Roles and responsibilities of mental health counselors

According to Statista, nearly 42 million adult Americans received mental health treatment between 2021 and 2022. This number has steadily grown in the last 20 years. In 2002, it stood at a little over 22 million. That it has almost doubled is telling. 

In 2021, the New York Times asked a cross-section of more than 1,300 therapists and counselors what they were hearing from their patients. Why was the country seeing a marked increase in the number of people searching for mental health therapies?

Many patients talked about general anxiety about life. A significant number reported feeling over or underwhelmed. Many workers reported professional burnout, stress, and depression. 

There was a notable increase in those suffering feelings of isolation and loneliness, emptiness, and uncertainty about the future. Family and relationship strife dominated many conversations between professionals and their clients.

As a result of the increased demand for mental health services, there has been a corresponding rise in demand for mental health counselors. 

For anyone so inclined, this is the time to get into the profession. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 22% growth in jobs within the coming decade. There will be more than 43,000 job openings each year. 

One way of becoming a mental health counselor is to complete an MSED counseling degree through an accredited institution like St. Bonaventure University. This Master of Science in Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling prepares students to become licensed professional counselors. 

You may be wondering what the roles and responsibilities of a professional mental health counselor are. 

Specific roles depend on the work setting. You may get employment in an institution where your responsibilities vary from those discussed here. 

We will also examine the requirements for a good mental health counselor. 

Before we do that, it is important to understand the difference between a mental health counselor and a therapist.

Mental health counselor vs. therapist

These terms are often used interchangeably, and although they may mean more or less the same thing, there are subtle differences.

The first is in the training these two professionals receive. Initially, therapists may undertake general mental health training in university but often specialize in a given area. There is a wide range of specializations that they can choose from, including addiction, marriage, and family. 

Therapists often deal with a broad spectrum of problems. Rather than help patients sort out one specific issue, they examine the past to determine what is causing the present behavior and help their patients change their way of thinking so they can improve their lives. 

A counselor, on the other hand, often helps their clients overcome a defined issue or issues that stand in the way of living a full life. They can help them solve a problem, make a decision, overcome an obstacle, or change their attitude toward a specific issue. 

A summary of the important differences between counselors and therapists:

  • Counselors are required to have a license only in some states. 
  • Therapists usually offer long-term treatment, while counselors are focused on providing help in the short term. 
  • A therapist usually focuses on personal and relationship issues, while a counselor is intent on treating mental, psychological and addiction issues. They also help people overcome general life issues they may be facing. 
  • Therapists are required to have a master’s degree in their chosen specialization. For counselors, it is beneficial to have one although it is usually not a requirement. However, it can be just what they need to take their career to the next level.

Roles and responsibilities of mental health counselors

Counselors are employed in a variety of settings. You may find yourself working in a hospital, a clinic, a state health facility, a rehab center, or even a school or a university. Wherever you end up, there are certain responsibilities you will be expected to undertake.

  • Helping individuals, groups, and families with mental health issues

This is one of the primary roles of a counselor. Their clients are typically individuals, families, or groups of people trying to overcome an issue. 

Individuals may, for example, be trying to overcome alcohol or drug addiction, and a counselor will see that they have the right advice and tools to go through the process. 

At the same time, they may work with the individual’s family, providing them with coping strategies and giving them advice on how they can help their loved one overcome addiction. 

A counselor can also see the client in a group of other addicts who face similar issues. 

They will help the group as a whole explore the root of their addiction and supply them with coping strategies and advice so they can do better in the future.

  • Discussing emotions and experiences with patients and their families

This takes up a significant amount of a counselor’s time. For them to help clients with specific issues, they need to understand what those issues are and what may be causing them. 

They talk extensively to their clients and ask relevant questions. They discuss how a certain situation came to be, how the client feels about it, and even whether the client has any ideas on how the situation can be remedied. 

Using the information gathered, they can develop a treatment plan within a given timeframe and evaluate progress as they continue with counseling.

  • Helping patients examine the causes of their mental health problems

This involves using their professional knowledge and information from the client to understand the cause of the problems the client is experiencing. 

They may also talk to family and friends to get better insights into the situation. 

If they can diagnose the patient, they can decide on what treatments and therapies will work best. 

