Counselors help people cope with various life changes and there are different types of counselors depending on the situation. Counseling professionals specialize their therapeutic skills for addressing the needs of a unique client group. For instance, marriage and family counselors might work with parents to try to reconcile siblings. Rehabilitation counselors could help a client with a developmental disability lead an independent life. School counselors may assist a high school junior with the stress of the college search. Each type of counselor strives to improve the well-being of their clients. However, their practice strategies vary considerably. If you’re interested in becoming a counselor, then let’s review the many different counseling specialties and see which suits your interests.
Overview of the Different Counselor Types
The American Counseling Association (ACA) lists 22 types of counseling specializations on its website. However, the Alexandria-based nonprofit organization also notes that there may be many other concentrations. Lesser-known specialties cover topics like social justice, LGBTQ issues, and multiculturalism. Every type of counseling addresses a specific need or set of needs. Counseling practice areas share the common goal of nurturing clients’ emotional, social, spiritual, and physical wellness. The counselor types aren’t usually cut-and-dried and exclusive from one another. Several different kinds of counselors could work together on one case for a client with co-occurring disorders or life obstacles. Counselors could also encompass various specialties and sub-specialties based on their training. Here is a brief introduction to the major kinds of counselors practicing in America.
Clinical Mental Health Counselor
Clinical mental health counselors are highly trained therapists who treat individuals with mental illnesses. They meet regularly with people who fulfill DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for disorders. Their clients have mental disorders, including social anxiety, schizophrenia, clinical depression, and bipolar disorder. Many clients also have behavioral disorders, such as ADHD, OCD, and conduct disorder. Clinical mental health counselors regularly work with clients who are suicidal or dangerous to others. Therefore, they must intervene with customized treatment plans. Clinical mental health counselors perform psychotherapy but can’t prescribe medicines. For prescriptions like anti-depressants, they refer clients to psychiatrists. Clinical mental health counselors sharpen coping skills and monitor client progress. They facilitate positive changes with cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, existential therapy, and more.
Marriage and Family Therapist
Marriage and family therapists are counselors who work to resolve conflicts in clients’ relationships. Rather than one-on-one, they conduct therapy sessions with couples or whole families. Nobody needs a mental health disorder in order to see a marriage and family therapist. They help people sort through everyday life issues to develop stronger emotional bonds. They counsel clients through difficult relationship problems, such as divorce, cheating, child-rearing, and addiction. Marriage and family therapists guide guardians through parenting woes that affect their children’s lives. Rooting out family dysfunction for a happier home environment is the mission. Marriage and family therapists repair broken relationships by making both or all parties self-aware for fixing their own mistakes. Some also practice as licensed sex therapists to address couples’ issues in the bedroom and improve intimacy.
School counselors are PreK-12 educational advocates who work with students from kindergarten through high school. Also called guidance counselors, they focus on issues that affect youth’s academic achievement as well as social and emotional development. They collaborate with teachers to give pupils extra support in 1:1 or group settings. School counselors are licensed to assist in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process for children with disabilities. They meet with kids or teens who are suffering from bullying, parental divorce, neglect, and bad grades. They’re responsible for reporting suspected cases of physical, verbal, or sexual child abuse. School counselors advise district leaders on curriculum changes to better life skills. In secondary schools, they help students with college planning and SAT/ACT tests. In preschools, counselors devise early interventions to support at-risk toddlers with delays.
Substance Abuse Counselor
Substance abuse counselors are addiction treatment specialists who strive to end cycles of alcohol and drug abuse. They design rehabilitation plans to get clients sober from substances like cocaine, heroin, tobacco, meth, and marijuana. Since America’s opioid crisis began, more have focused on treating clients who misuse prescription painkillers. Substance abuse counselors begin by assessing clients’ addiction history and readiness for treatment. They give much-needed emotional support during the hard substance withdrawal process and watch for side effects, including delirium tremens. After detox, they use therapeutic tools to modify addictive behaviors and prevent relapse. Substance abuse counselors could use 12-step or non-12-step programs, such as SMART Recovery and LifeRing. They even arrange external services like sober housing and job placement to get addicts back on their feet.
Trauma and Disaster Therapist
Trauma and disaster therapists are crisis counselors who help victims recover after painful, life-altering events. They serve clients who have suffered lasting physical and mental damage from disasters. Most of their clients fit the DSM-5 criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma and disaster therapists address PTSD symptoms, such as anxiety, flashbacks, insomnia, and survivor’s guilt. Their clients may have dealt with natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, and tsunamis. Many have survived man-made disasters like war, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, car accidents, and structural collapses. Victims of personal violent acts, including rape and attempted murder, are also their clients. Getting survivors to cope with horrific memories and nightmares is the goal. Trauma and disaster therapists make clients feel safe, happy, and able to trust others again.
