Aquestion I often get is “what made you go into your field?” I also get questions similar to this from the students I see in counseling at my local university who are interested in the field. Then, there is the random comments I get from people after I tell them what I do for a living. I typically get:
- “Oh, Lord”
- “Bless your heart”
- “I couldn’t do what you do”
I also get comments such as the one I got from my dentist yesterday, “Well I’m not going to talk to you ’cause you’ll psychoanalyze me.” So, why did I go into this field?
That question is complex. It’s a question I really do not like answering majority of the time. Partially because it means disclosing personal information, but also because most of the time this question is asked just to fill in small talk. My answer is never short enough for small talk. And my answer is never depthless enough to discuss with someone that is still on small talk relational level. First, I will describe the pros of being a mental health counselor.
My favorite benefit of being a mental health counselor is how fulfilled I feel. I have been passionately curious about mental health for about 11 years now. I have always felt that mental health is something we need more awareness, resources, and treatment for. Growing up, I was not talked to about mental health by friends, family, or the schools I attended. There was plenty of talk about sexual health and physical health, but there was never any talk about mental health. Even when kids on campus completed suicide, one of which was an acquaintance of mine, teachers were there for support, pastors came onto campus to help, but there were no mental health counselors. No professionals who are trained in that area.
Now that I have two degrees in the mental health field, I have a much better understanding of mental health. My education has only increased my passion for mental health. It not only has prepared me to help my clients, but it has helped me better understand human beings in general–including myself. It has helped me understand why I did not have education surrounding mental health growing up. It has helped me better understand “every day” problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep issues, grief, and trauma. It has also helped me better understand the “complex” problems that most people shake their heads at–crime, substance addiction, murders, etc. It has helped me be more empathetic with the humans that society typically throws to the curb. It has helped me become exactly who I wanted to become–an agent of change.
I get to be an agent of change in several ways through this field. The most obvious one is with my clients. I get to help them grow in areas they want help in and become people they never thought they could become. I get to help them work towards goals and be there for them in the pain and beauty of it all. Another way I get to be an agent of change is through education and advocating. I get to speak up for those who do not have a platform to speak from. I have opportunities to create change in the local, state, and federal levels.
Another positive with being a mental health counselor is the freedom to practice as you see fit. Granted, there are some rules–set forth by our state board and ethics committees–and there are difference levels of rules depending on where you are employed at. For example, private practice often has to answer to insurance companies. State agencies often have to answer to the state regulations and protocols. I wouldn’t say there is 100% freedom to practice as you see fit, because there are still standards of practice that must be followed. But majority of the time, you get to choose how you want to proceed with working with your clients. Is Sandtray Therapy a favorite modality of yours? Great! Incorporate it with your clients when appropriate!
Something else I consider to be a positive is the beauty of using your own strengths and weaknesses to help others. Sometimes, this can be a struggle. The pressure to be a healthy individual that does not struggle, simply because you hold the title of “professional counselor” is real. The guilt and shame you feel when you are human and make a mistake with a client is real. Ultimately, this process has helped me accept my weaknesses, grow in areas that needed attention, and use my experiences to help others. I’ll never forget reading in a textbook in graduate school that theories and techniques are important, but the most important tool you can use is the counseling relationship. You get to build real relationships with your clients. And you get to see them grow as a result of this professional relationship.
Another positive is that, depending on where you are employed, you may can create your own schedule. I’m the type of person that needs down time throughout the day to both do my progress notes and also have a minute alone. I’m an introvert, so having time alone is what recharges me throughout the day. The freedom to incorporate this down time into my schedule is absolutely a benefit. You can also decide if you want to work part-time, if you want to take an extended time off once a year, and so on. This can be an attractive option for those that both want to work but also want to focus on our own growth or family and other responsibilities outside of work.
Another positive is having insight into the problems of others. Though I try to stay away from “psychoanalyzing” people, I can’t help but feel good when I understand the complicated dynamics playing into others issues that they might not understand.