  • Working with families to help them overcome specific issues they may be facing

Families in crisis are not rare in America, and they are often assigned counselors to help them overcome whatever problems they are dealing with. 

Some of the most common problems that families face include the addiction of a family member to drugs and alcohol, the mental or physical handicap of a family member, chronic illness or even isolation, and an inability to integrate into the wider community. 

A counselor helps explore these problems and suggests immediate steps for the family to start the healing process. 

  • Developing therapeutic plans for your clients

Diagnosis is the first step. After that, the counselor develops a treatment plan to help the client overcome the issues they are facing within a given time frame. 

If a counselor determines that the problem is more than they are qualified to handle, they consult other mental or medical health professionals so they can develop an effective and thorough treatment plan. 

  • Referring patients to professionals who are qualified to dispense medications

In many cases, a counselor will come across a patient who, in addition to counseling, needs drugs to help them overcome their mental health issues. 

In this case, the counselor can refer them to a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a doctor to get their prescription. 

They will provide a full briefing of the problem, including what they hope to gain from the therapy, so the other professional is well-informed and can dispense the proper medications.

  • Encouraging patients to embrace holistic health

Holistic health is becoming mainstream in America. Today, people rely on alternative therapies and herbal cures to deal with a myriad of mental health issues. These include acupuncture, hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, chiropractic, homeopathy, and many others.

It is well known, for example, that massage or yoga can help reduce stress and anxiety. Herbs like St. John’s Wort help people feel more relaxed, while lavender can alleviate insomnia. 

If a counselor knows that a client can benefit from these alternative therapies, it is their job to advise them how they work and what benefits and risks are associated with them. 

They must encourage safe use at all times. 

What soft skills do mental health counselors need?

Soft skills are just as vital as professional skills. They help counselors form and maintain relationships with their clients.

To be a good mental health counselor, you need the following soft skills.

  • Listening

This is how you get to know about your clients and the issues they are facing. Listening is more than being quiet as the patient talks. 

A good counselor knows how to read body cues, for example, as they can give insight into the client’s mental processes. 

They also know how to read between the lines; people don’t always say what they mean, and in counseling, it can be difficult to get people to talk openly about their problems. 

A good counselor also knows what questions to ask to get a full picture of a patient’s situation. 

  • Empathy

This means that one person can feel the pain of another. It makes us want to help. If you want to be a good counselor, it helps if you are naturally empathetic. 

You should be able to see things from your client’s perspective without forming judgments. 

  • Cultural sensitivity

A culturally sensitive counselor helps all their clients without regard for where they are from or their ethnicity. 

Wherever you work, you’ll meet people from different races and countries, and you may find them, their customs, and even their way of thinking a little strange. 

You must learn to overcome this instinct and help all your clients equally and without judgment. 

  • Emotional control

It may be that your clients tell you things that would infuriate or shock an ordinary person. However, you are a counselor and must exercise control at all times. 

Whatever you hear, you cannot afford to express any emotion, as that can cause the client to shut down and lose trust in you. 

  • Good communication

You should communicate clearly to your clients at all times. Do not use ambiguous language that leaves them guessing as to your meaning. 

At the same time, remain courteous even when your patients are not.

  • Facilitation

This means that you can help groups communicate. It is an important soft skill because a significant portion of your work involves dealing with groups. 

You have to command the respect of everyone within the group and encourage them to share their feelings freely with the rest. 

You cannot afford to be shy or have some group members dominate the discussion. 

  • Problem-solving

Counseling involves helping people solve the specific problems they are facing, so you must be a good problem solver. Help others explore solutions to everyday issues. 

You should also accept when you are not able to help a patient. Don’t let your ego stand in the way of referring patients to more qualified professionals. Always choose the best solution for your clients. 

  • Ability to detach

As a counselor, you will come across emotionally trying situations and may be drawn into an emotional spiral. A level of detachment is needed for effective counseling. 


The roles and responsibilities of mental health counselors vary depending on the types of clients they handle and where they work but are more or less as discussed above. 

Soft skills are just as important as professional qualifications in carrying out these responsibilities. Don’t worry if you don’t have them at the very beginning of your career. As you become more experienced in your profession, your soft skills will improve.

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