Rehabilitation counselors are disability specialists who help clients adjust to life with a chronic or acute health condition. They see clients from age 0-100 and develop plans to minimize the effects of disabilities. Many of their clients have incurable disabilities like autism, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, sickle cell anemia, and spina bifida. Others may need assistance to recover from injuries or cancer treatment. Whichever the case, rehabilitation counselors ensure clients can cope with their limitations and have an enjoyable, productive life. They deliver life skills training to keep clients independent and out of assisted living. They teach clients how to use assistive technologies, such as wheelchairs and hearing aids. Rehabilitation counselors use a strengths-based approach to find employment for disabled clients. They could also guide clients through claiming disability benefits or workers’ compensation.
Vocational counselors are job consultants who assist teens and adults in finding the right career path of their dreams. They perform job aptitude tests to assess each client’s unique skills and personality traits. They help clients establish realistic, achievable career goals based on their interests. Vocational counselors could help high school graduates and GED recipients pick a post-secondary program. They might advise college students on how to prepare a resume, interview for internships, and network with peers. They may guide current workers on making a successful career change. They can lead initiatives to get laid-off employees more training and better jobs. Vocational counselors in the corporate world even design plans to solve workplace disputes or abuses. If bad situations make clients resign or get fired, they hunt down new opportunities and help clients file job applications.
Creative Arts Therapist
Creative arts therapists are imaginative counselors who encourage clients to express their emotions in diverse art media. They instill the confidence clients need to let out repressed feelings through artwork. Creating personalized works of visual or performing art can be cathartic and healing for clients. Creative arts therapists prompt clients to explore certain life issues nonverbally. Painting, drawing, sculpting, filmmaking, writing, photo-taking, and even dancing may help clients channel their unconscious thoughts. For instance, clients might draw a heart with doodles of everything that fills their hearts with joy. Clients could make sock puppets and act out scenes of traumatic past events. Creative arts therapists work with clients of all ages and artistic abilities. They focus more on substance than artistic talent to help clients overcome life’s obstacles. They plan one-on-one and group art activities to unleash pent-up emotions.
Bereavement counselors are grief therapists who assist clients struggling to deal with the death of loved ones. They help grieving clients who found it difficult to accept that their close relative, friend, or even pet has died. Some clients might be suffering grief from divorce, a job loss, retirement, trauma, or relocation. For months to years after the loss, bereavement counselors coach clients on ways to relieve their pain. They address common grief symptoms, including uncontrollable crying, denial, sorrow, shock, and eating disturbances. Bereavement counselors often provide anger management for clients mad at the world, including the person who died. Preventing physical harm from conditions like broken heart syndrome is the goal. Complicated Grief Treatment (CGT) is one popular therapeutic tool they use. Bereavement counselors often host grief groups to build hope for a brighter future.
Student Affairs Counselor
Student affairs counselors are higher education professionals who play many pivotal roles in guiding college attendees to graduation. Student affairs is a huge umbrella term used to cover all non-academic campus activities that nurture learners’ success. For example, admissions counselors recruit freshmen and transfers who can excel in the college community. Financial aid counselors connect attendees to the monetary funding they need to afford college tuition. Residential counselors supervise on-campus students living in the dorms and advise them on personal issues. Equal opportunity counselors lead initiatives against college discrimination and handle complaints of campus assault or harassment. Student affairs counselors could also oversee disability accommodations, career services, student clubs, study abroad programs, and service-learning. They better the campus climate for a positive college experience.
Genetic counselors are skilled scientists who assess a client’s risks for developing inherited medical conditions. They conduct genetic testing that extracts DNA samples from blood, saliva, or hair. They sometimes test pregnant women by collecting amniotic fluid from the womb. Genetic counselors are determined to locate DNA variants that signify a likelihood of disease development. They educate clients about the benefits and limitations of DNA testing before the procedure. Afterward, they inform clients of the results with non-medical jargon people can comprehend. Genetic counselors can only tell clients about their risks of experiencing health issues like breast cancer and Parkinson’s disease. They estimate the likelihood of fetuses being born with conditions like Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis. They give scientific knowledge about genetic markers before disease symptoms begin to help clients cope.