The last positive of being a mental health counselor, that I can think of, is the avenue to continually better yourself. As I said before, education is important. But the best tool a counselor can use is themselves. We cannot effectively help people struggling with addiction if we are in the midst of it ourselves. We cannot truly learn ways of dealing with life circumstances if we do not face our own problems.
Of course, this can also be a con, depending on the day. Counselors are humans too. Though we may be more inclined to face our problems, it doesn’t mean we are pros at it. It doesn’t mean we are good at it. It is natural for human beings to want to avoid stress. It’s how our brains are wired. We see stress, our brain interprets it as a threat, and we naturally want to move away from threats. Some days, we hate the pressure of needing to face our own problems for the sake of personal and professional well being. Ultimately, I see it as a blessing. Though nobody is ever “cured” of certain issues, you grow into a more stable, healthy, well rounded person.
Now, for the cons of being a mental health counselor. The cons will be different for every counselor. What follows is a list of cons that I have personally experienced.
The biggest struggle for me, as a mental health counselor, is trying to find balance between personal and professional responsibilities. Being a counselor, your growth and the things that need your attention never end. This can be complicated if you have other jobs, family, and other responsibilities. Sometimes, it can be hard on your loved ones. You may work weird hours. You may be emotionally drained and unable to show your partner love on a day they need it.
Another struggle, for most counselors I have met, is attempting to turn off their counselor brain when they are in their personal life. Though we love the insight into common life problems we have learned, it can cause problems with those in our personal life. Some counselors have a hard time not being judgmental on what their partner is experiencing. It can be hard to not go into “psychoanalyze mode” when around people who are not your clients. Early on in my career, I had family members tell me they do not want me to counsel them. This is something they teach in grad school–that you cannot see a person in your personal life as objectively as you see a client. Thus, we cannot counsel loved ones. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we may not be interpreting the situation correctly and even if we are, we want the person to come to the right conclusion on their own.
The third struggle, that I can think of, is the struggle of people assuming you have all the answers. Sometimes, I get these comments from family and friends. Other times, it is with clients. People assume that since we “tell people what to do for a living,” then we have all the answers. They do not realize that even if you have a PhD, it is impossible to have all of life’s answers. It is impossible to learn insight and strategies for intervention with every single issue that will come up for every person we will ever see. This is difficult in two ways. One, we must become comfortable with the unknown. When a client discusses something we have never heard about before, or do not know much about, we cannot allow it to make us feel inadequate. This is also difficult in the sense that sometimes we put pressure on ourselves to perform better in situations when know better about. Insight can be helpful for problem solving, but it does not mean that we will be perfect. This also means we have to become comfortable with the idea that we will always have growth to do, but we can be competent at the same time.
Now, for more concrete struggles of being a counselor. Some of the struggles I experienced in grad school had to do with the professors themselves. Some of the struggles had to do with normal stress with a combination of being a mom, in classes, an doing internships. After grad school ended, the struggle was still hard, but in different ways. You have to do a minimum of 18 months of supervised counseling experience POST grad school, meaning after you have graduated. This is difficult for a lot of counselors in my state because majority of places do not want to hire interns, they want fully licensed people. So, we are stuck with doing jobs that are really not counseling in order to get our hours. This means that we are competing with bachelors level individuals for bachelors level jobs. It also means that there is a greater chance of us getting our full license without actually having real counseling experience. In addition, it means that we may have to pay a supervisor while also being paid the same as bachelors level jobs.
And last, but not least, a struggle that I personally have experienced as a counselor is feeling burnt out and exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally, and those around you do not seem to understand why. Oh yes, they understand you may deal with heavy topics–such as suicide, homicide, schizophrenia, etc. But they also think that all you do during the day is sit in a chair and listen to people talk. There is very little understanding from the general public about that fact that counseling is actual interventions in the mind, it is not simply letting someone vent. Thus, invalidated for our struggles is an issue.
This list is, of course, not comprehensive. There are things I am sure I am forgetting to mention, as well as the experiences that I have not personally experienced that other counselors have. If you have any questions, need further clarification on any of the above mentioned, or just want to reach out, feel free to email me!