Exploring a Career in Counseling
Sarah interviews Carol about a professional career in mental health in this episode. Their discussion ranges from what classes to take in college all the way to how to cultivate a post-graduate career in psychology. Through Carol’s discussion of her own path to becoming a mental health expert, Sarah concludes that there is no set professional path to take to achieve your goals.
Disclaimer: the information shared here reflects the opinions of the speaker and do not reflect the views of the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs.
Sarah: Welcome to Youth Engaged 4 Change Radio. I am your host Sarah Parsons. In this interview I am going to talk with Carol Burrows about being a mental health counselor. Carol is an LCPC from Bozeman, Montana. Your first question. What is your job title and description?
Carol: I'm an LCPC, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, and my job description is, I do mental health counseling for couples and families and individuals.
Sarah: When and why did you know you wanted to pursue your career in mental health?
Carol: Well, I was a business major in college, an accounting major actually, and it became pretty clear that I was not cut out to be an accountant, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I took this class called Courtship, Marriage and Family Relations, just as a fun class, and it was taught by a family counselor. And I thought, "Oh my gosh". I was so interested in it, and it just seemed like I could do this for the rest of my life. And so I changed my major. At that moment it was like the stars, the sun, the moon, all aligned. And so I changed majors and that became what I did. And I loved it, and still do.
Sarah: Why did you choose to go into psychology over psychiatry?
Carol: Well. Psychiatry is... it's medical school. You have to go to medical school, and there was no way I... I didn't have the funds or the interest to go to school for that long. And psychiatry, it's all about the brain and medicines, and with mental health counseling it's about relationships and interactions and things like that. It's a lot easier things to be fixed, in my opinion.
Sarah: Is your career or careers in mental health specific to people with certain skills or personality traits?
Carol: I think... you have to have a lot of skills of empathy and concern, but you also have to have that balanced with not taking things home. So you have to have real good boundaries, and not take on your clients' problems, which people run into problems with that. So you have to have empathy, you have to be caring, but not too caring.
Sarah: Is there a certain age or demographic that you prefer to work with?
Carol: Yes, I like 18 to 65 best. I have a few younger and a few older. And the older I get, the more older clients I have, which is interesting. I see a lot of couples. And so I'm seeing couples 70 years old who are having issues.
Sarah: Can you describe your education leading up to your career?
Carol: Yes. I got an undergraduate degree in Family Science and then a Master's degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. At that time in Montana there wasn't a license for marriage and family therapy, and we didn't have a social work program. That was my initial thought, was I'd go into social work. But we had the mental health counseling license. So after I got my degree, I started working on my... I got some hours ahead of the degree, and then after the degree I worked under supervision. I had to get 3,000 hours of supervised therapy hours, and then I was able to sit for my licensure. And so I had to take this big test and then I got my license to independently practice after that.
Sarah: What classes and activities do you think were most helpful for you in high school and in college?
Carol: Well, the business classes I took in high school have really helped me. I'm self-employed, so I have a private practice. And so business classes really helped. I got to tell you, keyboarding or typing is the only skill out of high school that I use every single day of my life. Everybody needs to know how to type, in my opinion. I know that sounds simplistic, but people don't always take it, so...
Sarah: Yes. And they need more... I think a lot of kids learn how to do that in elementary. That's when I learned how to do it. I don't know how many actually do, but I do look around the classroom and see kids who are having a hard time typing, and I myself are, so...
Carol: That's interesting. Yes, I'm sure they do it a lot younger now. So typing, business classes. And the business classes I took in college too, were helpful. And then everything in my major, you know, like human development, brain and physical and emotional development. How our families play a part in how we grow and how we learn to think and how we make connections and attach in our lives. Those classes were just invaluable in doing what I do. And then I taught at the university. I started doing it when I was in graduate school, and I taught for 30 years. I taught Human Development at university level. So everything that I taught helped me also in my years of counseling, especially with family stuff and kids and stuff.
Sarah: I'm not sure I want to go to college with wanting to go into mental health, so do you think it matters where you get your degrees, undergraduate or graduate?
Carol: I do. A lot of people these days are getting online Master's degrees. And while I think probably the education piece is good, I think you ought to show up in person and get that Master's. Any university is going to be good, I think. Most people, you need probably CACREP. It's C-A-C-R-E-P, and I'm not going to be able to tell you what the acronym stands for. But CACREP accredited schools that your licensure boards are going to pay more attention to, so you won't have to take extra classes. When you come out of a CACREP approved program, you will have what you need to sit for your exam and do the rest of your work.
Sarah: And another thing some people do, I've noticed, is, they go to college and then work and then go and get their graduate degree. Would you recommend going to grad school right after college or work for a while first to get some experience?
Carol: You know, you're not going to get paid very well. It depends on what your original degree is. When I changed my major to Family Science I knew I was not going to be able to do much with that, so I knew I had to get that Master's in order to actually make a living. So I did go right into my Master's program out of... went to graduate school out of my Bachelor's. If you can afford to do it, I think maybe a little bit of time... I was pretty young, I was 28 when I graduated with my Master's, I didn't have a lot of life experience. I had life experience, but when I think back to the early couples I saw, or the early individuals, I cringe, because I was trying to work with people who were older than me, and I didn't know what the heck I was doing. So a little... but a lot of people I did go to school with in my Master's program had had other careers, so they were 10 or 15 years older than me and they were probably... they had more life experience. But obviously it worked for me, I did it, so it's not an either/or, it's not even a better/best, it's whatever works for you and whatever you need to do.
