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How to Become a Counselor

April 22, 2014

Counseling is one of the most rewarding and demanding career fields. The ability to help someone overcome adversity and have a better life is an opportunity few people can pass up, as they are able to see their patients improve physically, emotionally and even spiritually. As their clients become active members of society once again, counselors are able to truly realize the impact they are capable of having on another human being. For those who wish to become counselors, there are a number of specialties from which to choose including marriage and family counseling, vocational counseling, substance abuse counseling, Christian counseling and much more. The process one follows to become a counselor can also vary, with positions requiring anything from a high school education to a medical degree, depending upon the specialty chosen.

Types of Counselors

Become a CounselorAs stated, there are many different types of counselors in today’s world. Perhaps the most well-known counselors are family and marriage counselors, who work with individuals and families to help resolve conflict and keep marriages and families intact. Using a combination of one-on-one and group counseling, these counselors focus on helping patients overcome emotional and mental disorders that are having negative impacts on their relationships. The job of a counselor is to be an extremely good listener while helping patients develop strategies that will help them deal with the issues they are facing. Examples of problems marriage and family counselors may encounter include infidelity within a marriage, problems with in-laws and other family members, conflict between parents and children and financial issues between husbands and wives.

Vocational counselors deal with issues regarding education and career planning. Many vocational counselors work in public schools and colleges, helping students make decisions regarding their careers and working with them when conflicts emerge in or out of the classroom. Since many students entering college are unsure of what career they should choose, vocational counselors meet with them to discuss their plans. These counselors will often give career assessment tests to students, helping them determine what careers their skills are best suited for. These counselors also help students when personal problems arise that are interfering with their studies, often working with them to develop social skills that help them overcome shyness, anxiety and other problems that can have a negative impact on their classroom performance.

Substance abuse counselors provide some of the most vital services to clients. In today’s highly-competitive and demanding world, it is very easy for people of all ages to find themselves turning to alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal drugs to help them cope with various problems. However, all they accomplish by doing this is compounding whatever problems they already have. Before they know it, they are in over their heads and require professional help in order to overcome their addiction. This is where substance abuse counselors step in, using a combination of individual and group counseling to help patients kick their habits. These counselors will often work with patients for months or even years, developing very strong bonds while gaining their trust along the way. In this area of counseling perhaps more than any other, developing a strong level of trust with the patient is critical for success.

For many people who want to become counselors, it’s important that they be able to incorporate their religious faith into their counseling sessions. By becoming a Christian counselor, a counselor can help patients overcome problems by using Biblical principles and other faith-based principles. Many patients who are deeply religious and experiencing problems prefer to speak with certified Christian counselors, feeling they will have a better understanding of their problems and how to solve them. Christian counselors will deal with many different situations, which can include marriage difficulties, addiction issues, self-esteem issues related to weight gain or illness, career conflicts and much more. Many of these counselors work in private practice, although many can be found working in private religious schools and colleges. Christian counselors need to have a broad-based knowledge of various problems in order to successfully help their patients regain their lives, and are often taking courses on many different disorders to gain a better understanding of how specific Christian teachings can be used with their clients.

Educational Requirements for Counselors

The educational requirements for counselors vary almost as much as the types of problems they can expect to encounter in their practices. For most counseling positions, a Master’s degree in Counseling is required. However, that’s not the case for all counseling positions. Some counseling jobs, such as ones in local community social service agencies, require only an Associate’s degree or in some instances simply a high school education. Because the term counselor can be used to describe a variety of jobs, those working in small, local agencies may be working with clients on everything from parenting skills to job search techniques to performing better in school.

However, the majority of counseling jobs require degrees from four-year colleges and universities. To work in schools, social service agencies, hospitals or private practice it’s imperative to receive a degree from an accredited school. Before beginning classes at any school, prospective counselors need to make sure the school has accreditation that is recognized by the United States Department of Education. They should also check the requirements of any potential employer to make sure the degree they will receive has accreditation that will be recognized by that employer. In many instances, students have received degrees from schools, only to find out later on the degree is not recognized as having proper accreditation, in effect making it a worthless piece of paper.

