The Salvaging of Sanity

The Salvaging of Sanity

You drive into the high school parking lot, your wipers slashing at the heavy rain. It’s the first day of spring and students run from their cars and the school buses, into the dry halls of the high school.

The feeling of being valuable - 'I am a valuable person'- is essential to mental health and is a cornerstone of self-discipline.--- M. Scott Peck

You’re heading for the faculty lot when you see them.

At the far end of the student lot, the rear doors of a beat old white van are half open. The two students stand just inside them doing something. Standing in the rain in black raincoats, both of them. James half a foot shorter than Robert. James always has a nervous scared puppy smile. Robert never smiles, as if he’s staring far off, like seeing something nobody else can ever really see. They look at you that way now.

At the old rusty van they see you slowing your car. Robert pulls the van doors inward, to hide whatever they are doing.

You knew the taller student, James, throughout his tortured years in your school, a spindly shy boy, constantly bullied by the jocks. But the new student, Robert, his new best friend, refused counseling, and never came into your office. James has never seemed happier though, since he met Robert. Something happened one day behind the boy’s gym, you aren’t sure what. Nobody would talk, but Robert was messed up and a couple of the jocks had broken noses. And nobody ever bothered James after that, for the first time in his wretched young life.

Now, through your rain-beaded windshield, you see the shotgun.

Just the black buttstock, in James’ hands, and Robert glares at James and grabs it back, hides the shotgun under his own coat.

Your eyes blink, you feel that robot feeling. The feeling that something is happening too soon, to somebody else. Your foot is on the brake. You pull your car in beside the van.

But even as you start getting out, Robert is at your door, looking down at you. His rain-dripping eyes glitter. He’s smiling. Then James is there, with his puppy look, watching Robert, trying to please Robert.

Now you see, James is holding a pistol in each bony little hand. Rain runs down his raincoat sleeves, dripping off the muzzles. The boy makes no effort to hide them. He wants you to see the pistols, you realize. You think how James has never had control of anything before. Not even his own face. You remember all the sessions you had with him bawling, in your office after being taunted, bullied, abused, taking him out to a ball game that time. But that’s all gone now. Somehow, terribly, you know, today is his day.

But it’s not James you speak to. Robert’s presence in your open car door is almost demonic with some kind of hidden power.

Robert is looking right through you. Your windshield wipers keep slapping.

You hear yourself say, like a voice from another world: “Robert, are you all right?”

“Don’t go inside the school,” Robert says to you. James watches Robert and says nothing.

It’s like being hit with a fist, the way Robert’s eyes focus on your eyes. His lips slide open, tight, and then his yellow teeth show. It’s the first time you’ve ever seen him smile, and he looks completely different. Something long and bulky is under his black rain coat.

Robert pumps the slide of the shotgun, bringing it out in the open from inside his coat. It’s like a movie in slow mouton, a bad dream.

And Robert says, “You’re not a bad person. You don’t need to be in there, not this morning, okay?”

You are a Mental Health Counselor. Many lives hinge upon whatever you say and do next.

You weigh the world in its balances. You know you have credit with James. But Robert is the leader. An unknown. Your mind races through his files. Transfer. Four schools in three years. Possible abuse at home. Assault misdemeanors at every school. Brilliant in art and math, when he wants to be, indifferent straight F’s in everything else.

You open your car door wider. Just a bit, hoping… Robert lifts the black death-hole of the shotgun to your face, still smiling. His face looks so old, for a boy. What has he seen? His smile scares you more even than the shotgun, you realize, so oddly.

And he says, “Don’t you get out of that damn car. Did you hear me? I’m giving you your one chance.”

Everything you learned getting your master’s degree, everything you’ve learned from the hundreds of students you’ve known, it’s all on the line now. The lives of teachers and students in the school. Your life. The lives of these two boys. Maybe the lives of police officers, the security guard, and God knows who else…

And now, knowing you have to try, you move. OmyGod, help me help them.

With what you hope will work already forming in your mind, you face his lifted shotgun, and you step out of your car into the rain…

“Please,” Robert says, “you don’t need to be part of this.”

