Helping people overcome harmful thoughts and feelings to deal with challenges in their lives is the essence of a mental health counselor's job. In doing so, counselors rely on behavioral therapies and their own life experiences to diagnose anxiety and depression. Like any job, however, counseling has its ups and downs. On the one hand, high demand ensures steady advancement opportunities, but on the other, you must balance these against irregular working hours and the inherent stresses of listening to other people's problems.
Advantage: Chance to Help Others
Success as a mental health counselor requires exceptional communications and interpersonal skills. The field tends to attract people with a strong desire to help others, says the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. Even more than most of the helping professions, counseling offers a way of empowering people to make positive life changes, the council's analysis suggests. Seeing clients improve their lives is rewarding and satisfying.
Advantage: High Demand
Entrants into the field can expect room for career advancement. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates demand for counselors growing 29 percent by 2022, or much faster than average for other fields. The BLS sees this growth being driven by federal requirements to buy health insurance. This phenomenon should expand the pool of customers who lost insurance coverage or found it too costly to obtain in the past. Facilities like mental health treatment centers will need to hire counselors to keep up with the anticipated demand.
Disadvantage: Potential for Burnout
Mental health counseling is a demanding profession. Listening to the same sorts of problems all day long may result in counselor fatigue, which is usually characterized by feelings of detachment, dehumanization and exhaustion in dealing with clients, as "Counseling Today" magazine reported in May 2009. A related risk is compassion fatigue, in which the efforts of helping a client traumatize the counselor. According to the magazine's report, 83 percent of counselors admit they have been in counseling for their own stresses at some point in their lives. Counselors' stress levels are often aggravated by high caseloads and paperwork requirements.
Disadvantage: Stressful Work Environment
Becoming a counselor doesn't guarantee a nine-to-five schedule. This is already true of 24-hour care environments like hospitals and mental health facilities. However, it's also not unusual for counselors to spend nights and weekends dealing with clients' needs, advises W. Mark Hamilton, former executive director of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. Speaking to "U.S. News & World Report," Hamilton calls the profession a "24/7 job," which often prompts counselors to enter the less rigorous academic world. In other words, if you want predictable hours, counseling isn't your field.