What Is Counseling?

The American Counseling Association (ACA), the world’s largest association of professional counselors, defines counseling as “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”

Since its beginnings in the vocational guidance movement of the late 1890s, counseling has evolved over more than 100 years into a highly professionalized field requiring rigorous education, training, state licensure, and ethical standards. Practicing in settings such as community health centers, inpatient and outpatient clinics, student services, substance abuse clinics, veterans’ hospitals, or private practice, today’s counselors work with clients to help them:

  • Adjust to major life changes such as divorce, loss of a loved one, unemployment, or return from military deployment.
  • Develop skills and strategies for addressing personal or interpersonal challenges at home, work, or in social settings.
  • Recognize and modify behaviors that detract from their well-being or quality of life.
  • Overcome and manage anxiety, substance abuse, depression, and other mental health disorders.
  • Define career, life, or personal goals and the strategies required to meet those goals.

While there are various types of counseling, they all share the fundamental goal of empowering people to lead more fulfilling and productive lives.

As someone interested in helping others, you may have considered careers in social work and psychology as well as clinical mental health counseling. While all three fields involve helping people address mental health issues, there are key differences in education and training requirements, scope of services, and approaches that are worth considering.

Explore the differences between counseling and psychology.

Explore the differences between counseling and social work.

To learn more about Counseling@Northwestern, contact an admissions counselor at 1-844-684-6221 or admissions@counseling.northwestern.edu.