Music therapists are specialized song makers who harness the healing powers of music to assist clients with mental health disorders. They help clients channel their thoughts, fears, and hurts into musical melodies. They excel when working with clients who are nonverbal or have trouble communicating what’s on their mind. Music therapists might encourage clients to sing, play instruments, act out musical theatre numbers, or simply listen to soothing songs. They often have clients write and perform their own songs with lyrics meaningful to their life. Vibro-acoustic therapy is one popular method of using sound waves to calm the body of stress. Drumming is also common to release pent-up anger nonviolently. Music therapists utilize all forms of acoustic arts as a creative outlet for emotions. Music helps reduce anxiety, improve mood, soothe pain, boost energy, abate loneliness, and teach positive social skills.
Correctional counselors are prison treatment specialists who aim to rehabilitate inmates locked behind bars. They perform mental health screenings to assess the psychological fitness of jailed offenders. They look for depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and more. Correctional counselors use test results to determine the inmate’s risk for exhibiting violence or self-harm. Accordingly, they craft customized counseling plans to address each prisoner’s needs. They connect convicts to teaching, job training, and jail ministry programs to improve their well-being. Correctional counselors provide their expert opinion to parole boards to suggest or deny inmate releases. They’re involved in setting the parameters, such as weekly drug testing or GPS monitoring, for parole. Once sentences end, they keep in contact with parole officers to lower recidivism risks.
Pastoral counselors are religious leaders who deliver faith-based therapy to address individual, family, or community problems. They serve the congregants of Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques, and other places of worship. In every religion, pastoral counselors improve people’s well-being by strengthening their spiritual connection. They apply scriptural passages as guidance to morally resolve life challenges. They say prayers for clients to seek forgiveness and assistance from their God or Supreme Being. Pastoral counselors frequently meet with newly engaged couples preparing to walk down the aisle to marriage. They counsel grieving families after funeral rites to cope with loss. They enlighten people who’re questioning their beliefs. Pastoral counselors blend therapy with theology and ministry to form strong spiritual bonds in faith settings.
Related resource: 25 Best Master’s in Pastoral Counseling Online Degree Programs
Military counselors are government personnel who meet the therapeutic needs of active-duty or veteran Armed Forces members. They work on military bases to counsel enlisted soldiers during their training and deployment. Their clients may request treatment themselves or be referred by commanding officers. Military counselors start with mental health tests to examine servicemen and servicewomen. They customize an appropriate intervention plan to cope with issues on the battlefield and home front. They utilize web conferencing platforms to hold sessions with clients stationed around the globe. Some military counselors even work with the partners and children of our nation’s deployed heroes. Once a tour finishes, military counselors give veterans the resources to adjust back to the civilian workforce. Providing support, PTSD treatment, suicide prevention, and job placement services is their duty.
Nutritional counselors are food gurus who seek to modify problematic eating behaviors for a healthier diet. They fortify clients’ motivation for consuming a healthy mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. They guide clients toward physical health goals to prevent medical diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Nutritional counselors help clients with obesity, hypothyroidism, depression, and binge eating disorder lose extra pounds. Seeing a counselor is often required before weight loss surgeries like gastric bypass. Breaking emotional bonds to food is imperative. In cases of anorexia, cancer, Addison’s disease, and Crohn’s disease, they assist clients with gaining more weight. Nutritional counselors establish a science-based dietary plan for clients to achieve optimal caloric intake. They also integrate fitness regimens to improve clients’ overall lifestyle.
Equine-assisted therapists are skilled stablehands who counsel clients with the help of horses, donkeys, mules, and other breeds. They welcome these majestic large animals into the therapeutic relationship for comfort. They encourage clients to talk to horses and communicate their feelings with zero judgment. Equine-assisted therapists teach clients how to groom, feed, halter, and clean up after horses. Under supervision, clients start leading and eventually riding the horse. Caring for a horse can provide clients more confidence to overcome negative, self-defeating thoughts. Equine-assisted therapists use horses to instill a higher regard for living things and control angry impulses. Engaging in EAT often makes individuals more empathetic, responsible, and assertive. Clients can work through phobias of animals. Horses also become client’s friends to nurture healthy relationship skills.
Sports counselors are athletic consultants who evaluate how mental health affects performance on the field or court. They run psychological assessments on athletes and identify ways to boost performance. They observe teams to develop strategies for improving athletes’ cohesion and camaraderie. Sports counselors discuss hurdles that are holding athletes back and find tactics to jump over them. They teach athletes how to relieve anxiety and better prepare for focus during games or matches. They recommend practice activities for coaches to resolve critical sports problems and maximize athletes’ strengths. Sports counselors mentor athletes suffering from slumps and rejuvenate their confidence. They can work in professional, semi-professional, collegiate, and even high school sports. They’re sports medicine staff who focus on the mind rather than muscles to meet players’ psycho-emotional needs.