Sarah: I've been talking to a few people and they all warned me, "You're going to have a lot of school", and I'm wondering, do you think a Ph.D. is necessary, or would you recommend getting one to do what you do?
Carol: No. I would not. Because the fact is Master's level people were qualified to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. The Ph.D. is more if you want to be an academic. It'll open doors for teaching better, although a lot of Master's level people teach. I don't even think Ph.D.s charge a lot more than a Master's level person does. So the money you can make isn't going to be significantly higher with a Ph.D. either.
Sarah: Is there anything you would change about your education or educational path that you took?
Carol: No. Montana State provided a great education. It was a CACREP approved program. So I wouldn't change anything. Even the starting out in something else, I probably needed to do that to see what it was I really needed to do, so it all worked out.
Sarah: All right.
Carol: Some people ask, or assume, that I got a degree in Psychology and I did not. What I found in taking Psych classes, it's more of a study of the brain rather than human relationships, and I was much more interested in human relationships than the brain.
Sarah: What were your favorite classes to take?
Carol: Couples' relationship courses, and doing the marriage therapy courses, were the ones that I just found really fascinating. Of, why do people do what they do? Communication, teaching people how to communicate, or learning how people communicate, how what you say is not always what people hear, and how do you fix that. I found those kind of classes to be the most interesting.
Sarah: And what was your favorite to teach? Or did you teach more than one different course?
Carol: Over the years I taught two or three courses, but my favorite was the Human Development course. It was a whole lifespan course, so we taught about life from conception to death. And so it was a 100 level class, I had probably 100 to 126 students in the class, so it was more of a lecture. But we just had a lot of fun. That was my favorite one to teach. I taught a couple of grad classes. I know I've taught two or three other classes over the years, but it's been so long, I can't even remember what they were. That would have been only a fill-in, type of thing. So my favorite was Human Development classes.
Sarah: That does sound like it would be interesting to both teacher and take.
Carol: Yes, students really liked it.
Sarah: Yes. What is your favorite part of your job now?
Carol: Oh, just the people I get to meet. When I see an individual or a couple making changes, that's really rewarding. And then when they're done with me, they might come back and check in a year or two later, just to... if they've hit a bump about something else. So that's the fun part of my job, it changes every hour, and the people I get to meet are pretty cool people.
Sarah: And what would you say is the most frustrating part of your job?
Carol: Insurance and paperwork.
Sarah: I think that's how it is with a lot of jobs.
Carol: It's probably the same way it is with your job.
Sarah: Yes. I think I would agree.
Carol: Yes, I bet. But you know, mental health counseling is covered by most people's insurance company, so if I want to get paid I have to submit to insurance, so I'm very disciplined and do that every week.
Sarah: Yes, that's probably a good quality. And then what advice would you give to youth hoping to pursue a career in mental health?
Carol: What advice? Just do it. It helps to come from a pretty healthy family, that helps. You have to work on your own stuff. Part of our training was, we had to have a semester of counseling on our own, and so the more you can work, the earlier you can work, on your own whatever issues, if you have any, the better you're going to be. It's going to help you be more empathetic to what it's like to sit on the other side of the couch. What advice? I guess you shouldn't do anything you don't like to do.
Sarah: I like that answer, because it's very true with a lot of things any more, is that people find themselves doing what they don't want to do any more, and it's like, "Well, you have the right and the power to change that, and you can".
Carol: Yes. This job is fun. I like the variation, it changes every hour. And I do a lot of public speaking now too, which I have for lots of years, but I quit the university two years ago and I'm really doing more... I do critical incident stress management with law enforcement or EMS people, and so I'm out of the office a lot. Teaching and out of town and doing other things related to critical incident stress management. The other cool thing I like about my job is I get to set my own hours.
Sarah: That would be nice. When you go to work, do most people with your job title have their own practice, or do they only work for a larger, I guess institution, or something?
Carol: A lot of times when you first get your degree, you need supervision hours. And so it's really a lot easier, and I think better, when you come out of this degree, to work for an agency. So like a... a county mental health center or a children's home or the prison, or... there's a lot of places. Chemical dependency treatment centers need interns. And so those are really good ways to get hours. And they'll often do the supervision at no charge to you, which then that's invaluable. Because we need 3,000 hours of supervised hours. So that can get really expensive if you're paying for it on your own.So yes, that's a great way to work. I worked for a counseling center for 10 years right out of college. I got my hours that way, as supervision, and it was a great way to start my career. And then after 10 years I went on my own and it was pretty seamless, because I already knew how to bill for insurance and a lot of the details that I would never have known without having worked at that agency.
Sarah: All right. Well, thank you so much, Carol, for being willing to help and yes, I hope this will help me and a lot of other people, so thank you so much. We learned a lot today from talking with Carol, and I hope you did too. Personally I really appreciated her talking about what classes she found helpful in high school and college, and what classes she liked teaching at the college level.
If you or someone you know is looking for resources on mental health careers, please visit engage.youth.gov and youth.gov. Thanks again for joining us for today's conversation on mental health career pathways, with Youth Engaged 4 Change radio. You can find us online at engage.youth.gov, or you can find us on Facebook and Instagram. We hope to see you for our next conversation.