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In the United States, nearly 1 in 5 adults live with a mental health condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, but only about half of them receive treatment.

Untreated mental health conditions can affect not just the mind but also the body, and interfere with relationships and work.

If you or a loved one are experiencing distressing emotions, thoughts, or behaviors and having trouble managing them, you might consider different treatment options, including mental health counseling.

Mental health counselors are licensed professionals who treat the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional aspects of mental health and substance use conditions. They work with individuals, families, couples, and groups in a variety of settings.

Mental health counselors use a variety of techniques to:

  • promote healthy lifestyles
  • identify personal stressors and levels of functioning
  • preserve or restore mental health

Mental health counselors are trained to do several things.

They talk to clients about their symptoms and discuss treatment options. In some states, licensed professional counselors have the authority to diagnose mental health conditions. Other states require a physician, psychiatrist, or psychologist to make a diagnosis.

Mental health professionals provide psychotherapy to help clients:

  • understand their behaviors, emotions, and thoughts
  • identify stressors
  • teach them healthy coping and problem-solving techniques

Mental health counselors may specialize in different types of psychotherapy:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapy that helps people recognize destructive thinking patterns, understand how that influences their behavior, and how to adopt healthier behaviors.
  • Psychodynamic therapy focuses on emotion and interpersonal relationships. With a professional’s guidance, clients use self-reflection and self-examination to uncover and work through problematic patterns.
  • Interpersonal therapy focuses on the relationship between our personal interactions and psychological symptoms. This is a time-limited treatment that typically lasts 12 to 16 weeks.

Mental health counselors can work alongside other types of medical providers — including psychiatrists or primary care doctors — to provide holistic treatment.

For example, many effective substance use disorder treatments involve a combination of medication and behavioral therapy.

Mental health counselors also work with clients to develop goals and a treatment plan. They can refer clients to other relevant healthcare providers or social services.

Mental health counselors and psychologists may provide similar services, like psychotherapy, but there are distinct differences in education, training, and licensure.

Mental health counselors

Licensing requirements vary from state to state, but in general, mental health counselors hold an accredited master’s degree in counseling and have 2 to 3 years of supervised counseling practice.

Common professional designations include:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LCADC)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

In some states, licensed counselors don’t have the authority to diagnose mental health conditions.

Mental health counselors help treat several conditions, including:

  • depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • bipolar disorder
  • eating disorders
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • substance use disorders
  • phobias

How much you benefit from counseling may vary depending on the type and severity of the mental health condition, type of treatment, and treatment adherence.

Psychologists

Clinical psychologists hold a doctorate (PhD or PsyD), which involves several years of research and practice. They receive training in theory, research methods, and treatment, so they can pursue careers in academic research or clinical practice.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists attend medical school and obtain a doctor of medicine degree (MD). Therefore, psychiatrists are able to evaluate the influence of any physical health conditions on mental health and prescribe medication if needed.

A mental health counselor may refer you to a psychiatrist to treat the biological underpinnings of a mental health condition.

Yes. Here’s some research backing up mental health counseling’s effectiveness:

  • About 75 percent of people who start psychotherapy have some benefit, according to the American Psychological Association.
  • A large research review of 106 study analyses that examined CBT’s effectiveness showed that CBT is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders, bulimia, anger management issues, general stress, and depression.
  • CBT was also effective in treating adults with a substance use disorder, according to another research review of 53 studies.
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy can effectively treat depression in adults, both independently and when combined with medication, according to a research review of 38 studies.
  • A small 2007 study found that people who received brief CBT sessions in primary care had better long-term depression outcomes compared with those who didn’t receive these sessions.
  • A 2005 study of 232 people with panic disorder found that treatment with CBT and medication was significantly more effective than primary care — usually medication — alone.

There are several ways to find a mental healthcare provider near you.

You can ask your primary care doctor for a referral, do a general internet search for providers near you, or use one of the following resources:

Remember that professional counselor designations may include LPC, LMHC, LCADC, and LPCC. When looking for a counselor, here are a few things to consider:

  • How much do they charge? Will your insurance cover sessions? Does your insurance require a referral from a primary care doctor or psychiatrist?
  • Do they specialize in certain treatment areas (e.g., substance use, eating disorders)?
  • Do they offer telehealth appointments?
  • Effective therapy relies on a good relationship between the therapist and client. Consider who you’d feel most comfortable opening up to: a certain gender, person of color, someone from your faith, etc.

If you or a loved one are in crisis and need immediate support, you are not alone. Help is available right now:

The symptoms of an untreated mental health condition can interfere with your day to day. If you or a loved one need support, reach out to a healthcare provider about treatment options and whether mental health counseling is right for you.