You hold his eye contact, you must. It’s who you are. It’s what you are. No one else is here.

And your compassion, your training, your professionalism, wells up inside you… you feel compassion, now, not fear.

You are a valuable person, and I care…

Counselors assist people with personal, family, educational, mental health, and career problems. Their duties vary greatly depending on their occupational specialty, which is determined by the setting in which they work and the population they serve.

A master’s degree generally is required to become a licensed counselor.

Job opportunities for counselors should be very good because job openings are expected to exceed the number of graduates from counseling programs. The health care and social assistance industry employs about 47 percent of counselors, and state and local government employ about 11 percent.

Educational, vocational, and school counselors provide individuals and groups with career and educational counseling. School counselors assist students of all levels, from elementary school to postsecondary education. They advocate for students and work with other individuals and organizations to promote the academic, career, personal, and social development of children and youth. School counselors help students evaluate their abilities, interests, talents, and personalities to develop realistic academic and career goals.

Counseling session in progress.  Two women sitting down.

Counselors use interviews, counseling sessions, interest and aptitude assessment tests, and other methods to evaluate and advise students. They also operate career information centers and career education programs. Often, counselors work with students who have academic and social development problems or other special needs.

Elementary school counselors observe children during classroom and play activities and confer with their teachers and parents to evaluate the children’s strengths, problems, or special needs. In conjunction with teachers and administrators, they make sure that the curriculum addresses both the academic and the developmental needs of students. Elementary school counselors do less vocational and academic counseling than high school counselors.

High school counselors advise students regarding college majors, admission requirements, entrance exams, financial aid, trade or technical schools, and apprenticeship programs. They help students develop job search skills, such as resume writing and interviewing techniques. College career planning and placement counselors assist alumni or students with career development and job-hunting techniques.

School counselors at all levels help students to understand and deal with social, behavioral, and personal problems. These counselors emphasize preventive and developmental counseling to provide students with the life skills needed to deal with problems before they worsen and to enhance students’ personal, social, and academic growth. Counselors provide special services, including alcohol and drug prevention programs and conflict resolution classes. They also try to identify cases of domestic abuse and other family problems that can affect a student’s development.

Counselors interact with students individually, in small groups, or as an entire class. They consult and collaborate with parents, teachers, school administrators, school psychologists, medical professionals, and social workers to develop and implement strategies to help students succeed.

Vocational counselors, also called employment or career counselors, provide mainly career counseling outside the school setting. Their chief focus is helping individuals with career decisions. Vocational counselors explore and evaluate the client’s education, training, work history, interests, skills, and personality traits. They may arrange for aptitude and achievement tests to help the client make career decisions. They also work with individuals to develop their job-search skills and assist clients in locating and applying for jobs. In addition, career counselors provide support to people experiencing job loss, job stress, or other career transition issues.

Rehabilitation counselors help people deal with the personal, social, and vocational effects of disabilities. They counsel people with disabilities resulting from birth defects, illness or disease, accidents, or other causes. They evaluate the strengths and limitations of individuals, provide personal and vocational counseling, and arrange for medical care, vocational training, and job placement. Rehabilitation counselors interview both individuals with disabilities and their families, evaluate school and medical reports, and confer with physicians, psychologists, occupational therapists, and employers to determine the capabilities and skills of the individual. They develop rehabilitation programs by conferring with clients; these programs often include training to help clients develop job skills. Rehabilitation counselors also work toward increasing the client’s capacity to live independently.

Mental health counselors work with individuals, families, and groups to address and treat mental and emotional 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.

Mental health counselors often work closely with other mental health specialists, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, psychiatric nurses, and school counselors.

Man holding his head and concentrating.

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors help people who have problems with alcohol, drugs, gambling, and eating disorders. They counsel individuals who are addicted to drugs, helping them to identify behaviors and problems related to their addiction. Counseling can be done on an individual basis, but is frequently done in a group setting. These counselors will often also work with family members who are affected by the addictions of their loved ones. Counselors also conduct programs aimed at preventing addictions.

