social workers, support groups and long-term treatment services to devise and implement total care strategies, notes U.S. News & World Report.

U.S. News & World Report explains that at the heart of what clinical mental health counselors do is diagnosing mental and emotional disorders. They evaluate their clients’ mental and physical states, identify addictions and behavioral problems, and determine how ready their clients are for treatment. After developing treatment strategies and presenting them to clients and their families, counselors help clients gain skills and learn behaviors that put them on the path to mental wellness.

Tackling the Epidemic of Addiction

Often the problems clinical mental health counselors help their clients address involve substance abuse and behavioral disorders. Also called addiction counselors, these health professionals advise clients on managing stress and handling the problems they encounter on the road to recovery. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), addiction counselors work with clients in private sessions and in group settings, often including concepts pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

Mental health counselors’ goals are to help clients rebuild their self-esteem, re-establish personal relationships and restore professional careers. Specialties within the category of addiction counseling include crisis intervention, when the client’s life or the lives or others are at risk, and work with at-risk populations, such as teenagers, veterans and people dealing with physical disabilities.

Family and Marriage Counseling

Few tasks in the mental health field are more challenging than fulfilling the role of a marriage and family counselor. The work entails placing oneself in the middle of families whose members have suffered or are suffering an emotional or mental crisis, according to U.S. News & World Report. Family and marriage counselors deal on a daily basis with clients who have experienced abuse, infidelity, grief and other traumas; their patients may be recovering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The goal of family and marriage counseling is to allow clients to discuss what they have experienced and express their emotions and to assist clients as they adjust to difficult family situations, such as divorce or financial setbacks. According to BLS, family counselors’ main focus is helping clients process their reactions and develop strategies for coping with change and overcoming difficulties in their lives.

Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness

Diagnosing most physical illnesses is relatively straightforward and often involves the results of medical tests and studies. Diagnosing mental illnesses, however, often requires patience because the process may entail a period of monitoring and testing to ensure the condition isn’t related to an underlying medical condition. These medical tests may need to be performed over a period of time to ensure an accurate result.

When diagnosing a mental illness, health professionals often rely on the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The manual lists feelings, symptoms, behaviors and other criteria that patients must meet for clinicians to make an official mental illness diagnosis, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Once the provider has made a diagnosis, the patient’s mental health team can develop a treatment plan and advise the patient on the results and risks involved with the plan.

Addressing the Mental Health Needs of the Elderly

A growing trend in the mental health field is the number of older people seeking treatment for depression and emotional problems, reports The New York Times. Often the condition is the result of a physical malady associated with old age, such as limited mobility, but just as often older clients are motivated to seek treatment for mental conditions they have struggled with for much of their lives.

Mental health professionals who specialize in treating older patients credit the diminished stigma associated with being treated for emotional problems and mental illness for the boost in seniors welcoming treatment. The NAMI reports that the number of people in the U.S. over the age of 65 who suffer from depression exceeds 6.5 million. Adjusting to new living arrangements, managing on limited incomes and coping with chronic physical maladies all contribute to the growing mental health crisis among the elderly.

Helping People Conquer the Stress Monster

As psychologist Melanie Greenberg wrote in her Psychology Today column, a little bit of stress can make people more resilient, but too much stress can cause trauma from which it’s difficult to recover. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey found that finances and work are two significant sources of stress. These kinds of significant stressors can cause physiological overreaction: the release of hormones that speed up the heart, increase breathing rates and promote blood flow. The long-term effect of an overactive stress response is an impaired immune system and heightened risk of physical and mental illness.

One of the most effective tools in the clinical mental health counselor’s arsenal for battling stress and other maladies of modern life is cognitive behavioral therapy, which is designed to change unhelpful habitual responses and reinforce positive behaviors, as notes the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). In addition to identifying and addressing the direct causes of excessive stress, cognitive behavioral therapy encourages patients to strengthen their relationships with family members and friends, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of rest, avoid drugs and alcohol, and, most importantly, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. What clinical mental health counselors do is put all the cognitive therapy pieces together in a clear regimen that’s easy for the client to follow.

Learn More

This is an exciting time to be a part of the mental health profession. The need for clinical mental health counselors has never been greater, and the combination of early outreach and reduced stigma is improving mental health treatment results substantially. Discover the many ways Wake Forest University’s online master’s in counseling and human services can serve as the foundation for a career as a clinical mental health counselor.

Recommended Readings
How to Become a Mental Health Counselor
What Is the Difference Between a Counselor and a Psychologist?
What Is the Difference Between a Counselor and a Therapist?

American Psychiatric Association
American Psychological Association
Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation
National Alliance on Mental Illness, The Depression Boom
National Alliance on Mental Illness, Understanding Your Diagnosis
The New York Times
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, What Marriage and Family Therapists Do
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, What Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors Do
U.S. News & World Report, What Is a Marriage and Family Therapist?
U.S. News & World Report, What Is a Mental Health Counselor?
Wake Forest University
Psychology Today, Why Some Stress Is Good for You