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Types of counseling

Here are just some of the most popular types of counselor specialties and what they do.

involved counselor listens to client issues

What is a counselor?

A counselor is a health professional who provides guidance and support to clients seeking improvement in various areas of their lives. They work with individuals, families or groups, assisting them in navigating diverse circumstances, depending upon the specialized area of practice they are qualified to perform. Counselors employ assessment techniques, help clients establish short- and-long-term goals, develop treatment plans and monitor client progress to determine the most beneficial next steps.

“Counseling” is a very broad category that encompasses many opportunities in any number of counseling subfields and there are many distinct types of counselors depending on their specialty. Counselors work in schools, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, among other locations, or they can maintain a private practice, and there are many ways in which to specialize during your counseling career.

According to the National Institute for Mental Illness, approximately 57.8% of adult Americans (about one in five) were affected by some type of mental illness in 2021. Here are some of the common mental illnesses that counselors specifically work with:

  • Addictions
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Generalized anxiety
  • Grief and loss
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD)
  • Panic attacks
  • Post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD)

Common types of counselors

Here are just six of the most common types of counselors:

  • Marriage and family counseling
  • Career counseling
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Mental health counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Educational Counseling

It isn’t necessary to choose a specialty before you begin your master’s program in counseling, although some students go into their counseling programs with one in mind.

Don’t be surprised if, during your two-year degree and post-graduate work, you end up in an area you had not considered prior to graduate school. Keep an open mind, and unless you truly know what type of counseling you would like to pursue, choose a counseling degree in a traditional setting or a counseling degree online, that offers a variety of options.

In addition to the main specialties listed above, counselors can also assist their clients using techniques in areas such as these:

  • Debt counseling
  • Child development counseling
  • Eating disorder therapy
  • Grief counseling
  • Art therapy
  • Musical therapy

Continue reading to learn about the various kinds of counseling careers and specialties you can study and practice. There are other types of counselors out there but this is a great place to get started.

A closer look at counseling specialties

If you’re committed to a career helping others and are curious about some of the specific types of counselors there are, here are more in-depth breakdowns of the most common counseling specialties, who they treat and what they do in the role and the therapies and treatments they use to help their clients.

smiling diverse family talks to family counselor

Marriage and family therapists

What they do: Marriage and family therapists treat many of the same issues as other psychologists, such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse, but their work focuses more on issues that are specific to the family and its members. Some common issues that family counselors encounter include trust and infidelity, communication breakdowns, adolescent behavior problems, domestic violence, addiction, unemployment and issues related to infertility.

How they work with family relationships: Marriage and family therapists use talk therapy and observe how people behave within the family and identify relationship problems that result because of that behavior. They then produce treatment plans so that each member has designated work to do to improve how the family functions individually and as a unit for the benefit and happiness of all.

Importance of marriage and family counselors: Sometimes couples and families simply get stuck in a rut and don’t know how to break out of old patterns or resolve conflict productively. Marriage and family therapists can provide structure and a safe environment to mediate and help people change behaviors or get the help they need. The main goal of the MFT is to provide the tools to change destructive behaviors and patterns and strengthen relationships by promoting healthy family dynamics.

Clinical counselors

What they do: Clinical counseling is a branch of clinical psychology, and these counselors help people navigate emotional or mental health difficulties. They deal with mental health issues, client concerns regarding personal life choices and with the ways the client behaviorally relates to other people or social situations.

Education required: A master’s degree or doctorate in mental health counseling or behavioral science is required.

Where they work: Inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, correctional facilities, residential treatment centers and hospitals are the most commpn employers.

What types of issues they address: Anxiety, depression, addiction and behavioral issues in patients.

What are the therapies they employ: Most clinical counselors employ cognitive behaviorial therapy (CBT), which focuses on reinforcing positive behavior and changing destructive behavior, and talk therapy.

School counselors

What they do: School counselors help guide students’ academic, career and personal development. They provide individualized and group guidance to help students create academic plans, navigate future career choices and address personal challenges that happen on a day-to-day basis on campus. School counselors may engage in initiatives to raise awareness about important issues such as drug abuse, gun violence, child abuse, bullying and other significant challenges faced by students in schools today.

Education required: A bachelor’s in education, psychology or sociology will best prepare you for your graduate schoolwork, and that will entail earning a master’s degree called the Master of Education in Counseling, which will take two to three years to earn. This degree offers a combination of learning and direct experience in classroom settings. After receiving your master’s, two years of practical experience is typically necessary to become licensed as a counselor by the state.

What types of issues they address: Academic and personal development is a school counselor’s primary concern, but in the current state of education in the U.S., a school counselor may also provide counseling services for drug abuse and bullying and grief counseling after a school shooting or classmate death. They may also help with forward-looking subjects such as post-graduation education or career plans.

Importance of school counselors: School counselors are critical to student well-being and academic strategies and success. With some students being products of single parent families or working families, a school counselor may be an objective resource to help a student find solutions for a problem or help talk through decisions around college, careers and next steps in their lives.

career counselor works with young man on interview skills

Career counselors

What they do: Career counselors provide guidance to help people figure out what career is best for them, how to make sound decisions about their future and how to pursue it. They support individuals’ career development and provide the necessary resources to help them achieve their professional potential.

How they help: Career counselors provide more services than just help with employment. They collaborate with clients to explore what careers they are best suited for; help create a path to that career with education advice and resume building. They also help with job searches, networking tips and interview preparation. Some career counselors may work for employment security departments and counsel people on how to file for unemployment, survive the trauma of being unemployed and look for a job. They may give presentations and workshops on career development and job search skills and tips.

