Mental health disorders affect about one in every five Americans, or about 51.5 million people in this country alone.* Further, mental health status can change over the course of a lifetime, and many Americans will struggle with a mental illness at some point in their lives. Because mental illness is so prevalent, skilled and qualified mental health counselors can make a huge impact in the lives of those in their community.
A mental health counselor helps patients overcome psychological challenges, often by guiding and supporting them in learning to change their negative behaviors and thought patterns. It’s a deeply rewarding line of work that many professionals find highly fulfilling. If you feel called to serve others as a mental health counselor, it’s important to understand what qualities make a good counselor before you earn your counseling degree.
Strong Therapeutic Rapport
Interpersonal skills are one of the most important qualities of a good counselor. The ability to develop a strong relationship with your clients is critical to their ability to respond and heal. In the counseling field, this relationship is known as “therapeutic rapport.”
Therapeutic rapport leaves each patient feeling safe and respected. This is essential since the therapeutic process requires clients to share their innermost thoughts, fears and concerns with their counselor. A client who doesn’t feel safe in the therapeutic environment and the client-counselor relationship will find it difficult to open up fully.
Another component of strong therapeutic rapport between counselor and client is shared understanding. Clients need to know their counselors truly understand what they are going through and how they are coping. This sets the stage for a collaborative therapeutic effort and the creation of an effective therapeutic plan.
Good Listening Skills
The ability to listen well to someone may seem inherent rather than learned. Yet, listening is a skill you can continually work to improve, and good mental health counselors find themselves constantly honing their active listening skills.
Active listening involves listening very closely and asking questions to enhance mutual understanding. Counselors also restate or rephrase the client’s own words to verify their comprehension of what the client is trying to communicate.
Active listening also involves the following:
- Providing plenty of time for clients to speak during sessions
- Using eye contact and appropriate facial expressions to show attentiveness
- Asking questions and requesting clarification when needed
- Providing a judgment-free environment by separating personal opinions from professional guidance
Clear Verbal Communication
As important as active listening is, it’s only half of the communication equation. After listening to clients discuss their struggles, mental health counselors must develop treatment recommendations and help the clients work toward solutions. It’s essential for counselors to be able to give a clear explanation of their assessment of the client’s issues and their treatment plan recommendations. They also need clear expression as they discuss with clients how to overcome problems.
One of the most effective ways to be a better communicator is to think before you speak. Take the time to formulate your thoughts before expressing them. Speak concisely, choosing your words with care and using an appropriate tone of voice. An analogy or example often helps a client understand a concept.
Empathy is another must-have quality of a good counselor. While it’s often confused with sympathy, the two are not the same. Sympathy is feeling for someone’s misfortune, while empathy is feeling with a person.
Being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, sensing their challenges, thoughts and feelings as if they were your own, is a crucial skill for mental health counselors because it supports therapeutic rapport. Clients who believe that their counselors genuinely grasp what they are going through are more likely to trust them and act on their treatment recommendations.
The Ability to Solve Problems
The characteristics of a good counselor also include strong problem-solving skills with creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Clients often visit mental health counselors for help with specific issues, such as stress related to job loss and a lack of self-confidence in re-entering the job marketplace. Counselors can help clients brainstorm strategies for feeling more confident as they reach out to potential employers and prepare for interviews.
In other situations, the objective and obstacles are less clear. Some clients suffer from general anxiety and depressive symptoms and might not know what’s causing them — only that they are unhappy with their lives and not sure how to improve the situation. Through careful conversations, a counselor can help such a client identify negative thoughts and behaviors and learn to work around them.
An Open Mind
Mental health counselors work with clients from all walks of life. One client might be going through a difficult divorce; the next might be struggling with a substance use disorder or navigating re-entry into society following a recent release from jail. The ability to separate personal views and judgments from professional opinions is of great value to mental health professionals.
Beyond that, you will need to keep your mind open to diverse worldviews and perspectives. Cultural sensitivity is a necessity, as is a healthy respect for individual differences.
Self-Awareness — Limitations and All
Mental health counselors have a broad skill set they can put to good use helping people with a wide range of issues. Yet, it’s not possible for every counselor to establish a healthy therapeutic relationship with every client. Some clients may require a professional with a different background or approach — or one with more specialized training, like a psychiatrist.
Good counselors recognize when they are not the best fit for a client. Sometimes the client needs a higher level of treatment; other times, the interpersonal connection simply isn’t developing as it should after a few sessions. In cases like these, respectable counselors refer their clients to other professionals who may be better able to help.
If you are passionate about helping people, you may want to explore the counseling degree options at Grand Canyon University. GCU offers a Bachelor of Science in Counseling with an Emphasis in Addiction, Chemical Dependency, and Substance Abuse and a range of graduate degrees, such as a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a Master of Science in Addiction Counseling. Click on Request Info above to begin working toward a rewarding career as a counselor.
*Retrieved from National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Health Information, Statistics, Mental Health in April 2021
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.