What Is Mental Health Counseling?

If you find yourself experiencing distress that is affecting your everyday life, mental health counseling may be for you. Counseling can show you how to navigate through dark, uncertain times in your life. It can help you improve relationships with those closest to you as well. While self-care can relieve minor issues, you may need professional help with severe symptoms that last longer than two weeks. 

About 1 in 5 U.S. adults—almost 50 million Americans—are living with a mental illness. Unfortunately, more than 27 million of them are not receiving any treatment.

However, thanks to the Internet and other resources, counseling is more accessible than ever before. You can find help at your job, school, healthcare provider’s office, community center, or online.

This article discusses types of counseling, costs, and who can benefit from this service. It also shares how to become a counselor to help countless others.

man therapy video call

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

What Is Mental Health?

Mental health involves how we think, feel, act, and get along with others. It also relates to our ability to make choices and handle challenges.

Being mentally healthy helps us to develop positive relationships with ourselves and others. It enables us to lead productive lives and empower others to do the same.

Mental health can affect physical health as well. People with mental illness have a greater risk of having heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and substance use disorders.

Types of Mental Health Counseling

Mental health counseling aims to diagnose and help improve emotional and behavioral well-being. It may serve as an alternative to medicine or be used with medications or other mental health treatments.

Mental health professionals use a variety of counseling formats depending on the person, group, or type of mental condition.

Counselor vs. Therapist

Technically, the terms “counselor” and “therapist” are not the same. Training, licensing, and treatment methods are different between the two professions and can influence your experience and results when being seen.

Counselors and therapists both use talk therapy with patients, but counseling is not as regulated as therapy is. Counselors such as life or career coaches may not have advanced degrees or be subject to a professional licensing board.

Therapists must be licensed to advertise their services.


Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is when a person, couple, family, or group meets with a mental health provider and talks about their concerns.

This counseling method helps a person learn about their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and how these factors influence their lives. It also offers ways to help reframe their thinking and their response to stress.

Psychotherapy includes psychoeducation, which educates people and their loved ones about their mental disorder, recommended treatment, and coping strategies.

Mental health professionals can offer several types of psychotherapy including:


Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. It explores biological, environmental, and social factors that influence people’s emotions, thoughts, and actions.

The field of psychology includes many specialty areas, such as:

  • Abnormal psychology (psychopathology): Focuses on researching and treating unusual behavior and mental disorders
  • Biopsychology: Looks at how changes in structure and patterns within the brain influence the mind and behavior
  • Developmental psychology: Explores human growth and development related to emotion, identity, cognition, morals, and social functioning
  • Personality psychology: Deals with personality development and how a person’s characteristics, thoughts, and behaviors make them unique


Psychiatry addresses the mental and physical aspects of mental illness. Psychiatrists are medical doctors, so they can prescribe medications in combination with talk therapy as needed.

Psychiatric care may include medications such as:

  • Antidepressants: May help increase levels of brain chemicals thought to regulate mood
  • Mood stabilizers: Used to help treat bipolar disorder and related conditions
  • Stimulants: Often prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Sedatives: Help slow brain activity, used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
  • Antipsychotics: Can help manage psychosis, a condition marked by a loss of contact with reality

Electrical Current Therapy

In severe mental illness cases that don't respond to talk therapy or medication, psychiatrists may turn to electroconvulsive therapy. During this noninvasive, painless procedure, a healthcare professional administers controlled electrical currents to the brain.

The person receiving this treatment is given anesthesia and muscle relaxants to reduce injury risk. Depending on the severity of your condition, you can receive this therapy up to two to three times a week.

Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist

Psychiatrists and psychologists have crucial differences in their training and what they are allowed to do, including:

  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medications and offer counseling.
  • Psychologists hold doctorate degrees, but they are not medical doctors. Most can provide talk therapy, but they cannot prescribe medications.

Social Work

Social workers can provide mental health counseling with individual, group, and family therapy. According to their licensure or certification, they may assess, prevent, diagnose, or treat mental health disorders and addictions.

These professionals work in private practice, primary care settings, community mental health centers, hospitals, and treatment centers.

