Identity scanWhat constitutes the identity of a counselor? Perhaps the answer, in its simplest form, can be found in the way that counselors introduce themselves.

Martin Ritchie keeps it simple: “Hello, I’m Martin Ritchie, and I’m a professional counselor.”

“I learned this from Sam Gladding,” says Ritchie, professor and chair of the Department of School Psychology, Legal Specialties and Counselor Education at the University of Toledo. “I have been to several [of his] presentations and workshops. He always makes a point at the beginning of introducing himself as ‘I am Sam Gladding, and I am a professional counselor.’ He then explains that it is an expression of pride and often leads to a discussion about what a counselor is and what a counselor does.”

Thankfully, Gladding says, the frequency with which he must follow that introductory sentence with an explanation decreases with each passing year. When Gladding, professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University, does still feel the need to expand on who he is and what he does, he starts by “talking about what the profession of counseling is, and then I’ll talk about how I go about educating those who are going into the profession, about how we work and about how [counseling] differs from some other [helping] professions. I would say counseling is a proactive, positive mental health profession that seeks to work with individuals, groups and families in a transformative way so that they are able not only to cope with the stress and distress of life, but [also] to thrive in the environments in which they are in or even to change those environments.”

How to define who counselors are and what they do is a topic that 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling, an initiative spearheaded by the American Counseling Association and the American Association of State Counseling Boards, has delved into deeply in recent years. In 2006, delegates from 30 (now 31) counseling organizations came together to work on the initiative, and in 2008, they released seven “Principles for Unifying and Strengthening the Profession.” In 2010, the 20/20 delegates reached consensus on a common definition of counseling: “Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals.”

The 20/20 initiative brought a variety of counselors together in a way that was as apolitical as possible, says Gladding, the original facilitator for 20/20 and a past president of ACA. He says being part of the initiative allowed these diverse counselors to adopt the mindset of, “OK, even though I identify with this one specialty more than another, who are we and who am I when the specialties are taken away?”

Arriving at a common definition of counseling that almost all ACA divisions and several other counseling organizations agreed on will further the profession, Gladding says. “We’re identifying who we are rather than having other people say who they think we are. It’s more proactive,” he says.

Sylvia Nassar-McMillan, professor and program coordinator of counselor education at North Carolina State University, has hopes that the consensus definition will further unite the profession. “With … constituent input into this definition, I would hope that most, if not all, [ACA] divisions support and identify with this definition as a statement of their respective and unified identity.”

Growing pains

The profession has come a long way since the 1970s and ’80s, when the question “Who are we as counselors?” was more common, Gladding says. Over time, counselors have stood up to say, “Here is who we are as a profession.” As a result, he says, all 50 states now have counselor licensure.

But Nassar-McMillan says the past few decades haven’t been without struggle. “Evidence of this is the divisions splintering or nearly splintering off from ACA, such as the American College Personnel Association and the American School Counselor Association,” says Nassar-McMillan, an ACA member who co-authored the book Developing Your Identity as a Professional Counselor: Standards, Settings, and Specialties with Spencer Niles. “Deliberations and decisions at state levels have paralleled the national dynamics with the same or different players. For example, in North Carolina, the North Carolina Counseling Association (NCCA) was shaken up when a large subset of the membership decided to break off and form the Licensed Professional Counselors Association of North Carolina. Initially, this weakened NCCA, but over time, the two organizations have become allies and occasional collaborators. While lines have been drawn and, at times, uneasy truces negotiated, I believe the counseling profession as a whole has moved forward in terms of defining itself as a unified profession.”

Potential splintering within the profession is something that concerns Ed Neukrug, professor of counseling at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. Neukrug says he was troubled when ASCA and the American Mental Health Counselors Association, both divisions of ACA, seemed to move closer to semi-independence. “I think we have enough in common to keep us together. We’re stronger politically and have a stronger voice when we’re together,” says Neukrug, an ACA member who has written eight books, the most recent being A Brief Orientation to Counseling: Professional Identity, History, and Standards.

Neukrug believes the efforts of the 20/20 initiative have been helpful in defining the profession more clearly, but he still sees topics that the profession needs to navigate, including the role of diagnosis, the role of assessment and the importance of one of the foundational elements of counseling — a focus on career. (Counseling Today’s January cover story, “Making life work,” looked at the ways that career topics can and should find their way into a variety of counseling settings.)

Nassar-McMillan agrees that diagnosis is an area the counseling profession hasn’t quite reconciled. A decade ago, when Nassar-McMillan served on ACA’s Professionalization Committee, she says the role of diagnosis consistently floated to the top of discussions. “Now, 20 years later, serving on the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs Standards Revision Committee, a typical discussion revolves around which standards should go into the ‘core’ versus ‘program areas’ — i.e., addictions counseling, career counseling, clinical mental health, school counseling, etc. — with diagnosis-type standards once again being perhaps among the most difficult to place. In other words, the concept of diagnosis seems to be a sticking point for our profession. Rather than accepting that diagnosis is done in all settings but to different degrees and in different setting-appropriate ways, we continue to be caught up in whether counseling ‘does’ diagnosis or whether it ‘does not.’”

