What Is Clinical Mental Health Counseling & Why Is It Important?

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A mental health counselor meets with a patient.A revolution is underway in mental health care. Awareness is spreading about the pervasive, damaging effects of untreated mental illness. At the same time, the knowledge that treatments are available to minimize and eliminate that damage is spreading. As a result, health care providers, government officials, citizen groups and other 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; and individuals who pursue an online master’s in counseling can position themselves to fill this important role.

What Is Clinical Mental Health Counseling?

Clinical mental health counseling encompasses the services that trained professionals provide to clients who seek help in dealing with issues that affect their lives. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), those issues can include personal problems or issues of a behavioral, emotional, marital, vocational, rehabilitative, educational or life-stage nature. The APA further describes counseling services as the help that professionals such as psychologists, licensed counselors, nurses and social workers provide through government, mental health or social service agencies. Professionals offer those services to groups, families and individuals.

An overall description of what clinical mental health counseling is could be summed up as follows: as clinical diagnosis and treatment. To become a certified clinical mental health counselor, the National Board for Certified Counselors requires individuals to have education in areas such as the diagnostic process, psychopharmacology, treatment planning, mental examinations and psychosocial evaluations.

Certified clinical mental health counselors also have specialized expertise in areas such as human sexuality, family and couples counseling, substance abuse and addiction counseling or counseling for victims of trauma and abuse.

Benefits of Mental Health Counseling

Clients who seek help open themselves to the possibility of reaping the benefits of mental health counseling. Providing clinical mental health services involves 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.

In explaining what clinical mental health is, U.S. News & World Report says it involves evaluating clients’ mental and physical states, identifying addictions and behavioral problems and determining how ready 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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), addiction counselors work with clients in private sessions and group settings, often including concepts pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

The goals of mental health counselors who are involved in addiction recovery are to help clients rebuild their self-esteem, reestablish personal relationships and restore professional careers. Specialties within the category of addiction counseling include crisis intervention, when the client’s life or the lives of others are at risk. In their role, counselors 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 multidimensional 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 daily 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, express their emotions, and assist clients as they adjust to difficult family situations, such as divorce or financial setbacks. According to the BLS, family counselors’ main focus is helping clients process their reactions, and to provide strategies for coping with change and overcoming life’s difficulties.

Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness

Diagnosing most physical illnesses is relatively straightforward and often involves relying on the results of medical tests and studies. What clinical mental health is, however, often requires patience and involves more nuance. This is because the diagnosis process may entail a period of monitoring and testing to ensure the mental health 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 turn to 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

Mental health professionals who specialize in treating older patients are seeing greater numbers of seniors welcome their professional help. This is due to the diminished stigma associated with being treated for emotional problems and mental illness. WebMD reports the number of people in the U.S. over the age of 65 who suffer from depression is about 6 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

Although a little bit of stress can make people more resilient, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), those with unmanageable stress should seek professional help. The APA’s Stress in America survey found that finances and work are two significant sources of stress. Unfortunately, these two stress triggers are a universal part of life in today’s society.

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.

What clinical mental health is often involves the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is designed to change unhelpful habitual responses and reinforce positive behaviors, notes the health information source Healthline.

In addition to identifying and addressing the direct causes of excessive stress, CBT 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. Clinical mental health counselors put all the cognitive therapy pieces together in a clear regimen that’s easy for a client to follow.

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

Mental health counselors work with their clients to establish goals and develop approaches to address emotional issues, shore up skills in coping and communication, improve self-esteem, promote changes in behavior and strive for improved mental well-being. In describing what mental health counselors do, the American Counseling Association (ACA) stresses the collaborative nature of the process between the counselor and the client.

In terms of the various forms of what clinical mental health counseling is and how it can be offered, the ACA provides the following examples.

  • Individual counseling, in which a counselor and client work on issues such as anxiety, anger, depression or substance abuse
  • Family counseling, which focuses on areas such as family structure, communication within a family, parenting, major changes in a family or conflicts among siblings
  • Couples counseling, which deals with matters such as conflict resolution, establishing realistic relationship goals or addressing aggressive behavior within a relationship
  • Group counseling, in which a group of individuals who are peers work on issues they have in common such as low self-esteem, abuse, trauma or substance abuse

Forging a Career in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

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 substantially improving the results of mental health treatment.

Discover the many ways in which Wake Forest University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program can serve as the foundation for a career as a clinical mental health counselor.

Explore a rewarding career in counseling today.

Recommended Readings

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Serving Humanity: Career Opportunities in Mental Health

What Is the Difference Between a Counselor and a Psychologist?


American Counseling Association, What Is Professional Counseling?

American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)

American Psychological Association, Counseling

American Psychological Association, Counseling Services

American Psychological Association, Most Common Sources of Stress

Healthline, “How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Rewire Your Thoughts”

Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, Applying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Promote Positive Change

National Alliance on Mental Illness, “The Depression Boom: As U.S. Population Ages, Mental Illness Rises

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Understanding Your Diagnosis

National Board for Certified Counselors, Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor

(CCMHC) Required Coursework

National Institutes of Health, “7 Steps to Manage Stress and Build Resilience”

Psychology Today, “Why Some Stress Is Good for You

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?

WebMD, “Depression in Older People”