Tools and skills they use/need: In helping clients, career counselors may offer personality tests to assess personality, strengths and where a candidate excels and what careers they may do well in. Some common tests are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®and the Work Personality Index® assessment. Career counselors should be proficient with social media and job websites and have relationships with recruiters and other professionals who are gateways to career opportunities. They should know employment law and best practices and be able to conduct interviews and meetings on Zoom and other meeting apps.

Education required: A bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, human services or education is preferrable, really any profession that is considered a “helping” profession. Career counselors should consider professional certification to advance their careers. The National Career Development Association offers five credentials.

Substance abuse counselors

What they do: Substance abuse counselors diagnose and assess addiction problems, and treat clients in a variety of ways. Because every patient struggles with addiction in a different way, substance abuse counselors customize treatment plans for each client. They may meet regularly with clients as they recover or work intensely with individuals and their families if they are in crisis.

Importance of substance abuse counselors: Substance abuse counselors are lifesavers, and they not only help patients struggling with addictions of all types, but they also help families and those impacted by their loved ones’ addiction. The career of a substance abuse counselor isn’t an easy one and there will be a fair share of failures along with success stories. As such, these counselors need to be strong advocates and willing to see through the indecision that may mark an addict’s journey to facing the facts of their addiction and accepting the path to recovery and all the challenging work that goes along with it. As such, some counselor and client relationships may be long-term, sometimes difficult but satisfying when recovery is achieved.

How they work with clients: Substance abuse counselors use varied methods when they work with clients. They may employ motivational interviewing, CBT, talk therapy and 12-step programs to help clients, and might recommend programs such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon or other support groups to family members.

Education required: In most cases substance abuse counselors will need a master’s degree in counseling or social work and a specialty in addiction. If a counselor wants to keep a private practice, 3,000 clinical hours may be required in addition to education, and all substance abuse counselors will need to be licensed to practice as a substance abuse counselor in their state.

Mental health counselors

What they do: Mental health counselors offer guidance and insight to individuals, couples, families and groups—such as military veterans—that are dealing with issues that affect their mental health and well-being and ability to function normally on a day-to-day basis.

Types of mental illnesses they counsel: Counselors treat many of the same problems as other psychologists: depression and anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, addictions, communication issues and about any other psychological issue you can think of.

Therapies they use: Their approach depends on their education and professional experience, but like psychologists, they may primarily practice psychodynamic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), humanistic therapy, or have a holistic, integrative approach.

grief counselor pats bereft client on shoulder

Grief and bereavement counselors

What they do: Grief counselors work with clients who are having trouble overcoming unexpected or expected loss or trauma. Clients who may be dealing with grief for a prolonged period and struggle with daily activities such as work, other relationships and routine tasks, seek the help of a grief counselor who provides the guidance to help them move past their feelings of hopelessness.

Key resource used by grief counselors: Grief counselors often employ methods to help people through what psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross called the “5 Stages of Grief” in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” These stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and providing strategies to help people move through each stage is a primary focus of grief counselors. Working in each stage allows the client to navigate to the final stage of acceptance where they may successfully come to terms with their loss.

Methods grief counselors use: Three of the most common therapies that grief counselors use with their clients include talk therapy, where clients discuss feelings of guilt, joy and reminisce and talk through ways to cope with and honor their loss. The second strategy is companioning, which involves the counselors’ actively listening to a client’s concerns and validating their emotional responses as normal. The third method is the creation of rituals, as newly established rituals can be crucial for facilitating the grief process and for recovery. Establishing new routines and rituals is essential to fill the voids and empty spaces the loss of a loved one leaves.

Genetic counselors

What they do: Genetic counselors help clients assess inherited and predisposed health conditions or mental issues for a number of reasons. As a genetic counselor you’ll proactively help clients prepare for, or prevent, the same conditions from reoccurring in future generations.

Education required: A master’s degree in psychology, counseling and genetic counseling is the norm, however genetic counseling master’s programs are rare and highly competitive. These counselors also need professional certification from the American Board of Genetic Counseling, and like other counselors, a license to practice in your state if needed.

Approaches they use: Genetic counselors gather family histories, do research, take blood tests for DNA and study inherited medical and mental conditions to provide disease risk assessments for people who are considering having children or making other big decisions, but struggle with hereditary issues that may affect quality of life or longevity.

Rehabilitation counselors

What they do: Rehabilitation counselors work with people with disabilities, either individually or in groups and assist them in coping with the tasks of everyday life, such as finding employment. They ensure that employers don’t discriminate during the hiring process, and they educate employers about the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rehabilitation counselors also work with employment agencies to ensure proper working conditions and adherence to policy. They counsel people with disabilities and help them adjust and cope with a disability or impairment, and they make sure individuals have the proper job training that they need for success. In short, they are a watchdog and advocate for people with all types of disabilities, and work to ensure they can cope within their circumstances and become gainfully employed in a safe and bias-free environment.

Specific tasks on the job: Rehabilitation counselors arrange assessments, interpret diagnoses and develop treatment plans while ensuring that patients have the knowledge and support that’s necessary for them to thrive and feel empowered in their unique circumstances.

Education required: A master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or human services is the norm and rehabilitation counselors may become certified or licensed, depending upon their state of practice.

Helping you get started

The goal of counseling is to provide help and guidance for clients dealing with diverse types of issues in their physical and spiritual lives, careers and relationships. For as many issues as humans face, there are just as many types of counselors available to help them find the right solution, decision or path to personal growth, recovery, improved relationships and an enhanced sense of well-being.

If you have the right temperament, resourcefulness and outlook to provide solutions, tools and suggestions that may change people’s lives, we can provide the education pathway to help you become a rehabilitation counselor, marriage and family counselor, substance abuse counselor—or any of the specialties in the counseling career universe. Click on one of the specialties above to find in-depth information about job duties, education requirements, salary data and more—and find accredited education programs to help you prepare to help others.

Updated: July 13, 2023