Another topic that is generating and will likely continue to generate “identity” discussions among counselors is the field of coaching. “I think the air is full of confusion around this term,” Gladding says. “I would like to see it become a specialty in counseling. I think it is a lot like consultation … in that many different disciplines are involved and it is an atheoretical process. Although counseling cannot control what other disciplines do, it would be helpful if we had standards. I think the National Board for Certified Counselors has moved in this direction. The important point is that in the future, there needs to be a uniformity of education and experience if coaching is going to be a respected part of the helping professions, especially counseling.”

Know thyself

The importance of counselors possessing a strong professional identity is akin to individuals having a strong sense of self before putting themselves out on the dating scene, says Elizabeth Mellin, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education at Pennsylvania State University. “When counselors leave their training program and go out into practice, it’s common that they’ll be working with others in other helping professions. It’s important that we know who we are and what we are bringing to the table,” says Mellin, a member of ACA who co-authored the 2011 article “Counselor Professional Identity: Findings and Implications for Counseling and Interprofessional Collaboration,” published in the Journal of Counseling & Development. “When people aren’t clear on what they do and how that’s similar or different to what others do, it seems more often than not [that] stereotypes get enacted. We have to be very clear about who we are so that we can voice that in the work we do with others.”

Having a solid professional identity allows counselors to emerge from school and go into work settings feeling self-assured and capable of clearly articulating who they are and what they do, Mellin says. On the other hand, not having a clear, pre-existing idea of their own identity as professional counselors can lead to that identity being dictated and formed by their workplace instead, she says. Counselor educators are responsible for socializing new counselors into the profession, she says, and a large part of that socialization process is helping new counselors form their professional identities.

On an individual level, a strong professional identity is crucial to the self-esteem and attitude of each counselor, says Ritchie, who has been researching the topic of counselor identity for many years. “Asserting a strong professional identity sends the message that you are competent and that your services are important.”

In turn, counselor self-assurance benefits clients, Neukrug says. “When clients view you as an expert, [research shows] they tend to have better outcomes,” he says. “If they know you because there is an identity that goes along with ‘counselor,’ the client will say, ‘This is a field, this person has expertise, and I feel comfortable in sharing with this person.”

In teaching her Introduction to Counseling and Human Development class, Mellin pushes her students to think deeply about what it means to be a counselor. She often asks them to consider why a client would choose a counselor over a social worker or a psychologist, thereby also eliciting what drew those students to the counseling profession in the first place. “That gets into a gray area,” Mellin says. “Many of them don’t have any idea why they chose the program they did.” Although those students knew clearly that they wanted to be in a helping profession, their choices may have been based more on the schools they wanted to attend rather than on the draw of a specific program, she explains.

Mellin asks her students to look into the code of ethics, the training standards, the course work and the scope of practice for each of the helping professions, searching for places where the professions overlap and diverge. Students often tell Mellin they feel frustrated because, at first glance, they don’t notice significant differences. She views that frustration as a good thing. “It pushes them to focus, to figure out what is unique about our profession,” Mellin says. “It prepares them to advocate [for counseling] in a thoughtful way instead of just regurgitating what they read in a textbook.”

Mellin holds her own ideas about what counselor identity means and what counselors stand for, but she lets her students walk away with their own views. Some align with positive-oriented counseling theories, she says, while others identify with wellness or some other aspect of counseling. Although the 20/20 delegates worked hard to develop a common definition of counseling, Mellin believes professional identity remains a very personal thing. The professional identity that each counselor creates and clings to is ultimately an individual decision, she says. What her students walk away with and what they choose to emphasize in their individual work as counselors will be up to each of them, she says.

Even so, Mellin identifies a number of ways that counselors as a whole can build and strengthen professional identity, including understanding the history of the counseling profession, reviewing the work of the 20/20 initiative, reviewing the ACA Code of Ethics and comparing it with the ethics codes of other helping professions, and educating themselves on counseling’s scope of practice versus the scopes of other professions.

Nassar-McMillan points to a dissertation from Angela Shores, one of her recent doctoral advisees. Shores researched the professional identity of counselors-in-training, asking participants to rank the influence of a variety of factors on their professional development. “Among the top factors rated by students were being enrolled in a CACREP-accredited counseling program, exposure to professional organizations and conferences, and having faculty with strong counselor identities — [for example], degrees in counseling/counselor education, focused discussions on counselor identity, etc.,” Nassar-McMillan says. “Clearly, the shared history of the counseling profession as a whole, as well as knowledge about the history of the subprofessions, is an inherent aspect of understanding what the profession is today.”

