Counseling is one of those terms that is applied across numerous mental health careers, encompassing everything from one-on-one therapy sessions, to group discussions, to those who work in schools and clinical settings helping children, parents, and individuals solve problems they can’t solve on their own.
It’s one of the most diverse occupations in today’s job marketplace, which is why individuals wanting variety, challenge, and ample opportunities enter the profession.
Because of its diversity, however, those who practice the art of counseling – or counselors – are typically hard to categorize. And it’s often hard for the public to distinguish the difference between counseling-based professionals. After all, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors are all professionals that provide some type of counseling services.
How does counseling differ among professionals and how do those who simply call themselves “counselors” distinguish themselves? In other words, what distinguishes the counseling practices from one psychology professional to the next?
The counseling field of Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) is one of the most marketable and practical ways to enter the counseling field. Those holding master’s degrees in psychology are eligible to become licensed to become what most refer to as professional counselors, or LPCs.
The American Counseling Association (ACA) website defines professional counseling as:
The application of mental health, psychological, or human development principles, through cognitive, affective, behavioral or systematic intervention strategies, that address wellness, personal growth, or career development, as well as pathology.
These counseling professionals differ from clinical or counseling psychologists who hold either a PhD or PsyD, having different licensing and certification requirements. However, some of the same services provided by LPCs overlap with the services provided by clinical psychologists.
Overlap Between Various Counseling Positions
According to the article “The Role of the Professional Counselor in the 21st Century” by Michael K. Altekruse, Ed.D, Northern Kentucky University and colleagues, mental health professionals overlap in their counseling services.
“Historically, the term has been employed generically across mental health disciplines to describe a particular process. In general, counseling refers to a voluntary and confidential process which takes place in the context of a professional relationship, whereby individuals, groups of individuals, or members of a family attempt to gain an understanding of self and others to effectively solve problems and resolve conflicts in their daily lives. Coming from this process-based understanding comes the term counselor that is most often associated with and, therefore, is used to describe the individual who provides counseling services,” writes Altekruse and coauthors.
Altekruse goes on to state, however, that each counseling profession has a different emphasis, with professional counselors or LPCs focusing on helping people with nonclinical developmental problems, such as those dealing with personal, family, social, educational, and career issues and decisions. Psychologists or PhDs and PsyDs, in contrast, focus more on clinical pathology and chronic mental illness.
What do LPCs Do?
The practice of professional counseling includes helping clients with:
- Personal growth
- Decision making
- Stress management
- Career development
- School counseling
- Addiction and substance abuse counseling
- Prevention of mental health issues or self-care
- Family counseling
- Marital and relationship counseling
- Diagnosis of mental health disorders
- Treatment modalities for mental health disorders
LPCs Work as Generalists and Specialists
LPCs train in all aspects of counseling, concentrating on learning the behavioral patterns that lead to problems in different facets of individuals’ lives. And although they tend to focus on normal developmental issues and problems that most people face at one time or another, they also learn how to diagnose and treat chronic mental and emotional disorders, including substance abuse and addiction.
LPCs apply the same therapies as many other mental health professionals. They employ research-based talk therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy. They also can become trained in a number of different types of therapies if they, for example, want to work exclusively with families, children, or married couples. For more information, see Brief Strategic Family Therapy, Family Systems Therapy, Premarital Counseling, Strategic Family Therapy, and Structural Family Therapy.
Counseling burnout, compassion fatigue, and trauma are realities in the counseling field. Because of the large amount of empathy, compassion, and caring required by counselors for others, they often neglect their own needs and mental health. And they often take on the pain and trauma of others, almost to the point of feeling that pain themselves.
The American Counseling Association (ACA) warns counselors about “impairment.” The organization states that warning signs for the condition are when life - work and personal - becomes overwhelming, interfering with the counselor’s ability to function.
The ACA lists the following as manifestations of impairment:
- Compassion fatigue
- Vicarious traumatization
- Depression, anxiety, other mental health conditions
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Over-involvement and overwork
- Relationship problems
Counselors (or family members or friends) noting any of these conditions should immediately seek help.
LPCs also work with individuals on vocational or career issues, individuals having relationship issues with bosses or coworkers, or those wanting to change careers. Sometimes individuals only see roadblocks to making career changes, and LPCs help individuals knock down these barriers, implementing healthy and constructive changes.
