Posted by: counselorcarmella | August 2, 2012

Basics: The Process of Becoming A Counselor

Someone recently asked me what is involved in becoming a counselor.  Not philosophically, but literally. “What do you have to do to become a counselor?” Here is what I said.
It takes a lot  of work to become a counselor and to stay a counselor.  It is a rewarding but challenging job.   Counseling is not about getting rich or  having status.  It is about  caring about  people and  being able to help  in a certain kind of way.  A pperson really has to believe in, and be passionate about,  being a counselor to do well in this profession.  There has to be a real sense of being drawn  to this work, a commitment to  it, and the ability to stay balanced as a person  to not give every bit of time and energy to their job.  There has to be self care. There has to be  an ability to set limits and  to  work at staying healthy so that we are practicing what we are preaching, so to speak.  We can’t preach, though.  That’s   the other thing. We listen, ask questions, help people think, give feedback or  make observations or suggestions.  We   can’t push our own agendas or values on  clients.   
There are so many types of   counseling.  The term is used to describe different types of work, but the type I do is where people come in usually once a week for an hour and we talk about  problems they’re having with their relationships, jobs, health, a mental illness, etc.  They  want help figuring  out  how to get through  something difficult.   They’re trying to deal with certain feelings,  wanting to sort out their thinking around a particular problem, trying to cope with some sort of  stress,  going through a loss or transition.  Things like that.   They need a different kind of help and support than what family or friends can give them.  I deal with everything from someone  trying to decide about   how to handle  work stress to people who are suicidal  or have just gotten out of a psychiatric hospital because they made a suicide attempt or a serious threat to harm themselves.    
There are different types of counselors.  Some people want to  help  children or teenagers.  Others do family work, or counsel women, or lead counseling groups, or work with men’s issues, or  help those with drug or alcohol problems.  Some help those with  severe mental illnesses or physical illnesses or do   grief counseling.  Some work with  clients that want to come and others also help those who  are court referred. Some work in hospitals  as part of a treatment team and others work in agencies, either public or private.  Some start their own practices.  Some types of counseling, like Voc Rehab counseling or school guidance counseling are usually  more about paperwork and  advising and not so much about real counseling. 
Counselors need to be able to relate to a lot of different types of people. We also need to be  able to stay calm in emotional situations and to   be able to  understand  different sides of  any story.  Its not my job to  tell people  what they want to hear.  Its my job to  try and help them  deal with reality as it is and  as they hope it can become. Sometimes, counselors listen and help a person feel understood and supported. Other times, we have to confront or say things that  clients aren’t going to like.  Counseling is not  something you get rich doing and   it can be tough emotionally sometimes. Obviously, someone wanting to become a counselor needs to want to help people, but they also have to know how to stay  detached enough to not  get upset about every case that comes along. Counseling is a  job that requires a lot of thinking, too, to try and decide what’s going on and  how to    work with each case. It helps to be someone who can keep paperwork organized and manage time well, too. There is  paperwork that goes with each case.  These days, most of us are  doing that  on computer and  keeping electronic records.  Counselors have to be able to communicate and colaborate with other professionals, such as doctors,  teachers, case managers,  insurance people, and sometimes lawyers and probation officers. It helps to have good writing skills for when you have to   write up case summaries and reports.    
There are several ways to get into the field of counseling in general. People who work as counselors  are either  Licensed Professional Counselors, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, or Licensed Clinical  Social Workers.  Each of those emphasizes different  types of  counseling  to an extent, but  they’re similar in some ways, too, as far as basic courses. All of those require  graduate degrees and licenses.   At a  counseling agency or mental health center, you’ll mostly have    people who have graduate degrees and  licenses in  one of these three fields. Eachhas its own national licensure exam. Psychologists have to have a doctorate to be licensed in their field.  If counseling is what this person wants to do, then a doctorate isn’t  necessary. Some people  get their masters degrees in psychology and then   take the test to become a licensed counselor but they have to have certain classes to be able to do that. 
Of course, to go to graduate  school, a person has to have a bachelors degree first.  It doesn’t have to be in psychology or social work.  It can be in   almost anything, really, but it helps if it is  in a field that involves working with people.  To get into graduate school, a person needs to have done well in  college.  Grad schools look at grades,  test scores on   the GRE, a writing sample,  information about  the person’s work background, and  a lot of times, an in-person interview.
To do well in graduate school, a person needs to be able to focus because there is a lot of reading and to  be able to write well.  There are research papers and also things like case reports and essays on exams.  You have to be able to take what you learn and apply it, which means really thinking about the material not just memorizing it. In grad school, the person will take some classes that are just  about information and others that involve learning and then practicing counseling skills.  Before finishing their degree, they will do internships  where they work as student counselors  under supervision.  If the person  completes the  program, and has taken the classes needed to qualify for  the  licensure test, they  have to take and pass a national exam.  For someone who is blind, they have to get accomodations to take this exam.  I did and it wasn’t a problem. I  qualified to take two national exams, to get two separate licenses, so that’s what I did.   
No  license, no counseling job so passing that exam has tohappen as soon as possible after finishing graduate school.  Then,  they have to work for  a minimum of 2 years as a licensed intern.  During that time, they have to   see a certain number of clients and receive a certain number of hours of talking about cases with  a licensed supervisor.  It is the supervisor’s responsibility to  make sure the new counselor is    making  good decisions and handling cases  appropriately.  Supervisors offer guidance and support and accountability. Sometimes, the place you work provides  your supervision.  Other times, we have to find and pay  someone who is licensed as a supervisor. I’ve done both.
After that is done, the person can get fully licensed and  work independently.  They can receive insurance payments then, too.  The whole process of  applying  to take the licensure exam,  getting the intern license, sending in paperwork to  show internship is complete, and then  getting  licensed is all lots of  forms and documentation and waiting and paying money to the state licensing board.  Its not fun but its all part of the process. Getting on insurance pannels is lots of paperwork, as well, but that’s how most people  pay for their counseling so its important to do it. 
Once someone is licensed, they have to go to a certain number of workshops and seminars   to keep their license.  The license has to be renewed  every 2 years by paying a fee and  showing proof of  getting  continuing education.  Its usually about 20 hours a year of  CEUs.  There are lots of ways to get those and a person can choose  CEUs on topics they’re interested in.  Practicing without a license can get a personin huge trouble, so   we have to stay on top of all that stuff.  Being licensed means we  agree to abide by certain laws and  codes of ethics  set forth by the state of SC and we can be in big trouble if we violate those  codes and laws.
Its a long haul and a lot of  hoop jumping, but  what we do is serious business so quality control is important.  The process is not  for the timid.  The work is not for the  timid.  Its harder than I could ever have imagined in ways I could never have imagined. But its rewarding in ways I could not have fathomed either. I’m in a setting that works very well for me and I’m  extremely thankful for that. 

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