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.
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.