Marriage and family therapists apply family systems theory, principals and techniques to individuals, families, and couples to resolve emotional conflicts. In doing so, they modify people’s perceptions and behaviors, enhance communication and understanding among family members, and help to prevent family and individual crises. Marriage and family therapists also may engage in psychotherapy of a non-medical nature, make appropriate referrals to psychiatric resources, perform research, and teach courses about human development and interpersonal relationships.

Other counseling specialties include gerontological, multicultural, and genetic counseling. A gerontological counselor provides services to elderly people and their families as they face changing lifestyles. Genetic counselors provide information and support to families who have members with birth defects or genetic disorders and to families who may be at risk for a variety of inherited conditions. These counselors identify families at risk, interpret information about the disorder, analyze inheritance patterns and risks of recurrence, and review available options with the family.

Work environment can vary greatly depending on occupational specialty. School counselors work predominantly in schools, where they usually have an office but also may work in classrooms. Other counselors may work in a private practice, community health organization, or hospital. Many counselors work in an office where they see clients throughout the day. Because privacy is essential for confidential and frank discussions with clients, counselors usually have private offices.

The work schedules of counselors depend on occupational specialty and work setting. Some school counselors work the traditional 9- to 10-month school year with a 2- to 3-month vacation, but increasing numbers, are employed on 11-month or full-year contracts, particularly those working in middle and high schools. They usually work the same hours as teachers, but they may travel more frequently to attend conferences and conventions. College career planning and placement counselors work long and irregular hours during student recruiting periods.

Rehabilitation counselors usually work a standard 40-hour week. Self-employed counselors and those working in mental health and community agencies, such as substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, frequently work evenings to counsel clients who work during the day. Both mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists also often work flexible hours to accommodate families in crisis or working couples who must have evening or weekend appointments.

Education requirements vary based on occupational specialty and State licensure and certification requirements. A master’s degree is usually required to be licensed as a counselor. Some States require counselors in public employment to have a master’s degree; others accept a bachelor’s degree with appropriate counseling courses. Counselor education programs in colleges and universities are often found in departments of education or psychology.

Fields of study include college student affairs, elementary or secondary school counseling, education, gerontological counseling, marriage and family therapy, substance abuse counseling, rehabilitation counseling, agency or community counseling, clinical mental health counseling, career counseling, and related fields. Courses are often grouped into eight core areas: human growth and development, social and cultural diversity, relationships, group work, career development, assessment, research and program evaluation, and professional identity. In an accredited master’s degree program, 48 to 60 semester hours of graduate study, including a period of supervised clinical experience in counseling, are required.

Some employers provide training for newly hired counselors. Others may offer time off or tuition assistance to complete a graduate degree. Often counselors must participate in graduate studies, workshops, and personal studies to maintain their certificates and licenses.

Licensure requirements differ greatly by State, occupational specialty, and work setting. Many States require school counselors to hold a State school counseling certification and to have completed at least some graduate course work; most require the completion of a master’s degree. Some States require school counselors to be licensed, which generally requires continuing education credits. Some States require public school counselors to have both counseling and teaching certificates and to have had some teaching experience.

For counselors based outside of schools, 49 States and the District of Columbia have some form of counselor licensure that governs the practice of counseling. Requirements typically include the completion of a master’s degree in counseling, the accumulation of 2 years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience beyond the master’s degree level, the passage of a State-recognized exam, adherence to ethical codes and standards, and the completion of annual continuing education requirements. However, counselors working in certain settings or in a particular specialty may face different licensure requirements. For example, a career counselor working in private practice may need a license, but a counselor working for a college career center may not. In addition, substance abuse and behavior disorder counselors are generally governed by a different State agency or board than other counselors. The criteria for their licensure vary greatly and in some cases, these counselors may only need a high school diploma and certification. Those interested in entering the field must research State and specialty requirements to determine what qualifications they must have.

People interested in counseling should have a strong desire to help others and should be able to inspire respect, trust, and confidence. They should be able to work independently or as part of a team. Counselors must follow the code of ethics associated with their respective certifications and licenses.

