Training to Be a Mental Health Counselor
Education & Research A professor and student from a clinical mental health counseling program discuss careers in a growing field.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in mental health?
Laura Kestemberg: As a senior at the Bronx High School of Science, I took a psychology course that involved volunteering once a week at Montefiore Medical Center with children. I worked with a child life specialist and other mental health professionals as part of a team to help reduce children’s anxiety before and during medical treatments. The experience was so rewarding that I knew I wanted to be in a clinical role helping people. Although I planned on going to medical school, once I learned about psychology and counseling, I knew that this was the path for me.
The variety and flexibility of career choices and the different roles I have had in my career are one of the things I love best. I currently work in higher education as a professor and administrator. In the past, I have been a clinician, clinical supervisor and researcher in many different kinds of settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, community clinics and schools. I have worked doing neuropsychological assessments and cognitive retraining in brain injury units, and as part of a clinical team conducting community research at a neurology clinic. I have maintained a part-time private practice over the years. Each role over the years has challenged me to learn new skills so that I can evolve and implement better ways to help patients, clients and students. My current position at Molloy College is my favorite role as I wear many different hats, and I love mentoring and interacting with our graduate students.
Mario Juster-Kruse: I chose to pursue a career in mental health because I have always enjoyed helping people. Not only can I do that, but I can be a part of a health profession that is quickly growing as our society becomes more aware of the importance of mental health.
What can students earning their master’s in clinical mental health counseling expect in terms of coursework, classes and clinical experience?
LK: The Molloy College Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC) Program is unique because we are able to provide each student individualized attention as they progress through the program. Following the college’s mission, we are committed to service in the community, scholarship and educating our students in cutting-edge, evidence-based practices. The CMHC program at Molloy College has an approach based in counseling and mental health theory with a solid foundation of empirical research and practice paradigms. Courses and training are provided within a multicultural context to ensure that our graduates will be able to provide care to the traditionally underserved members of our population within a wide range of service delivery contexts.
MJ: Students pursuing their master's in clinical mental health counseling can expect the courses to be challenging (your future clients will thank your professors for this) but manageable. The clinical experience is an amazing and once in a lifetime experience. You will have the opportunity to work with many different populations and learn about the uniqueness of each one. You will also learn about yourself along the way and grow as a student, family member, counselor, member of society and every other title you hold throughout the process.
What type of work can licensed clinical mental health counselors pursue?
LK: Licensed clinical mental health counselors can provide services in a wide variety of settings including private practice; community clinics and agencies; substance abuse treatment centers; hospitals; higher education; crisis clinics; in-home counseling; and residential, day and out-patient treatment programs.
MJ: Licensed clinical mental health counselors have a huge choice in the kind of work that they can pursue. Some (but not all) examples include: private practice; working in medical centers or counseling centers; becoming substance abuse counselors, gambling and financial counselors, or marriage and relationships counselors; and working with crisis help lines or domestic violence support.
The job growth outlook for mental health professionals is expected to grow by 19 percent in the next eight years. What are the benefits of having mental health counselors available in all 50 states?
LK: Mental health counselors are specifically trained to work from a non-judgmental and collaborative stance creating a therapeutic relationship that promotes a client’s self-discovery and empowerment. Additionally, advocacy and social justice issues lie at the cornerstone of the philosophy of mental health counseling and guides how counselors practice. If we have clinical mental health counselors in all 50 states, we create a strong network of professionals trained and available to meet and treat persons from all walks of life.
MJ: Mental health is extremely important to everyone. If someone has asthma, you wouldn't think twice before going to a licensed expert in the field to get help. There should be no difference for a mental illness. As the profession continues to expand, it is important that we have mental health counselors available in all 50 states.
If someone is thinking of going back to school to earn a degree in clinical mental health counseling, what would be one piece of advice or encouragement that you could provide?
LK: Follow your instincts and things will fall into place. If you are passionate about becoming a mental health professional, then getting your graduate degree and license in counseling will not feel like a chore at all. Our Molloy students tell us that they are transformed by the experience and process of going through our CMHC program. It is amazing to be a witness to this transformation. Some of our students might be apprehensive when they first start the program, but they soon adapt to the schedule and “life as a graduate student,” and they find themselves wondering how it’s gone by so quickly. Before they know it, they will be walking at graduation with their degree in hand. If you’d like to find out more about the counseling profession, you can look into local counseling events to connect with members of the professional community and get a sense of the field. I enjoy speaking to prospective graduate students about the mental health field and our program at Molloy College when they come in for an interview. They can tell we love what we do when they meet our faculty, and it is inspiring to people entering the field to witness all of the exciting job possibilities that are out there once they graduate.
MJ: A piece of advice that I would give would be to seek therapy themselves. Not only can this help improve your knowledge of yourself and help you work through your own struggles so that you don't bring them into session with clients, but it is also great experience to learn what it’s like to sit on the other side of a therapy session. How can we expect our clients to be vulnerable and ready to open up if we ourselves haven't gone through the process as well?
What do you think ultimately needs to change in this country and in this society to make sure that those who are in need of mental health resources are able to get help?
LK: Our attitudes and levels of acceptance continue to evolve and we have come a very long way in the last few decades, but in many areas of our society, it is still stigmatizing to admit that you need any kind of help — let alone mental health help. We will become healthier as a society the more we work together within our families and communities to de-stigmatize mental health.
MJ: I think that there are many things that we can do in this country to make sure that the people in need of mental health recourses can get the help they need. First and foremost I think that it is important to raise awareness about mental health and increase the conversation about it. This will help reduce the stigma surrounding it, thus making the process of seeking mental health treatment more inviting. Raising awareness will also help people know where to go in times of crisis.