Community counselors are social welfare experts who strive to eradicate widespread, systemic health issues. They seek to solve community-level issues for large-scale healing and wellness. For instance, community counselors might help a small town recover after a famine or flood. They could lend support to their local Jewish community after a synagogue shooting. They may work to bring about peace after community riots. They can assist refugees fleeing from war or injustice at settlement camps. Most community counselors work for nonprofit organizations to enhance the morale of a specific population. They collaborate with local government officials to mobilize resources that aid people in need. If needed, they’re trained to deliver therapy to community members impacted by violence or inequality. They advocate for real, pervasive societal changes to better the lives of whole groups of people.
Education and Training Requirements for Counselors
Becoming a counselor always requires at least an accredited, four-year bachelor’s degree. Certain specialties, such as addiction counseling and career counseling, see a baccalaureate as sufficient. The majority of counselors need a master’s degree and licensure in order to practice though. Graduate degrees usually require 30-60 credit hours beyond the bachelor’s level. Schools may offer a general counseling degree or specialized counseling majors. As of June 2020, the Council on Accreditation for Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) has 870 approved master’s degrees. Graduate schools develop their counseling curriculum around the supervised experience hours needed for gaining licensure. Most involve 100 field practicum hours before a 600-hour capstone internship. Some counseling programs require 1,000 or more internship hours plus thesis research projects.
How does counseling licensure work? After graduation, aspiring counselors submit licensing applications to their state. Since requirements can vary, visit the ACA Knowledge Center for state professional counselor licensure board information. Most states award licenses like Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). Getting state licensure usually involves passing the National Counselor Examination (NCE). This 22-question, 3.5-hour exam tests each counselor’s competency with clinical simulations. Different types of counselors need industry certification as well. For instance, the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) gives a 174-question test for $410. The American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) certifies master’s graduates who pass the 200-question, $900 exam and recertify every 10 years. The Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) charges a $325 fee for its web-based credential test at 200+ PSI proctoring centers.
Salary Potential and Job Outlook for Counselors
In May 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that all social service specialists had a combined mean annual wage of $50,480. Clinical mental health and addiction counselors reported an average yearly salary of $49,950. Rehabilitation counselors received a median annual pay of $40,160. Marriage and family therapists had a mean yearly earnings of $54,590. School, college, and career counselors reaped a $61,000 average annual paycheck. Pastoral counselors brought home a median income of $52,260. Genetic counselors made the highest mean yearly wage of $80,860. All other counselors had a $48,800 average. Counseling salaries are usually modest compared to the median master’s degree earnings of $78,000. However, counselors have the #1 best social services job on the U.S. News & World Report. Counselors boast above-average job flexibility and personal career satisfaction.
Demand in certain counseling specialties varies as salary projections do. The U.S. Labor Department predicts that overall hiring in the social services will jump 11 percent by 2028 for 306,200 total new jobs. The employment of marriage and family therapists will skyrocket by 22 percent for 12,300 openings. Mental and behavioral health disorders will see 68,500 more jobs created for fast 22 percent growth. The employment of school and career counselors will increase 8 percent for 27,200 new positions. Rehabilitation counselors will experience job growth of 10 percent for 11,800 openings. Genetic counselors have the brightest 10-year job outlook with rapid 27 percent growth to 3,800 total jobs. Correctional counselors have the cloudiest outlook with only a 3 percent uptick of 3,000 jobs this decade. Choosing from the fastest-growing counseling specialties can shorten your job search.
What do individuals need to become a successful counselor? Perseverance to finish at least six years of college education with intensive field practicum is one thing. Counselors must be skilled communicators who are capable of talking out problems and listening to clients’ needs. Counselors must be level-headed and patient to remain calm during times of distress or crisis. Every counselor needs kindness and compassion to empathize with clients in challenging situations. Counselors must also be ultra-organized to keep detailed records and manage heavy caseloads. If you’re considering a career as a counselor, choose a specialty that speaks to your interests and natural abilities. All counselors work with people, but some delve more deeply into personal issues than others. Double-check that you’re comfortable with the subject area of your focus before embarking on that career. Knowing the different types of counselors will help choose a career that fits your personality and aspirations.