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What is a Mental Health Counselor?

Keira-2Many people I meet frequently ask me “what is a mental health counselor?” After I briefly explain to them what I do, they respond with a series of clarifying questions: “Are you a psychologist?” “Can your prescribe medication?” “Are you a social worker?” “What kind of patients do you treat?”

All of these are great questions, because Mental Health Counseling degrees are relatively new in the mental health field, and a lot of people remain unaware of the benefits of seeing an MHC. So this might be a good opportunity to shine a light on MHCs and why they may be a great, underrated therapy option for many people who just may not know about them.

As far as the training and education a typical MHC goes through, maybe I should talk about my own experience. My MHC Master’s program at John Jay College focused heavily on counseling theory and psychotherapy. Classes ranged from assessments, research and human growth to development and group counseling. We also learned broad styles of therapy to be used when working with many different clients, with individual patients as well as large groups. Mental Health Counselors commonly use brief, solution focused therapy as well as longer-term approaches such as motivational interviewing. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and treatment plans were also a large focus. My particular background also stressed more interpersonal, humanistic Rogerian-style therapy, which helps me focus on the counseling relationship, as well as developing trust and empathy with my clients.

Mental Health Counselors are required to do strenuous clinical externships; I did mine at Argus Community Inc., which is an outpatient substance abuse facility located in the Bronx, accruing  600 hours of client contact. I led group therapy sessions as well as seeing individual patients under supervision.

To answer some of those other questions:

Can I prescribe medication?

Like psychologists, MHCs do not prescribe medication. When performing assessments in the past, I have refer any patient who would be helped by taking medicine to a psychiatrist or a nurse practitioner—a process which is much easier at this practice, where we have one of each right down the hall.

Are you a social worker?

No, but I do often work closely with many social workers, as I did during my externship experience. In fact, one of my supervisors, the amazing Natasha David-Hays, was a social worker, and as a result I have a great respect and admiration for the role that social workers play in mental health treatment.

So what kind of patients can I treat?

Mental Health Counselors have a surprising amount of flexibility and scope; I can work with a wide variety of patients, including those suffering from anxiety, depression, compulsions, self-esteem issues, distorted body image, antisocial tendencies, phobias, quick tempers, and relationship and sexuality difficulties amongst others. The list of patients I can treat overlaps almost completely with those of the psychologists at this practice. I also provide sport psychology coaching for athletes, especially runners. Running is a lifelong passion of mine and a large part of my life, and I believe running is an extremely mental sport.

Hopefully this post has given you some insight into MHCs—where we come from and what we’re about. If you have any other questions about Mental Health Counselors, feel free to get in touch with me via Twitter @keirarakoff!

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