In most counseling degree programs, students take a combination of classes in psychology, sociology, social work, criminal justice, political science and more to gain an understanding of the many factors that work together to not only create problems for people, but help them find solutions as well. Depending upon the area of specialization for a student, they may take more classes in one area than another. For example, those wishing to become school counselors will take more classes in child psychology and education, while substance abuse counselors will take more classes in biology, sociology and criminal justice to give them a better foundation for their careers. In all counseling programs, students are required to complete internships to give them practical experience dealing with patients in clinical settings. Always under the supervision of experienced counseling professionals, students spend their time observing counseling sessions, completing paperwork and eventually participating in and sometimes leading counseling sessions themselves.

Personal Attributes of Counselors

The best counselors, no matter what field in which they specialize, all share certain attributes that make them excel at their jobs. First and foremost, of course, is a genuine desire to help others overcome their problems and once again lead happy and productive lives. Counselors do not go into this line of work for the monetary rewards, but rather the rewards of seeing another human being once again flourish in their relationships, careers and other areas of life.

Another attribute that is critical to being a good counselor is the ability to listen to the client and put yourself in the person’s place. The best counselors know how to use active listening techniques to make sure they understand their client’s problems. Letting a client talk about their problems, then asking questions to make sure the problem is fully understood, help counselors gain insight and know which techniques would work best in eliminating the problem. Counselors should also be very good at conflict management, especially in situations where group counseling will come into play. Marriage and family counselors, in particular, need this skill when performing marriage counseling or other family counseling. In these situations, emotions are usually running high and everyone involved has a story to tell and are determined to be heard. The job of a counselor in these situations is to make sure everyone gets to tell their side of the story while maintaining order during the session.

The ability to have emotional stability when dealing with difficult situations is also needed by counselors. Depending upon the issues being dealt with at the time, it can be difficult to maintain objectivity and professionalism when dealing with clients. When subjects such as child abuse, sexual assault or other problems arise it is imperative counselors continue to abide by their professional laws and ethics. No matter how difficult it may be, counselors must be able to separate their personal and professional feelings while on the job. All counselors are held to a strict code of ethics when dealing with clients, including confidentiality and client-counselor relations. For example, it would be highly unethical for a counselor to date a client whom they are counseling through a divorce process, for this would be an obvious conflict of interest.

Career Outlook for Counselors

Counseling CareerFor those wishing to become counselors, the job outlook is very good. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for counselors is expected to be 29-35% between now and 2022. Some of the areas that are experiencing the strongest growth include marriage and family counselors, substance abuse counselors, rehabilitation counselors and career counselors. As the national and international economy continue to be uncertain, career counselors are finding themselves in high demand as many displaced workers seek career changes or return to school for training.

Most counseling jobs offer many positive attributes that make them highly attractive to those viewing it as a potential career. Usually having standard full-time hours, most of these jobs are 40 hours per week Monday through Friday, although some counseling jobs can require weekend, overnight or even holiday work. For those who are youth counselors or substance abuse counselors in residential treatment facilities, work schedules can include all of the above on a regular basis. However, most jobs offer excellent pay and benefits as a reward for all the hard work. Salaries for most counseling jobs average close to $45,000 per year, and include a variety of benefits including health insurance, paid vacations, tuition reimbursement for continuing education, retirement plans and more. Many jobs, particularly with school systems or government agencies, offer pension plans and opportunities for early retirement after 25 years of service.

As federal legislation has made individual health coverage mandatory, more people than ever before are expected to take advantage of the opportunity to have their counseling sessions paid for by their insurance companies. This, along with an increasing number of military veterans and active-duty personnel seeking counseling services, make this field one that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Mental health centers, community health clinics, hospitals and other agencies will all need the services of trained counselors to meet the growing demand of those seeking their services. As the stigma of seeking mental health services continues to be lifted, more people will also be willing to seek help with problems they may otherwise have tried to handle themselves or simply ignore, hoping they would go away. Counselors with training in helping specific populations such as veterans, the elderly, displaced workers and others will be in high demand for many years to come.

So for people who are willing to invest the time and energy needed to meet the educational and employment demands of the job, being a counselor can be a career unlike any other. Each patient is a new experience, a new opportunity to help a fellow human being overcome their problems and regain self-esteem and joy in their life. Whether it is helping a person kick a drug habit, working with students to decide on career choices or listening to a military veteran describe life on the battlefield, counselors continue to make a difference each day in the lives of their patients. Using a combination of listening, compassion, knowledge and ethics counselors are able to take the skills learned in classrooms and in the field and work magic in people’s lives. And by doing so, they make the world a better place to live. If you are looking for other similar careers to consider, you may want to look into psychiatry.