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A mental health counselor (MHC) practices mental health counseling, which is a dynamic, holistic, strengths-based and psychoeducational discipline born in the late 1970s when several mental health professionals realized that the master’s degree level counselors working in community settings lacked a professional home or identity. Research showed that these Master's degree level counselors were successful in treating mental health issues. Counseling is grounded in Developmental Theory and the counseling profession had its etiologic underpinnings in prevention and wellness (Juntunen & Atkinson, 2001). James Messina, Gary Seiler and others came together to form the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) in 1976.
The association grew to over 12,000 members with a professional journal, newsletter, national meetings, state branches and a certification process for the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) credential in 1979. Early efforts included the recognition by third party payers and state licensure for MHCs. These early goals have for the most part been met and AMHCA remains a viable professional organization.
In 1981, Artis J. Palmo developed a manuscript for the AMHCA Board of Directors which in part described the evolving role of the MHC. The counselor collected data to assess the client’s mental and emotional and/or behavioral problems or behavioral disorders and helped clients to effectively adapt to the concerns presented. In later writings authors such as Hershenson and Strein (1991); and Palmo, Shosh and Weikel (2001) emphasized that MHCs are concerned about the client’s environment with a more global view than other professionals as well as a concern that goes beyond treating dysfunction or pathology and dealing with the clients’ self-awareness, personal growth, and wellness.
Seiler, Brooks and Beck (1987) delivered the first Training Standards for Mental Health Counselors (60 hours) which established this profession as the Clinical Identity for the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Though slow to accept, by the beginning of 2000, the standard was pretty much accepted universally for clinical applications. The 60 credit Master's program has become the standard for Mental Health Counselor training (at least for those seeking a pre-licensure program). Currently, 27 states specifically cite CACREP in their rules or regulations as meeting the educational requirements for licensure. Of the remaining 23 states, 15 require the CACREP core areas without specifically citing CACREP.
As Brooks and Weikel (1996) and later Smith and Weikel (2006) have pointed out, the profession can trace its roots through several historical antecedents culminating in the shift to community based treatment and the need for a cadre of professionals to deliver counseling services in a cost-efficient manner. The MHC of the 2000s can be found in a variety of employment including mental health centers, hospitals, clinics, colleges and universities and private practices. As the profession continues to grow and evolve, more entities such as third party payers, public policy makers as well as members of the general public are realizing the effectiveness of the professional MHC.
A significant point of reference to distinguish MHCs from social workers, psychologists, nurse practitioners, and psychiatrists, is that MHCs increasingly utilize a psycho-educational model for counseling clients, in conjunction with the more traditional medical/illness model for assessment and diagnosis. However, the main distinction from other mental health fields include its emphasis on prevention as well as an approach grounded Developmental Theory (not medical model), and its holistically focused approach.
MHCs work with individuals, families, and groups to address and treat emotional and mental disorders and to promote mental health. They are trained in a variety of therapeutic techniques used to address issues, including depression, addiction and substance abuse, suicidal impulses, stress, problems with self-esteem, and grief. They also help with job and career concerns, educational decisions, issues related to mental and emotional health, and family, parenting, marital, or other relationship problems. MHCs often work closely with other mental health specialists, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, psychiatric nurses, and school counselors. In many U.S. states, MHCs may diagnose as well as treat mental illness, though the scope of practice for mental health practitioners changes from state to state.