Preventing mental health issues from arising is another area that LPCs apply their skills. Those who work in prevention typically find work in community health positions, positions that work to impact mental health care policies. They either consult or work for social service agencies, improving prevention efforts for a number of community issues, such as alcohol and substance abuse, obesity, teen pregnancy, foster care, and homelessness.
Some positions require LPCs to become specialists in a particular area, specialties that often require additional certification in that area. For example, the National Board For Certified Counselors (NBCC) provides the following specialty certifications for those already certified as professional counselors: clinical mental health; addictions; school counseling; career counseling.
For LPCs wanting to work as generalists, seeing clients with a range of problems and mental health concerns, they often work in private practice individually, or with a group of other counselors. Specialties often determine where LPCs work, such as those with addiction specialties working for alcohol treatment centers, or vocational and school counselors working in schools and colleges.
If you desire to help individuals with personal growth, decision making, family life, career decisions, relationship issues, or a number of other conditions that affect everyone’s quality of live, consider a career as a licensed counseling professional (LPC). LPCs must have a master’s degree, and certain licensing and certification requirements also apply. Contact schools offering counseling degree programs to start the process of earning a career as a professional counselor.
Requirements for Becoming an LPC*
LPC education and training for licensure are commensurate with the other two master’s level mental health providers: marriage and family therapists (MFTs); and clinical social workers (LCSW).
State licensure requirements for LPCs, also called professional counselors, include:
- Completing a master’s or doctoral degree in counseling from a national or regionally-accredited institution of higher education, including an internship and coursework on human behavior and development, effective counseling strategies, ethical practice, and other core knowledge areas;
- Logging a minimum of 3,000 post-master’s supervised clinical experience, performed within 2 years, and periodic continuing education classes/hours after receiving licensure;
- Passing the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or a similar state-recognized exam;
- Strictly adhering to the Code of Ethics and recognized standards of practice that the state’s counselor licensure board regulates.
*Source: American Counseling Association 5999 Stevenson Avenue Alexandria, VA 22304 Toll Free: 800-347-6647 www.counseling.org
Counseling Portfolios Can Lead to Jobs
Once only an effective employment tool for artists, advertising professionals, and writers, licensed counseling professionals (LPCs) now bring portfolios to job interviews. These LPCs stand ahead of the pack, giving themselves a competitive edge over others.
Usually bound in a portable case, such as a large binder, professionals usually carry their portfolios – a visual representation of their credentials – under their arms.
However, just as other professionals have moved their work online into digital formats, savvy LPCs also develop digital portfolios in the form of DVDs, websites, blogs, and other social media tools.
Both hard cover and digital portfolios are now also used to gain entry into graduate schools, as well as used for job interviews. But whatever its format, the portfolio’s overall goal is to showcase an LPC’s training, work, and applicable life experiences.
Usually the particular job requirements, or the prospective graduate program, determines the portfolio’s contents. For instance, if applying for a school or childhood counseling position, any relevant volunteer positions, internships, or written documentation of when and how you worked with children would be relevant.
Samples of this type of work could include videos of you working with children (with the children’s identities hidden) supervisor’s assessments of your work, recommendations from supervisors or other counselors, or pictures of your work (again, with identities hidden).
In advertising or graphic design terms, you’re “branding” yourself with a portfolio, or differentiating yourself from all the other applicants. It tells a graduate program admissions team or employer what makes you unique or qualified for this particular job or graduate program.
Some typical items that you should consider as part of your portfolio:
- Vita and/or resume. A resume should have a precise objective geared toward a particular job, and list education, work experience, certificates and licenses, honors, interests and activities, and professional memberships. Vitas are usually more comprehensive, and geared for those who have been working as LPCs, containing a more comprehensive biographical and professional history.
- Counseling education with relevant courses. Copies of course descriptions, syllabi, research papers, and test results all provide evidence of completed counseling courses. A list of relevant counseling books and journals read should also be kept in the portfolio, showing that you stay current with research and best practices.
- Volunteer positions, internships, and work experience. Videos, pictures, and copies of supervisors’ evaluations are all important when documenting counseling experiences – especially for documenting internships and volunteer positions.. After becoming an LPC, it’s imperative to keep records of work accomplishments, evaluations, grant applications, and any other documentation that records your history as a counselor.
- Proof of licensure, certification, and continuing education classes. Copies of licenses and/or certification should be kept in portfolios. Most states also require continuing education classes to keep licenses and certifications current, so copies of workshop or class descriptions, and any additional certificates earned should also be presented in the portfolio.
After entering the counseling field, LPCs should keep their portfolios up to date, continuously adding new experiences and updating credentials.