Understanding mental health counseling

two women sit across from each other having a serious conversation


In this article:

  • Mental health counseling takes many forms and addresses a wide range of behaviors, emotions and issues.

  • Counseling can help hone our coping skills and how we manage our reactions and feelings in various situations.

  • April is Counseling Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about mental health counseling and the professionals who offer care.

Terms like depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, triggers and trauma are often used as shorthand in casual conversation to describe behaviors and personality traits. But when it comes to their use in a clinical setting, it is helpful to know what they really mean, and if they affect you, and how they can best be managed. That’s where Counseling Awareness Month comes in.

April is Counseling Awareness Month – a time when we recognize the profession of mental health counseling and those who work in behavioral health care. When it comes to mental health issues, there are plenty of half-truths and unclear language that make it even more challenging to discuss and understand. So we talked to Licensed Clinical Social Worker Lyndsey Williams to get an overview of mental health counseling and answer common questions about its benefits. Lyndsey is a behavioral health interventionist with the Swedish Medical Group. She has advanced training and expertise in helping people work through their mental health issues to improve their overall quality of life.

What is counseling?

For many people, the word counseling conjures visions of laying on a couch talking about your childhood while a man with a goatee takes notes. But counseling takes many forms and addresses many issues and behaviors.

“At its most basic level, counseling means that a third party is talking to you about an issue that you’re dealing with and offering guidance on managing its impact on your life,” says Lyndsey. “Not only can professional counseling help improve your mental and emotional health, but it can also create a ripple effect that improves your physical health and overall wellbeing.”

Counseling can be used to treat a wide variety of mental health issues, includes:

  • Addictions, including substance and alcohol abuse as well as compulsive behaviors or thoughts.
  • Depression causes extreme feelings of sadness, frustration and anger.
  • Anxiety and stress cause intense, excessive worry and the inability to perform daily activities.
  • Loss and grief after a death or the end of a relationship.
  • Eating disorders that lead to issues such as excessive food restrictions, overeating or binging and purging.
  • Relationship issues, including sexual problems, communication skills and conflict management.
  • Anger management offers education and support in working through extreme anger issues and their impact.

How is counseling different than talking with friends or family?

Although both involve getting and giving feedback and advice, meeting with a counselor is different than going for coffee with a friend or having a heart-to-heart with your mom.

“Therapy comes in many forms. We actually get a lot of therapeutic benefits from talking to our friends and family and being able to vent our feelings and emotions. However sometimes our feelings and emotions persist longer than normal, and we notice that it’s affecting our daily life functioning or our mood. This is a signal that we should seek mental health support through counseling. When it comes to counseling, you are getting diagnostic treatment from a person who is a licensed, certified professional in mental health disorders and human behavior in general,” says Lyndsey. “Licensed counselors use evidence-based diagnostic tools and interventions to provide safe, effective care and mental health symptom relief. Unless your friend is a licensed therapist, you’re not going to get that expertise.”

“Counselors are also different because they’re bound by confidentiality,” says Lyndsey. “And we’re unbiased, so it’s more of a judgment-free zone. We can’t share your information with other people. That makes it a bit different than a regular conversation.”

Common forms of counseling include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – helps you understand the link between your thoughts, feelings and actions so you can use that insight to develop healthier thought patterns and behaviors. CBT can be an effective treatment for a wide range of issues, including depression, substance abuse, addiction and mental illness.
  • Talk therapy – in-depth conversations to “talk it out” and develop solutions and coping strategies for the issues affecting your mental health. Also called psychotherapy, talk therapy can be helpful if you are experiencing long-term issues in your work or home life, loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship or other challenges.
  • Family counseling – identify and address family problems with improved communication and conflict resolution skills. Family therapy can be helpful if your family faces substantial life challenges such as financial hardship, death, divorce or career change.
  • Group therapy – get support from a group of people with issues similar to yours with discussions and exercises led by a qualified professional. Group therapy offers an opportunity to build a network of support that helps improve your coping skills and ability to communicate with others.
  • Marriage or couples counseling – learn the tools to problem solve, work together and communicate in healthier ways. Counseling can be an effective tool for couples wanting to repair their relationships, improve intimacy and increase their communication and problem-solving skills.

When do I need professional counseling?

“We all have emotional highs and lows that occur naturally in response to life stressors,” says Lyndsey. “But if you feel like your symptoms are not improving and have been persistent, it may be time to get an additional opinion.  Another example could be that you notice your mental health symptoms are accompanied by physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches or interfering with your everyday life, it’s time to talk to someone.”

Common signs of a mental health issue include (have persisted over 3 months):

  • Excessive fear, anxiety or worry
  • Extreme sadness.
  • Unfamiliar emotional responses to situations
  • Difficulty concentrating and inability to focus.
  • Changes in sleep or eating habits.
  • Prolonged irritability or anger with others.
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
  • Substance abuse or overuse of alcohol.

How do I get started?

Talk to your primary care doctor about your symptoms and how they are affecting you. “That should get you pointed in the right direction,” says Lyndsey. Your doctor can refer you to a counselor or therapist who can address these concerns.”

“Therapy is like a relationship. You have to be OK with your therapist and have a good rapport with them to get the most effective treatment. You have to trust them enough to share private details about yourself,” says Lyndsey. “So good vibes are essential to effective therapy.”

Psychologists, therapists and counselors may provide similar care, but there are differences in their training, education and licensing. It can get confusing to wade through all the choices. “Look for signifiers, usually behind the provider’s name. My first go-to is to check the letters that are there,” says Lyndsey.

Common designations include:

  • Licensed Medical Health Counselor (LMHC) – provides support for a wide range of issues, including addiction, depression, and trauma. Licensing requires a master’s degree and supervised clinical experience.
  • Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LCADC) – offers guidance for drug and alcohol issues. Licensing requires a master’s degree and two year’s supervised field experience.
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC) – treats mental health conditions such as mental illness, substance abuse, and emotional distress. Requires a master’s degree and at least two year’s supervised clinical experience.
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) – uses psychotherapy techniques and individual counseling to treat mental health issues. Requires a master’s degree in counseling or psychology.
  • Licensed Psychologist (PhD or PsyD) – specializes in diagnosis and treatment for psychological and behavioral issues. Requires a doctorate degree in psychology and up to two years of post-doctoral experience.
  • Licensed Certified Social Worker-Clinical (LICSW or LCSW-C) – offers diagnosis and mental health treatment through counseling with increased awareness of the impact of environmental and social influences on mental well-being. and access to available community resources. Requires a master’s degree and two years of post-graduate experience and certification.
  • Psychiatrist (MD) – addresses mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders with counseling and medication when applicable. Requires a medical degree with a specialty in mental health.

How will counseling help me?

“Counseling offers the benefit of talking with a third party who can’t judge you or bring it up in conversation later,” says Lyndsey. “Having that outlet alone can bring about a sense of mood relief. Additionally, you learn coping skills and ways to manage what you’re dealing with. Counseling provides a better understanding of your own experience and offers additional insight.”

Find a doctor

If you have questions about mental health, contact the behavioral health and wellbeing department at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources

Depression before and after birth: You are not alone

Caring for BIPOC and minority mental health

Medicated in Seattle: What medicine can do for mental health

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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