Abstract image of eye within a puzzle piece.

Counselors must possess high physical and emotional energy to handle the array of problems that they address. Dealing daily with these problems can cause stress.

Certification and advancement. Some counselors elect to be certified by the National Board for Certified Counselors, Inc., which grants a general practice credential of National Certified Counselor.

To be certified, a counselor must hold a master’s degree with a concentration in counseling from a regionally accredited college or university; have at least 2 years of supervised field experience in a counseling setting (graduates from counselor education programs accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs are exempted); provide two professional endorsements, one of which must be from a recent supervisor; and must have a passing score on the board’s examination. This national certification is voluntary and is distinct from State licensing. However, in some States, those who pass the national exam are exempted from taking a State certification exam. The board also offers specialty certifications in school, clinical mental health, and addiction counseling. These specialty certifications require passage of a supplemental exam. To maintain their certifications, counselors retake and pass the exam or complete 100 credit hours of acceptable continuing education every 5 years.

The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification offers voluntary national certification for rehabilitation counselors. Many State and local governments and other employers require rehabilitation counselors to have this certification. To become certified, rehabilitation counselors usually must graduate from an accredited educational program, complete an internship, and pass a written examination. Certification requirements vary, however, according to an applicant’s educational history. Employment experience, for example, is required for those with a counseling degree in a specialty other than rehabilitation. To maintain their certification, counselors must successfully retake the certification exam or complete 100 credit hours of acceptable continuing education every 5 years.

Prospects for advancement vary by counseling field. School counselors can become directors or supervisors of counseling, guidance, or pupil personnel services; or, usually with further graduate education, become counselor educators, counseling psychologists, or school administrators. Some counselors choose to work for a State’s department of education.

Some marriage and family therapists, especially those with doctorates in family therapy, become supervisors, teachers, researchers, or advanced clinicians in the discipline. Counselors may also become supervisors or administrators in their agencies. Some counselors move into research, consulting, or college teaching or go into private or group practice. Some may choose to pursue a doctoral degree to improve their chances for advancement.

Counselors held about 635,000 jobs in 2006. Employment was distributed among the counseling specialties as follows

Educational, vocational, and school counselors work primarily in elementary and secondary schools and colleges and universities. Other types of counselors work in a wide variety of public and private establishments, including healthcare facilities; job training, career development, and vocational rehabilitation centers; social agencies; correctional institutions; and residential care facilities, such as halfway houses for criminal offenders and group homes for children, the elderly, and the disabled. Some substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work in therapeutic communities where people with addictions live while undergoing treatment. Counselors also work in organizations engaged in community improvement and social change, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, and State and local government agencies.

A growing number of counselors are self-employed and work in group practices or private practice, due in part to new laws allowing counselors to be paid for their services by insurance companies and to the growing recognition that counselors are well-trained, effective professionals.

Employment for counselors is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2016. However, job growth will vary by location and occupational specialty. Job prospects should be good due to growth and the need to replace people leaving the field.

Employment of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is expected to grow 34 percent, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. As society becomes more knowledgeable about addiction, it is increasingly common for people to seek treatment. Furthermore, drug offenders are increasingly being sent to treatment programs rather than jail.

Employment for educational, vocational and school counselors is expected to grow 13 percent, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Demand for vocational or career counselors should grow as multiple job and career changes become common and as workers become increasingly aware of counseling services. In addition, State and local governments will employ growing numbers of counselors to assist beneficiaries of welfare programs who exhaust their eligibility and must find jobs. Other opportunities for employment of counselors will arise in private job-training centers that provide training and other services to laid-off workers and others seeking to acquire new skills or careers.

Demand for school counselors may increase due in large part to increases in student enrollments at postsecondary schools and colleges and as more States require elementary schools to employ counselors. Expansion of the responsibilities of school counselors should also lead to increases in their employment. For example, counselors are becoming more involved in crisis and preventive counseling, helping students deal with issues ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to death and suicide. Although schools and governments realize the value of counselors in helping their students to achieve academic success, budget constraints at every school level will dampen job growth of school counselors. Federal grants and subsidies may help to offset tight budgets and allow the reduction in student-to-counselor ratios to continue.

