May 14, 2020

Professional Counseling: What is it Really, Why are We often Confused about it, and How to go about Finding a Mental Health Care Provider.

What images come to mind when you think of going to counseling? Take a moment to close your eyes and visualize what the counselor is doing, what you are doing, and where the two of you are together. Unfortunately, much of what we learn about counseling from movies and television might lead us to be weary of seeking out help from a mental health professional. Counselors on TV and in movies are frequently portrayed as individuals that behave inappropriately, are only interested in your early relationships with your parents, or simply write notes while you lie down on a couch. Therefore, it is not surprising that a large number of people in the United States have reported in large-scale, national surveys that they would likely not seek out professional help, even if experiencing a mental health-related concern. Such survey data illuminate a particularly notable problem – that many people are not seeking out a service that researchers have shown to consistently improve people’s mental health and wellness. So in an effort to help a bit with these issues, specifically misperceptions and misunderstandings of counseling, I would like to clarify a bit more for you what counseling is, what to expect during the counseling process, and finally how to go about finding a counselor or mental health professional. 

What is Counseling?

In the simplest terms, counseling is a relational treatment based on psychological principles that is provided by a trained mental health professional. While counseling has become an increasingly common term, you may also hear this relational treatment referred to by other names, such as therapy or psychotherapy. Generally, these words can be used interchangeably. Typically, your mental health professional will work collaboratively with you to further explore and understand the concerns you bring into counseling and eventually strategize how to make changes in your life surrounding your primary concerns. Counselors also will also always have a view of how people change and how the counseling process should be organized, often referred to as the counselor’s theoretical orientation. For example, one counselor may primarily see change as occurring through changing thoughts that consistently result in the problems you hope to change while another counselor may view your concerns as the function of primarily how you relate to and interact with other people. There is nothing “taboo” about asking questions regarding a counselor’s theoretical orientation. In your initial session together, feel free to inquire as to your counselor’s theory of change and what this looks like in your work together. Very importantly, counseling researchers have demonstrated that a major factor that consistently contributes to you improving while in counseling is that you and your counselor have a positive relationship (i.e. good rapport) in which you trust each other and are working together towards your desired goals. If you are concerned or unsure about how the counseling process is going or feeling like you are struggling to make a connection with your counselor, it is important for the two of you to discuss your concerns together.  

How to find a counselor?

Because working with a counselor who you trust and with whom you have positive rapport is so important, that means choosing a counselor is also important. Understandably, depending on your circumstances, you may have more or less control over that choice. For example, many people that ask me about counselors will use some type of work-related benefit such as an employee assistance program (EAP) or their health insurance to pay for local counseling services. While using your health insurance does limit your pool of potential providers, you likely still have some choices. Often you can search for mental health professionals based on certain areas of expertise or treatments (such as “anxiety disorders”, “trauma”, or “EMDR”). You can also likely search based on the type of provider you may be looking for, such as “counselors”, “psychologist”, “social worker”, or “psychiatry.” Each of these professionals has different emphases in their training that may lead you seek out one type of professional over another. Asking someone (friend, family member, colleague) you trust for a referral can also be a helpful, yet understandably risky option. Asking can be risky because you may be concerned about what others will think if they discover your struggles; however, many people do make their way to a counselor via the recommendation of someone they trust. For some additional information and discussion of types of mental health professionals as well as recommendations for locating a mental health care provider I strongly encourage you to visit these web pages. Thanks for your willingness to think about this important topic of mental health and wellness, and my hope is that I have provided a bit more clarity for you when you consider counseling in the future. 

Matthew C. Genuchi, Ph.D.

Dr. Genuchi is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Boise State University. His research interests have primarily focused on understanding how conformity to masculine norms impacts men’s experiences of depression. Additionally, Dr. Genuchi is concerned about the high rates of suicide death in men worldwide, and he is conducting research to further examine the ability of gendered symptoms of depression to predict suicide risk in various populations of men. He completed his doctoral training in the APA-accredited counseling psychology program at the University of Denver, as well as his APA-accredited doctoral internship at the University of Idaho Counseling and Testing Center. Dr. Genuchi is a licensed psychologist in the state of Idaho.