Gladding agrees. “If you don’t know your history, the profession becomes a mystery for you,” he says. “Then you wonder, ‘Why am I doing this? How did this get to be this way?’” Gladding draws parallels to a person knowing his or her personal family heritage. “Counseling is the same way,” he says. “We are family in that respect. If you know your history, you’re empowered.”

Nassar-McMillan says Shores also found that mentoring, networking and collaborating with faculty and other counseling professionals played important roles in fostering professional counselor identity. “Thus, counselors-in-training would be well served to develop their professional networks and seek mentorship to support this development,” Nassar-McMillan says. “For new professionals, mentors undoubtedly continue to be important. Conversely, seasoned counselors and counselor educators need to take the role of mentorship seriously and intentionally seek to invite students and new professional counseling colleagues to collaborate and network. All of these collaboration efforts and networks will strengthen the profession of counseling at large.” (As a result of findings from a 2011 survey of ACA graduate student members, the ACA Graduate Student Committee kicked off a mentoring program last year. For more information on the program, email

Counselors with a robust sense of professional identity often take part in activities that further promote counselor identity, says Ritchie, a co-founder of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA. Counselors who possess this strong identity are more likely to advocate for their clients and the profession, he says, and to supervise counselor trainees and mentor new professionals, which in turn stands to strengthen the professional identity of those budding counselors. Counselors with a healthy professional identity are also more likely to be active members of professional associations, attend professional conferences and keep up to date in their work, Ritchie says. The result is a stronger profession for all counselors. “By joining professional associations like ACA, they increase the political clout of the association and the profession,” he says, “which can result in greater recognition of counselors.”

A unique space on common ground

Counseling is still the new kid on the block compared with other helping professions such as psychology and social work. Perhaps for that reason, Gladding says, some counselors seem to lack confidence when speaking about their own profession. “Sometimes people in the profession are unsure others will understand who they are if they just say counselor. Thus, they are sometimes hesitant to claim the profession as their identity,” Gladding says. “There have also been those who think they must initially modify the word counselor with adjectives. I think the best solution is to say something like, ‘I am a counselor. My specialty is …’ working with children or adults or with mental health issues, etc. By stating the name of the profession and the special interest or skills you have, others will understand. It is detrimental to claim you are ‘something like’ some other helping professional because then you have to backtrack, and you create a lot of confusion in the process.”

Mellin conducted a study with colleagues a few years ago mapping and comparing the competencies and training standards of counseling, social work and psychology. All three professions had competencies in seven shared areas, but each profession also had other areas in which it distinguished itself. For instance, Mellin says, social work stood out in the area of public policy and law, psychology stood out in evidence-based practices and counseling stood out in the area of cultural competence.

Although Mellin insists none of the three professions should be pigeonholed or stereotyped — for instance, she says, not all psychologists focus solely on pathology — she also points out that each profession’s training program is indeed a little different. “All three of these professions have a similar base of knowledge and information,” she says, “but we do have places where we can contribute in unique ways.” For example, Mellin points out, even though the current insurance reimbursement system still places more emphasis on pathology, counselors are trained to keep overall client wellness in mind, regardless of whether that focus officially makes it into the treatment plan or the paperwork submitted to insurance.

Neukrug sees counseling’s historical focus on career counseling and the perspectives of wellness, development and multiculturalism as unique among the helping professions. That doesn’t mean that other helping professions ignore those perspectives entirely, he emphasizes, or that counseling somehow needs to lay sole claim to those perspectives to justify their inclusion at the core of counselor identity.

Although counseling and other helping professions sometimes seem to parallel one another, Nassar-McMillan sees something distinctive about a counseling approach. “If people, including my students, wonder about the difference between counselors and social workers or psychologists, I explain that we all might end up in similar settings or even positions, but that the training and philosophy of counseling is different,” she says. “To simplify, I might explain that psychology tends to follow more of a medical model, in which the psychologist is the expert, guides the therapeutic intervention and focuses primarily on diagnosis and treatment. The social worker often focuses on contextual factors and systems in an effort to identify and engage support systems for the client and/or family. While counselors’ tasks might also be described in similar ways, the underlying assumption in counseling is that the client is the expert and that the counselor’s role is to facilitate clients’ self-understanding and self-empowerment and that there tends to be a greater focus on counselor-client relationship. Thus, while counselors can and do provide diagnosis and treatment, the orientation is on developmental tasks and crisis intervention rather than pathology.”

