Having finally finished the rigorous training it takes to become a counselor, the last thing you may want to think about is attaining even more education or the possible benefits of tacking on another set of letters after your last name. But after taking some time to recharge, you might want to explore some interesting specialty areas of counseling through the pursuit of voluntary certifications.

National certifications enhance your expertise, stretch your mind and bolster your resume. And, of course, earning these certifications may put you in a position to work in a specialized counseling field for which you have a particular interest and skill set.

“They indicate that you want to be the best counselor that you can and, depending on the type of certification, can prove that you undertook training in a specific area of expertise beyond that needed for a generic professional license,” says ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan. “The analogy is to board certification in medicine. An ophthalmologist doesn’t need to be board certified to practice; they already have a license to practice as a physician. But voluntarily getting board certified shows that they have met rigorous standards and know a lot about eye diseases.”

Counseling credentials are typically offered through a professional group and accredited, usually by an organization such as the National Organization for Competency Assurance. The NOCA website (www.noca.org) offers excellent information about certification and a list of certifications that the organization, through its accreditation commission, has reviewed (see www.noca.org/ncca/accredorg.htm).

One prominent set of credentials comes from the National Board for Certified Counselors. “NBCC gets all the credit in the world for catalyzing the professionalization of counseling through its certification program,” says Kaplan, adding that the organization’s credentials were groundbreaking.

ACA established NBCC in 1982 to set general standards for counselors with its National Certified Counselor designation. NBCC now also offers three other specialty certifications for clinical mental health counseling, school counseling and addictions counseling. The NCC designation is a prerequisite or co-requisite for NBCC’s other specialty certifications, and each certification requires some experience in that particular field.

NBCC and the Academy of Clinical Mental Health Counselors created the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor credential. Today, nearly 1,200 counselors have the certification. Some states make CCMHC holders the authorized providers of mental health services for insurance purposes.

The Master Addictions Counselor credential grew out of a collaboration between an ACA division, the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors, and NBCC. “While there are several addictions credentials on the market, NBCC’s designation identifies a master’s-level counseling practitioner with specific knowledge and experience in the addictions field,” says Susan Shafer, executive projects director at NBCC.

The third specialty credential offered by NBCC is the National Certified School Counselor. This credential acknowledges school counselors with master’s degrees and two years of work in schools, as well as passage through a challenging application and examination process.

Through its certifications, NBCC reports that the organization is able to:

  • Generate client referrals through a referral service
  • Ensure portability of nationally recognized credentials
  • Keep NCCs up-to-date on current professional credentialing issues through a newsletter
  • Offer participants a voice in — and a way to support — the proper development of national standards “by counselors, not legislators”

Switching gears to another specialty area, 16 counselors have become certified as Forensic Health Evaluators, according to Norman Hoffman, president of the National Board of Forensic Evaluators. The program, which certifies counselors for court-related mental health evaluations, requires full mental health state licensure and 40 hours of forensic experience, along with a rigorous program of study and testing that typically takes a year.

“These people have to be well trained,” Hoffman says. “You can ruin a case by saying the wrong thing under cross-examination. Most therapists aren’t prepared for this. It is very different work. You need to provide unbiased, objective evaluations.”

Currently, he says, 50 additional counselors are working on the certification. “If you are interested in court work — child custody evaluations, determining insanity, personal injury cases and other mental health issues, this is something to consider and work for in your future,” he says.

ACA division certifications

Other certifications exist independently. The National Career Development Association offers training for the Global Career Development Facilitator credential, which is designed for those who do not have a master’s degree in counseling but are providing career services. The credential is offered by the Center for Credentialing and Education, an affiliate of NBCC.

“A CDF may serve as a career group facilitator, job search trainer, career resource center coordinator, career coach, career development case manager, intake interviewer, occupational and labor market information resource person, human resource career development coordinator, employment/placement specialist or workforce development staff person,” says NCDA Executive Director Deneen Pennington.

NCDA also has a Master Career Counselor designation. MCCs must have two years of membership and three years of experience. They also must maintain the National Certified Counselor credential and state licensed psychologist credential, complete three credits in each of six NCDA competency areas and complete work experience under a certified supervisor or licensed counseling professional and document that half of their current full-time work is directly related to career counseling.

Another specialty credential is available from the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, which offers certification as a Certified Family Therapist. In 1994, IAMFC set up the National Credentialing Academy to establish and monitor this national certification system for counselors in the field.

In addition, another ACA division, the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, offers Rehabilitation Counselor certification. “It is extremely rewarding,” says ARCA President Irmo Marini, a professor and graduate coordinator at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. “They can work in vocational rehabilitation, for nonprofit agencies, in the government, as vocational experts in forensics and with disabled students and others. National job demand in this area is very high.”

New national counseling certifications are also on the horizon. For instance, one of ACA’s divisions, the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling, has recently taken preliminary steps to develop a certification. Other groups are studying similar actions.

Kaplan says counselors new to the profession should consider a specialty certification either to enhance their knowledge or to establish, improve or change their area of expertise. But he also advises them to be selective. “There was a time when we were advised to get as many certifications as we could so you had as many letters after your name as possible,” he says. “In this day and age, you can drive yourself crazy trying to keep up. Now it is probably best to focus on one specialty certification that you really want for your practice. Completing it will be very rewarding.”