Conditions Treated

Treatments for mental distress will be different for everyone. Each person comes with unique experiences and needs that require a personalized approach. For instance, some therapies work well for children with depression. Other treatments can help aging adults cope with the loss of a spouse or child

Mental health counseling can help you manage these and many other conditions:

Anyone Can Benefit From Counseling

Mental health is important for everyone at every age. Counseling can bring relief and hope when it becomes difficult to maintain positive emotional well-being on your own. Therapy can also help you build thought and behavior patterns to stave off mental illness.

You don't have to be experiencing mental illness to qualify for counseling. Mental health counseling can help people overcome or deal with:

  • Drinking too much alcohol, using illicit drugs, or overusing prescribed medications
  • Dementia
  • Gambling addiction
  • Sex addiction
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Adjusting to major life changes such as loss, a move, or divorce
  • Dealing with or recovering from a major illness

Distress Signals

If the following symptoms linger for weeks or are getting worse, it’s time to speak with your healthcare provider and/or mental health professional:

  • Trouble focusing
  • Losing interest in favorite activities
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Pulling away from family and friends
  • Sudden, extreme weight loss or gain
  • Unexplained pain for no medical reason
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Thoughts or urges of hurting yourself or others

Finding a Counselor

Considering the variety of mental health specialists available, it may seem hard to find the right mental health counselor. Here are some tips:

  • Get a referral: If you have a primary care provider, speak with them first about your concerns. Many healthcare providers are familiar with counselors in the area and can provide referrals that are specific to your needs.
  • Ask your insurance provider: Consult your health insurer as well if you have insurance. They can let you know who is in your healthcare network and how much coverage they provide for counseling services.
  • Access community resources: Your community mental health center can also help with free or low-cost resources.
  • Set up an appointment: Even if you are placed on a waiting list, secure an appointment anyway. Someone ahead of you may cancel, so you might get a session earlier than expected.

If you are in a crisis, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately.

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

The need for qualified mental health professionals is growing fast. Society is losing $1 trillion every year due to physical illnesses and lost productivity stemming from mental health disorders.

The first step toward becoming a mental health counselor typically involves earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology or another human services field.

A master’s degree in counseling is also a requirement, with at least two years of supervised training. Counselors must also pass a national test—and a state test in some cases—to obtain their license.

Licensed counselors must also undergo continuing education to stay up to date on current practices.

Licensed counselors can earn titles including:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (L.M.H.C.)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (L.C.S.W.)
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (L.M.F.T.)

Mental health counseling can be a rewarding career in which you can change people’s lives for the better. It is quite demanding, though. You’ll need to have strong listening, communication, and critical thinking skills.

Counselors work in a wide variety of settings, such as:

  • Hospitals
  • Private practices
  • Businesses
  • Schools and colleges
  • Community health centers
  • Jails and prisons
  • Social service agencies


Mental health counseling includes various kinds of talk therapy for managing or preventing emotional trouble. It is suitable and helpful for people of all ages and situations in life. Individuals, families, and groups can learn and grow with confidential, knowledgeable assistance from a professional.

Although therapists and counselors do similar work, therapists are licensed and certified to perform their work. Only psychiatrists can prescribe medication and electroconvulsive therapy to help manage severe mental illness.

This service can be expensive. Fortunately, many insurance plans and social service agencies offer free or low-cost options in person or virtually.

Mental health counseling requires extensive education and outstanding people skills. It is a wide field offering opportunities to bring hope and healing.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re experiencing severe physical pain, you’d need to seek medical attention right away. Emotional pain is just as serious. In the way that managing prediabetes or lowering blood pressure can keep physical health conditions from escalating, mental health counseling is available to help preserve and restore your emotional well-being.

Getting therapy is not a sign of weakness. It shows that you have the wisdom to recognize your need for help and the willingness to become a better you.

Mental health care is more accessible than you may realize. Reach out for counseling and open your life to greater hope, comfort, and clarity.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does insurance cover mental health counseling?

    The government requires most Marketplace, small group, and individual health insurance plans to cover mental health benefits. According to the law, this coverage must be as comprehensive as coverage for medical care.

    Check with your plan’s benefits summary or enrollment materials to understand what your insurer offers.

  • How much does mental health counseling cost?

    How much mental health care will cost you depends on the type of therapy and treatment, the counselor’s credentials, and location. Rates can range from $60 to over $200 per hour.

    However, some organizations and health insurance plans offer online or phone therapy at no or low cost. These methods can be as effective as in-person sessions.

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