Just like all professions, you will find those who are good at what they do, and those who have not quite gotten a hang of their work. When trusting someone to guide you on your mental health journey, it is important to work with someone who is good at what they do. The characteristics of a good counselor outlined below are not strict rules to use to evaluate a mental health professional. They serve rather as helpful guides to inform your decision about the professional.
Education and Licensure
Anyone who calls themselves a mental health professional: counselor, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, psychologist, clinical social worker, etc., must have a formal graduate degree(s) in their respective areas. If their education is complete, they will have a certificate from the institution they attained their education. Avoid seeing a counselor who does not have a certificate of completion of studies. The only exception to this is when the professional is a student working under the supervision of their school. In some places, a license required before a person can practice as a mental health professional. If this the case, you should see a licensed counselor. This usually means that they have been adequately trained, and hold themselves accountable to the profession, and its governing bodies.
According to renowned person-centered psychologist Carl Rogers1, there are three attributes necessary to create a good therapeutic relationship. They are genuineness (openness and self-disclosure), acceptance (unconditional positive regard) and empathy (being able to understand things from your point of view).
From time to time, your counselor may share some of their personal experiences with you. This helps you know that you are communicating with a human being; not some perfect person who has never had any challenges before. Regardless of whether they agree with the decisions you make or not, they do not judge you harshly but do their best to engage and guide you as a unique and autonomous individual capable of making the best decisions for themselves. It is impossible to be a good counselor without empathy. Being able to communicate empathy to you is an important characteristic of a good counselor. Empathy aids counselors in understanding how you feel and behave and why you feel and behave the way you do. With this knowledge, a good counselor can help you find the solutions you need to your challenges.
Unlike other non-professional forms of counseling where solutions are usually one-size-fits-all, a good counselor takes the time to get to know you and what your presenting issue is. Whether or not they may have worked with individuals with similar issues, they understand that everyone’s situation is unique. Although they may use tried and tested techniques, they choose combinations of approaches that are tailored to your specific circumstance. Their goal is to work with you to come up with the solutions you need, at a pace that works for you. This collaborative approach is usually much more effective than being told what to do, without your input.
Committed to the Therapeutic Relationship
The effectiveness of mental health counseling depends almost completely on the relationship between the counselor and the client. Because of this, a good counselor not only focuses on guiding you towards solutions, but also works intentionally to build a close, positive relationship with you. They will try to get to know who you are aside from your problems because they know that you are much more than that. Although you may be paying your counselor, they genuinely care about your wellbeing. Their expertise coupled with their concern for you, will likely lead to you up the road to recovery.
Committed to Personal & Professional Growth
A good counselor knows that they are human. Just like you, they have similar struggles in their personal, social and professional lives. Because they are not superhuman, they often need to seek the guidance of other more established mental health professionals for personal and professional growth. As a matter of fact, most counselors are required to undergo counseling themselves during their education and practice. So a good counselor has gone through counseling and will probably go through counseling at various points of their lives. In addition, a good counselor engages in continuous education and updating of their knowledge base.
To learn more about what counseling is, check out this article.
1. Rogers, C. R. (1959). Client-centered therapy, its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.