To have the best quality of life, you need to take care of both your body and mind. Your mind is the control center for all of your thoughts, feelings, actions, and experiences. Spending time and effort on mental wellness is commonly overlooked but it is an important investment in our health.
Regular exercise and a nutritious diet are commonly seen as essential to maintain physical health, but it is just as important to maintain good mental health.
If you are curious about mental health counseling, read on to discover what it is, how it can help you, and what to expect during your first counseling session.
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Mental health counseling is a structured collaboration between a client and a mental health practitioner to provide them with a safe space to discuss and work on strategies to improve their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
It is at times referred to as clinical mental health counseling – not because it is cold and detached, but because it is founded on reliable studies and uses approaches that have been proven to be successful.
The mental health counseling process varies in length, depending on a client’s needs. It involves sessions in which the counselor and client work together to delve into the client’s problems to develop the mindset and skills necessary to overcome their challenges and live a fulfilling life.
It can take a few weeks, months, or even years of regular or periodic sessions.
The terms counseling and therapy are often used interchangeably, and while they are very similar, there are also some key differences between the two methods. The main difference relates to the types of problems that are the focus of the session and the type of professional providing this care.
Counseling is generally used as more of a short-term intervention that is focused on specific issues arising at certain periods during a person’s life, such as stress or marriage issues. It is common for people to seek counseling for a range of issues to learn coping strategies and adjust their perspectives.
Therapy, on the other hand, generally refers to psychotherapy or talk therapy. It is normally provided by a psychologist or, in some cases, a psychiatrist. Compared to counseling, therapy is often a more intensive, longer-term program that deals with more complicated issues associated with mental health diagnoses such as personality disorders, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder.
Mental health counseling can be viewed similarly to adjusting your diet or attending the gym – counseling improves health and wellness for anyone seeking to function better day-to-day.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, you may benefit from mental health counseling:
Fearful in new situations
Anxious or intrusive thoughts
Anger or irritability
The overall purpose of mental health counseling is to help you learn effective coping mechanisms for issues you are facing while providing you with a safe space to vent and work through your emotions.
Counseling can also be great for:
Coordinating treatment with other trained professionals, such as social workers and psychiatrists
Referring clients to other services or resources in the community, including in-patient treatment facilities or support groups
Helping clients process their reactions and accept changes in life, such as layoffs or divorce
Guiding clients to make good decisions through an appropriate decision-making process
Encouraging clients to share their emotions and experiences
Helping clients to strategize and develop skills to cope with challenging situations or change their behavior to adapt to new and/or challenging environments
It is important to find a counselor you trust and connect with. Below are some ways in which you can find the right mental health counselor for you:
Ask someone you trust
Referrals from a doctor, colleague, or friend you trust can help you find a counselor who matches your individual needs. However, it is important to recognize that you may have different goals and needs with your counselor compared to the person who has recommended them to you – what worked for them may not work best for you. Ensure you look into all options to find your ideal match.
Use a reliable online database
Several mental health organizations maintain updated, searchable databases of licensed mental health counselors. Start your search by typing in your ZIP code to get a list of counselors in your local area. Some popular online search tools include the American Psychological Association¹ and the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists².
There are numerous platforms and apps that now offer affordable options for mental health counseling with licensed professionals who you can connect with from the comfort of your own home. Try platforms like Talkspace, Tokitus, or Betterhelp to see if they fit your needs.
Explore local resources
You can check the resources available in your neighborhood. For instance, students can contact their school or college counseling center. Employees can speak with their HR department to link up with counselors available via employee assistance or workplace wellness program. You could connect with faith-related counselors through your religious community.
Local advocacy organizations can also help if you are seeking a counselor with experience in helping clients through sensitive issues, such as domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Think about your goals in advance
Studies³ reveal that clients attain better outcomes when they work towards shared goals with a counselor. For example, if you want to join a supportive network of members who understand your experiences, you should look for a counselor involved with these support groups.
Ask questions about the things that matter to you
When you meet a counselor for the first time, whether in person, via the phone, or online, ask them questions about things to find out if they are the right fit for you. Whether it’s about their background, experience, or training, you are encouraged to ask questions of your counselor.
If you are interested in their training, below are some of the questions you can ask as per suggestions by the American Psychological Association⁴:
Do you have a license to practice in this state?
How long have you been in practice?
How long have you worked with people with (mention the problem you wish to resolve)
What insurance do you accept?
There are also some traits that you may prefer in a counselor. Some universally positive traits a good mental health counselor has to include:
Strong therapeutic rapport (they make you feel understood and at ease)
The ability to solve problems
An open mind
Good listening skills
Clear verbal communication
Every mental health counseling session differs slightly depending on the counselor and your individual needs. Generally, the first appointment involves asking questions and sorting out the logistics of your treatment plan.
Your counselor will take the time to learn more about you, your history, and your presenting issues. They will also spend some time just getting to know you as a person. You can expect the following:
Your counselor will have questions for you
What made you seek treatment?
What is your background?
What are your life circumstances?
What are your goals for counseling?
Have you sought treatment in the past?
The counselor might ask you to fill out forms
A counselor may give you a document to sign to confirm that you are giving them your informed consent and you agree to start counseling.
This document may include:
Your counselor’s name and licensing details
Practice policies and fees
Details of the counseling program
Details of patient rights and confidentiality
The counselor might also ask you to fill out extra questionnaires with questions regarding your mental and medical health history. These tools are often used to fill in the blanks about important aspects of your medical history in order to monitor the progression of your symptoms over time.
These forms also help to determine the severity of your presenting concerns. You may be asked questions about your emotions, sleep, diet and exercise habits, and family relationships.
Counseling sessions can vary widely in cost. While some community centers may offer free sessions, other private clinics may charge upwards of $200 a session. Check websites such as GoodTherapy.org to find affordable counseling in your local area, or MentalHealth.gov to find free or discounted counseling through community clinics.
Online counseling is often a more budget-friendly option, especially if this meets your needs and you do not need the added benefit of face-to-face counseling. The rates of online counseling are typically charged on a weekly or monthly basis and tend to be a fraction of the cost of in-person sessions.
Some insurance plans can help to cover the cost of your counseling sessions, either in-person or online. If you intend to use your insurance plan, call your provider and ask for details of whether your counseling with your specific counselor will be covered.
You can also see if your school or workplace has programs that offer free counseling services. These are often accessible through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or your school or company’s website.
Another possible option for discount mental health counseling is through schools and training centers. Sometimes, trainee counselors will provide supervised counseling sessions at a discounted rate. You can find out if this is available in your area by contacting local counseling schools and training centers.
The symptoms of negative mental health can make it difficult to get through each day, let alone live your best life. If you feel you would benefit from some professional support, use the resources above to find the right professional counselor to reach out to.
Mental health counseling can help you manage your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, teach you to better cope with stress, and offer a safe and confidential space to work through the challenges you face.
A counselor actively listens and asks questions to help you understand your problems, then works on strategies with you to help you to live a more fulfilling life. The strategies and tools you develop in counseling benefit you both now and in the future.
Find the right psychologist for you | Psychologist Locator
Therapist locator | American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
How to choose a psychologist | American Psychological Association