Mental health counseling, or psychotherapy, is something many people wonder about. It’s a concept that, until one begins, seems hard to fully grasp. It’s not uncommon for people to associate counseling with the proverbial couch, with the client lying on this piece of furniture and spilling their guts while a counselor, who may or may not look like Sigmund Freud, furiously takes detailed notes on a pad of paper. This process is called psychoanalysis and is rarely practiced in the twenty-first century (but mental health counselors typically do take some notes to increase understanding). If this picture is outdated, how does clinical mental health counseling really work?
How Mental Health Counseling Works
Mental health counseling is a formal, purposeful partnership between a client and a mental health professional. It’s sometimes referred to as clinical mental health counseling; not because it’s cold and dispassionate but because it is based on sound research and uses techniques proven to be effective.
Counseling is a process of varying lengths during which a mental health counselor and a client work together to explore problems and develop the skills and mindset needed to transcend challenges and live a life of emotional health. The length of the counseling process varies depending on the individual and the mental health disorder or distress. It can continue anywhere from a few weekly sessions to months or, sometimes, years of occasional sessions.
People seek counseling for many different things. Counseling is for mental illness as well as for specific life stresses, such as a toxic workplace with a bullying boss. Counseling happens individually, in one-on-one sessions with a counselor. Additionally, people can engage in couples therapy, family therapy, or group therapy.
Clinical Mental Health Counseling Approaches
Mental health counselors choose from a plethora of approaches when helping someone. The particular approach used depends on both the counselor’s professional preference as well as the nature and characteristics of an individual client.
Each approach has a particular focus. Mental health counseling methods can emphasize a person’s background, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, or a combination of these elements. Within each category are specific theoretical techniques. Below is a list of the most common approaches, or theories. The list is meant as a starting point for exploration. If there are some methods that resonate with you, you can inquire about the theoretical approach when you are searching for a counselor.
Theories that emphasize background are:
- psychoanalysis (Freud and the couch)
- Jungian analytical psychology
- individual (or Adlerian) psychology
Emotion-based theories include:
- person-centered (Rogerian) psychology
- existential psychology
- gestalt therapy
Among theories that focus on thoughts are:
- cognitive therapy
- rational-emotive behavioral therapy (REBT)
Approaches emphasizing behaviors involve:
- cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialectical-behavior therapy (DBT)
- acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- solution-focused brief therapy
A growing counseling approach that falls into the categories of thoughts, feelings, and behavior as well as stands strongly on its own is positive psychology.
Most counselors don’t practice one single approach but instead weave together principles of many to best fit individual clients. Approaches most likely to be used on their own include CBT, DBT, ACT, and solution-focused brief therapy.
Benefits of Mental Health Counseling
Counseling indeed helps many people; approximately 80 percent of people in counseling reap benefits (Seligman, 2006). When people engage in mental health counseling, they often gain:
- personal empowerment
- the overcoming of demoralization caused by social stigma
- acceptance of life
- personal insight
- life skills
- prevention of future mental health distress
Mental health counseling improves and even saves lives. Seeking counseling is a sign of courage and strength because it’s an important step in taking charge of mental health and creating the life that you deserve, a life worth living.