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Professional Identity: Let's Define It, Share It - and Advance it
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Professional Identity: Let’s Define It, Share It—and Advance It

By Gray Otis, PhD, LPC, CCMHC
AMHCA President, 2011–2012

You may already know that Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, will be our keynote speaker on July 20, 2012 at AMHCA’s Annual  Conference. Karen Langer, LMHC, AMHCA’s president-elect and chair of the Conference Planning Committee, and her committee have done a great job putting together a terrific plan for us in Orlando with the theme, “Counseling in the Modern Era, Challenges & Opportunities in a Changing World.”

In addition to her professional expertise, Brené Brown speaks from experience in writing about what she calls her “small breakdown.” She notes that she became more wholehearted through practicing the courage necessary to be personally vulnerable, the compassion to be truly understanding, and the connection we all need to feel a sense of belonging. Her ideas impressed me as a viable approach to achieve real mental health.

Dr. Brown’s candidness about her own personal growth helps us understand how we can become more effective as individuals and as counselors clinically trained in mental health. Coupled with her research, she provides cues on how we might better perceive mental, emotional, and relationship well-being. This, of course, relates to our professional identity as clinical mental health counselors. 

Let me discuss a few other topics that also relate to identity.
  • The recently published AMHCA Standards for the Practice of Clinical Mental Health Counseling (now posted at helps us understand the roots of our profession dating back to 1976. Even then, the term “clinical mental health counseling” was used to designate those qualified to provide psychotherapeutic counseling services. In keeping with a 1986 AMCHA board of directors definition, we could say:

“Clinical mental health counseling promotes optimal wellness for individuals, couples, families, and groups throughout the lifespan. Those educated and trained as clinical mental health counselors treat as well as prevent mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders through mental health assessments, diagnosis, prevention and treatment plans, and psychotherapeutic counseling interventions.”

  • Obviously, there are many types of counseling, including substance abuse counseling, school counseling, vocational guidance counseling, pastoral counseling, creative arts counseling, rehabilitation counseling, and employment counseling. Thus the term “professional counselor” could refer to everyone who engages in any of these fields and receives compensation for their services. 

By contrast, counselors en-gaged in clinical mental health are distinguished by education, training, and therapeutic counseling experience. Only those who are qualified by virtue of their license may provide mental health assessments, diagnosis, prevention and treatment plans, as well as psychotherapeutic counseling interventions. Clients need to be able to differentiate what we offer them.

  • Currently, six different state titles are used to delineate clinically trained mental health counselors. Regardless of our title, however, we should clearly identify ourselves as qualified in clinical mental health counseling. This is equivalent to a parent wanting to know if their child’s school counselor is competent in school counseling. Likewise, someone seeing a rehabilitation counselor would want to be assured that he or she is capable in rehabilitation.
  • The Institute of Medicines (IOM) recommendation that federal employment requires graduation from a CACREP-accredited university was, I believe, problematic. AMHCA is working to include strong grandfathering provisions for those who did not graduate from CACREP programs. Nevertheless, CACREP accreditation is essentially the nationally recognized standard for education. This in turn may encourage universities to be CACREP-accredited. It should be noted that the other mental health and health professions require adherence to national educational standards. Also, some states already mandate that universities meet CACREP standards.
  • Another IOM recommendation requires applicants to have passed NBCC’s NCMHCE—the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination. This is the only recognized, nationwide examination that demonstrates qualification in clinical counseling skills. Some states require license applicants to pass this examination while others do not. To compete for federal job positions, however, future counselor applicants must successfully pass the NCMHCE. 
  • I believe we can be justifiably proud of our AMHCA Code of Ethics and the AMHCA Standards for the Practice of Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Federal recognition of counselors by the Department of Veterans Affairs, TRICARE, and the Department of the Army are all indications of the advancement of our profession. 
  • The newly established award of the AMHCA Diplomate and Clinical Mental Health 
  • Specialist will recognize advanced practice clinical mental health counselors 
    and will further our status as specialists. Next month, I will discuss the application process for those who wish to earn this professional achievement.

All of the previous discussion relates to how we see ourselves as clinically trained mental health counselors. Dr. Brené Brown’s description of mental health, the terms we use to define ourselves, the code of ethics we adhere to, and the state and national initiatives, all speak to our identity. (For more information on the conference, see pages 5 and 8–9.)

I believe that our professional identity has never been as strong as it is now. But it remains up to us to determine our identity and our future as a profession.