What Is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor? New Publication Provides a Comprehensive Answer

During his tenure as president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), Dr. Eric Beeson, faculty member at Counseling@Northwestern, oversaw the production and publication of the Essentials of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Profession, a guide to career development for professionals in the field. In addition to providing career guidance, this new publication offers advice on how to educate the public and professional stakeholders about the unique roles clinical mental health counselors play. Counseling@Northwestern chatted with Dr. Beeson about this publication and its importance for the field.

What Prompted AMHCA to Produce Essentials of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Profession?

This started when we were doing our new vision and mission statement, as well as our new strategic plan. One of our longtime members, Gray Otis, had been writing a kind of Hippocratic oath for clinical mental health counselors. You know how board meetings can get. We’ve got our sleeves rolled up, have had a tense conversation or two, and are trying to figure out what’s next. He said, “I just want to read this to everyone.” He reads it, and we’ve all got tears in our eyes. That was really when it clicked for all of us that the work of professional associations can’t just be about the profession. It’s got to be about the people we serve and the broader health and well-being of the world.

Out of that, we started building the strategic plan, which involved defining our identity as clinical mental health counselors. What does it mean to be a general counselor? What does it mean to be a clinical mental health counselor? And what does it mean to have a uni-professional identity and an inter-professional identity? We needed to establish who clinical mental health counselors are. In the guide, there are descriptive elements that discuss the profession’s past, present and future. There are elements that discuss the phases of career development.

We wanted people to have a map for what their career would look like: picking a program, going to school, doing supervised practice, getting an independent license, developing specialty areas, and retirement. We spend so much time on education, sometimes we forget about later-career folks. We wanted to provide those phases of career development to ensure we are building supports and resources that are individualized to the specific needs at each stage of our careers. It becomes a map for our profession because what we at AMHCA have asked ourselves is, what are we doing to help people get to the next level of their career? How are we making sure that we’re not a liability and a burden in people’s lives, but we’re an asset to help people thrive throughout their career?

Providing that career map was something really valuable for those who want to see what it looks like. We have so many students that come in the program that, frankly, have no idea what their career is going to look like, and they don’t receive that information until they go through a lot of coursework and are in the field. We wanted people to have something that would let them know what to expect, and I wanted to have something that held us accountable to ensure that we are helping people progress and be successful in their career. Those were two of the main driving forces.

What Are Other Benefits of Having Essentials of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Profession?

The guide also provides a source document that people can give to a legislator or policymaker. When they ask, “What is a clinical mental health counselor?” Here’s everything you ever wanted to know. It professionalizes the field. Instead of different explanations from different people, there’s a source document.

When policymakers make policy, they refer to source documents of professions. We needed to have that source document, and this publication pulls together all our other documents: our standards of practice, our codes of ethics, our white papers, and every position statement. It is a clearinghouse source document of everything anybody would want to know about who a clinical mental health counselor is and what a clinical mental health counselor does.

I also hope it is a source of pride. I hope that mental health counselors can latch onto it and say, “I’m proud of my profession. I’m proud of myself and the work that I do.”

And this Kind of Guide Hasn’t Been Around?

People write textbooks. We’ve had standards of practice. We’ve had definitions. We’ve had codes of ethics. We’ve had all of those things, but we’ve never pulled it together in a way that people can use it as a resource. We have a limited staff. We have limited resources. I say we do way more with four people than other groups do with many more staff and a larger budget, but you can only do what you can only do. This was an important priority, and we were able to get it done. And, it will get updated as we evolve and our profession expands.

What Advice Do You Give Students New to the Field?

I always think back to what I was like as a graduate student. Like most students, I came in with the desire to help people, and counseling seemed to be the best option. More people are entering with knowledge about what the field is, and they’re making an informed decision whether to be a social worker, psychologist, counselor, mental health counselor, or school counselor. I think our field’s done better about preparing people to understand what they’re getting themselves into. We’re starting to make that progress. Part of the advice starts before you even agree to be a student. It’s a matter of considering your goals and picking the type of degree and then the program that will get you there.

Those are some key pieces of advice that start before even becoming a student. And then, for a student, it’s about being open and flexible to the process. Grad school is less about concrete facts, and it’s more about critical thinking and development of the self. It’s more about relativistic thought rather than dualistic thought. Many will want to tell you what to do, but not every answer will fit. So, my advice is to be flexible with the training; it’s there for a reason. Be flexible with yourself and show yourself some forgiveness and grace along the way because your ego will be challenged when things don’t go the way you expect.

You’re going to learn things about yourself that you didn’t know. You need to be OK with that and to seek out your own counseling or your own therapy throughout the program and throughout your career. When I reflect on the times in my career that I have been in therapy and those that I haven’t, I’m always a better clinical mental health counselor when I’m in therapy. It has become an important part of my own professional development as well as my personal development. You can’t lose your personhood as a part of your professional development, and I think sometimes people will either try to be something that they’re not or disregard the recommendations and just go rogue. It’s really about those things: knowing who you are, knowing what the profession is, and bringing that together to a whole, to an integrated self.

I think that people really need to understand that you’re going to do as much personal exploration as you are academic exploration, and sometimes the personal growth and development part is more challenging than the academic components for some people.

The other piece of advice: Get involved, early and often. Volunteer for things as a student because the more connections you make as a student, the smoother the transition to a professional will be for you. Volunteering for professional associations is a great way to get connected.

If it’s too much to volunteer or join an organization, I just want folks to know that we’re there, and we’re going to do advocacy and support work regardless. Still, I hope that the vision and the leadership of an organization is something that you believe in enough that you want to be a part of it, because it’s much better when you’re with me in Washington or when you’re with me at the state capitol because then our voice is louder.

Those are some pieces of advice that I would give: ongoing personal development, integration of the personal and professional selves, and contributing to something that’s bigger than yourself at a professional level, whatever that looks like.

Learn more about this new publication by listening to Dr. Beeson’s interview with the Telehealth Certification Institute.

Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the Online Master of Arts in Counseling Program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University