Employment of mental health counselors is expected to grow by 30 percent, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. Mental health counselors will be needed to staff statewide networks that are being established to improve services for children and adolescents with serious emotional disturbances and for their families. Under managed care systems, insurance companies are increasingly providing for reimbursement of counselors as a less costly alternative to psychiatrists and psychologists.

Jobs for rehabilitation counselors are expected to grow by 23 percent, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. The number of people who will need rehabilitation counseling is expected to grow as advances in medical technology allow more people to survive injury or illness and live independently again. In addition, legislation requiring equal employment rights for people with disabilities will spur demand for counselors, who not only help these people make a transition to the workforce but also help companies to comply with the law.

Marriage and family therapists will experience growth of 30 percent, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This is due in part to an increased recognition of the field. It is more common for people to seek help for their marital and family problems than it was in the past.

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix Occupational title SOC Code Employment

Job prospects vary greatly based on the occupational specialty. Prospects for rehabilitation counselors are excellent because many people are leaving the field or retiring. Furthermore, opportunities are very good in substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling because relatively low wages and long hours make recruiting new entrants difficult. For school counselors, job prospects should be good because many people are leaving the occupation to retire; however, opportunities may be more favorable in rural and urban areas, rather than the suburbs, because it is often difficult to recruit people to these areas.

Median annual earnings of wage and salary educational, vocational, and school counselors in May 2006 were $47,530. The middle 50 percent earned between $36,120 and $60,990. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,240, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $75,920. School counselors can earn additional income working summers in the school system or in other jobs.

Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of educational, vocational, and school counselors

Median annual earnings of wage and salary substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors in May 2006 were $34,040. The middle 50 percent earned between $27,330 and $42,650. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,600, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $52,340.

Median annual earnings of wage and salary mental health counselors in May 2006 were $34,380. The middle 50 percent earned between $26,780 and $45,610. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $21,890, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $59,700.

Median annual earnings of wage and salary rehabilitation counselors in May 2006 were $29,200. The middle 50 percent earned between $22,980 and $39,000. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19,260, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $53,170.

For substance abuse, mental health, and rehabilitation counselors, government employers generally pay the highest wages, followed by hospitals and social service agencies. Residential care facilities often pay the lowest wages.

Median annual earnings of wage and salary marriage and family therapists in May 2006 were $43,210. The middle 50 percent earned between $32,950 and $54,150. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,280, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $69,050. Median annual earnings were $36,020 in individual and family social services, the industry employing the largest number of marriage and family therapists.

Self-employed counselors who have well-established practices, as well as counselors employed in group practices, usually have the highest earnings.

For a stunning number of people in our dehumanized industrial society, mental health counseling is their only lifeline to survival, both mentally and emotionally.

As our society struggles and our population expands, the need for mental health counseling is enormous, and growing rapidly.

If you feel strongly that you are the kind of person who would spend a life as a lifeline of sanity, to hundreds of desperate people, find the degree program near you, or online, that suits you best.

There are so many damaged lives, and no time to waste.

For general information about counseling, as well as information on specialties such as college, mental health, rehabilitation, multicultural, career, marriage and family, and gerontological counseling, contact:

For information on school counselors, contact:

For information on mental health counselors, contact:

  • American Mental Health Counselors Association, 801 N. Fairfax Street, Suite 304, Alexandria, VA 22314. http://www.amhca.org

For information on marriage and family therapists, contact:

  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 112 South Alfred Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 http://www.aamft.org

For information on accredited counseling and related training programs, contact:

  • Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, American Counseling Association, 5999 Stevenson Ave., 4th floor, Alexandria, VA 22304. http://www.cacrep.org

For information on national certification requirements for counselors, contact:

  • National Board for Certified Counselors, Inc, 3 Terrace Way, Suite D, Greensboro, NC 27403. http://www.nbcc.org
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