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What to Expect from a Counselor

Counseling is a confidential learning process during which you meet with a trained professional who can help you sort out your concerns, think through decisions and create personal goals. People who attend counseling do so for a wide range of reasons – from adjusting to disruptions in life to major mental and emotional disorders. The mental health professionals are bound by strict guidelines on confidentiality. During the first session you will be asked to describe your concerns and what you hope to gain from counseling. You might be asked a number of background questions in writing or during the discussion to help the professional more fully understand your situation. The session usually lasts about an hour after which you might be referred to additional resources if needed.

You will benefit the most from counseling if you come prepared to focus on a specific issue with a goal in mind and by being as open and as honest as you can. By participating actively and collaborating with your counselor you will increase your chances of learning new skills. You can expect your counselor to listen to your concerns and answer any questions you may have about the process. You might have “homework” to do in between sessions that will usually encourage you to try something new. Most counselors have a fee associated with their services or your healthcare benefits may only offer only a limited amount of sessions, so it’s important to make the most of your experience. Ask lots of questions (see below) before you make your appointment. At the end of the counseling process you should feel understood and encouraged, you should have more clarity and self-awareness regarding your problem, and you should have a direction for improvement and a plan to get there.

What Should I Know About Confidentiality?

Counseling works in part because mental health records are kept confidential. With rare exceptions, no information is released to anyone outside of the counseling services without written consent. The exceptions to confidentiality include life-threatening situations when someone is in imminent harm to themselves or others or in cases of suspected child abuse or an appropriate court order.  Additionally counselors may consult with each other about best forms of treatment for you.

How Should I Choose a Counselor?

Things to assess when choosing your counselor:

  • Credentials: Counselors should have a minimum of a Masters degree and should be licensed. In some situations, graduate level counselors may be earning hours toward their licensure; ask about these practices and how supervision is handled. Your counselor might be a psychologist (doctoral level – Ph.D. or Psy.D.), a social worker (MSW), or a counselor (MA). You may also work with a psychiatrist (MD) for therapy or medication.
  • Experience: Ask your counselor about their experiences working with your presenting concerns.
  • Fit: While the counseling relationship is not a friendship, it is important that you feel safe and trust that your counselor is competent. You do not have to settle for the counselor that is assigned to you. If it doesn’t feel right, ask for another provider.
  • Availability: How often will you get to work with the counselor? How long? What will happen if there is an emergency? What happens when school is on break?

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