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What Is a Counselor?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 04, 2024
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The term "counselor" has several meanings. Most often, it is used to describe someone who is a therapist, which could mean a licensed clinical social worker, a marriage and family counselor (MFC or MFCC), a psychologist or even a psychiatrist who conducts regular therapy sessions. The word is also used to describe lawyers who advocate for others in court or give legal advice, a person working as a consul or representative of a state, a person working at a children’s camp or at a school to give academic advice, or for a church.

As a verb, the word counsel can mean “to give guidance to,” and as a noun, it may specifically refer to a lawyer. There are other definitions of counsel, which may include anything from “to convince” to “to advise.” These definitions explain in part the multiple things that someone with this job title does.

In the most standard definition of counselor as therapist, the person helps to address the issues of those with emotional difficulties or mental health issues. Such a person may seldom give advice and almost never would strive to convince a client to do something. Instead, he or she serves as a guide, since most therapists believe that a patient must be the one who gradually reaches self-realization. Advice tends to be ignored, or clients may not be ready to hear “what their problem is,” from a therapist. Instead, the therapist helps clients come to conclusions about any problems or issues they may have, and then may suggest ways or methods of helping with these issues. Occasionally, they may even suggest less conventional solutions such as an emotional support animal.

This is not true of all therapists; some are much more willing to dispense advice than are others. Sometimes, a therapist must urge something, such as when a patient is in a dangerous situation or when the patient reveals that he or she is a danger to him or herself or to others. Licensed therapists are even empowered in some places to act and report a patient who is seriously suicidal or who is potentially being abused or abusing someone.

Not all counselors are licensed as therapists of one kind or another. Ministers frequently counsel to their parishioners. Many of them have some training in psychology, and some are licensed therapists, but licensing is not always required for a minister to counsel others. He or she may do premarital counseling, marriage counseling or individual counseling. The minister may also advise parishioners or individuals on spiritual matters or simply be an aid to those in crisis.

Another type is an academic adviser or school counselor. School counselors, especially for elementary and secondary schools, are usually licensed as therapists, although others focus primarily on students' academics or career plans. At the college level, teachers who advise students on what classes they need to take in order to graduate or major in a certain subject, might use this title. Most colleges also offer mental health counseling services to those that require them, and a teacher/advisor could refer a student who is having problems to such services.

Even though the term can mean so many things, most counselors share some common features. Chief among these is a desire to help others, excellent communication and listening skills, and significant knowledge in the field in which they advise or guide. When some area of a person's life is troubling, be it legal, financial, emotional, scholastic or other, seeking help from someone who possesses these skills can be a great step on the road to resolving problems.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Bhutan — On Feb 02, 2011

@Latte31 -I have heard of her, but my favorite radio therapist is Dr. Laura Schlessinger. She is such an advocate for children and really offers direct advice on how to treat various issues that the caller has.

Her advice is consistent with her beliefs and she really offers relationship advice that solidifies marriages and leads to stronger family dynamics.

She holds the callers accountable and asks what they have done to contribute to the problems that they are experiencing.

She is also a strong believer that divorced parents should not remarry until their children reach adulthood because it takes the focus away from the child who already is having difficulty with the divorce.

She adds that this is the reason many blended families have so much turmoil and why second marriages have a higher incident of divorce.

She is also a strong proponet of the idea of staying home to raise children. She has written books on the subject and really believes that it is the best method of raising a child. She validates stay at home moms at every opportunity because she feels that it is best for the child.

By latte31 — On Jan 31, 2011

@Cafe41 -I agree that addictions are problems that you will have to deal with for the rest of your life. I wanted to add that couples counseling is also interesting.

On Sirius satilette radio and on the OWN network, Oprah’s new channel there is a couples counselor called Dr. Laura Berman.

Her focus is on sex therapy in order to develop a more intimate and lasting relationship. This is really the cornerstone of her program.

Her program is graphic sometimes so you definitely do not want to have it on around the children.

By cafe41 — On Jan 29, 2011

@Suntan12 -I agree that finding a licensed counselor is important. I also agree that it is a noble profession. People that treat those suffering from various addictions have to have a compassionate yet firm heart because these patients tend to display destructive tendencies.

I think that I would love to work as an addiction counselor treating overweight people. Food addiction is so difficult to treat because unlike alcohol and drug addiction, food encompasses our lives daily.

We cannot go without food so this makes the addiction tricky. Whatever the addiction the patient has to develop the mindset that they are never totally cured only treated because addictions are lifelong conditions that people have to address daily in order to not succumb to them.

This is why people suffering from addictions always need some form of therapy in order to move away from the addiction because the addiction for so long has served as a coping mechanism that is no longer available.

Our tendencies are always to resort to our past habits when we feel challenged and treating an addiction is a challenging process which requires a lot of emotional support.

By suntan12 — On Jan 27, 2011

I think that working as a professional counselor is a wonderful profession. You really get to help people suffering from anxiety, depression, and relationship issues along with any other problem that does not allow the person to function in their day to day duties.

Seeking a relationship counselor is important but they should also be a licensed counselor with at least a Masters degree along with board certification by their state.

There are unfortunately many people wanting to offer advice that are really not trained to do so. This means that you will have to do your homework with respect to finding a licensed professional counselor.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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