When conversations concerning the differences between counselors and other helping professionals take a more biting and aggressive tone, Neukrug admits to feeling a sense of frustration. “I think we’re different, [but] I don’t think we’re dramatically different. The conversation feels old to me,” he says. “There’s this animosity toward psychologists, but we’re all mental health professionals with degrees that cover more or less the same things. I don’t think psychologists are sitting around talking about counselors, [so] how come we’re always worried about them? I get the sense that a lot of people think psychologists are out to get rid of counselors today. They certainly have done things to undermine counselors over the years, but for the most part, they don’t sit around worrying about counselors and they don’t mind the coexistence of counselors. Counselors have found their own place in the mental health field. [I just want] to say, ‘Let it go.’ We know who we are. It’s separate from psychologists and social workers, but it’s [also] similar in many ways, and we’re all in this together.”

In fact, Neukrug says, it is important for counselors to recognize that counseling is intertwined with the other helping professions. He wants counselors to know what their profession has adapted from social work (a view on systems and elements of casework), from psychology (early theories, skills and research) and from psychiatry (diagnostic systems and psychopharmacology). In turn, he says, counselors should understand and be proud of how their profession has informed the other respective helping professions on perspectives regarding wellness, career, development and multiculturalism.

Ritchie, an ACA fellow, takes a different view. “Over the years, counselors have attempted to address [counselor identity] by defining philosophies or techniques that are supposedly unique to counselors,” he says. “So you hear some folks state that counselors work from a wellness model as opposed to a sickness model, that we stress social justice or multiculturalism. In reality, many psychologists and social workers follow the same philosophies and use the same techniques as counselors.”

What truly separates counseling from the other professions, Ritchie says, are the training standards and scopes of practice as defined by licensure. He believes this needs to be addressed for the sake of counselors’ overall professional identity. “Psychologists are trained and supervised by psychologists and attain a doctorate from an [American Psychological Association]-approved program to be licensed. Social workers are trained and supervised by social workers in a Council for Social Work Education-approved program. Counselors are licensed at the master’s level but are not required to have graduated from a CACREP-accredited program. If the training program is not accredited by CACREP, it is possible that many of the instructors and supervisors [in that program] are not counselors.”

“While the scope of practice of psychologists and social workers is fairly standard,” Ritchie continues, “the scope of practice of licensed professional counselors varies widely from one state to the next. In some states, licensed counselors can diagnose and treat independently, while in other states they may have to be credentialed as a ‘limited licensed psychologist.’ Until counselor licensure boards follow suit with other health professions and require graduation from a CACREP-accredited program, the profession will remain fragmented and lack a clear counselor professional identity.”

Licensure education requirements and counselor scope of practice are two areas the 20/20 initiative is attempting to address currently. At the ACA Annual Conference in San Francisco last year, the 20/20 delegates endorsed a preference for having a single educational accrediting body. In addition, a work group of 20/20 delegates has been reviewing a content analysis of counselor scopes of practice across all 50 states in an effort to develop a consensus scope of practice statement that will reflect not only what tasks counselors are already performing but also those tasks that counselors might be trained for but are not yet allowed to carry out. The goal is for the 20/20 delegates to reach consensus on both standard licensure education requirements and a standard counselor scope of practice at the ACA 2013 Conference & Expo in Cincinnati in March.

Counselor first

If the goal is to secure one overall professional counselor identity, where do counseling specialties fit into that equation? Do these specialties strengthen or complicate the idea of professional counselor identity? The answer to the second question, Mellin believes, is both.

In an individual counseling setting, Mellin says a counselor’s identity as a “specialist” — for example, as a school counselor — can offer more detail concerning what that counselor offers in that particular setting. On a broader level, however, it can lead to confusion for the public, she says. For example, questions are likely to arise about whether being a school counselor (or any other type of “specialty” counselor) means going through the same training as other counselors.

Considering that the word counselor is already used generically in many other settings — financial counselor and diet counselor being just two prominent examples — a great deal of confusion already exists at the public level, Mellin says. She thinks identifying as a professional counselor first, rather than by specialty, is the way to go. “Our title is already split and misunderstood in so many ways,” she says. “When we use our specialization over our general title, we contribute to that confusion.”

Gladding agrees. “The noun has to come before the adjective,” he says. “Counselor has to come before whatever modifier — I’m a counselor who works this way or is involved in this area. But first and foremost, I’m a counselor. If you go specialty first, then you become fragmented. You become less of a profession.”

In an effort to communicate one core counselor identity, the 20/20 delegates voted in favor of adopting “Licensed Professional Counselor” as the designated licensure title for counselors at the 2012 ACA Conference in San Francisco.

Returning to an earlier point, Nassar-McMillan says that specialty groups splintering off from ACA would further impede the broader professional identity that counselors across all settings need to be successful. “For example,” she says, “the lack of agreement about whether school counselors are ‘the same as’ versus ‘different from’ other counselors has caused rifts within the school counseling profession [and], thus, the whole profession of counseling, thereby weakening the profession [and making it susceptible to] attack by outside entities who are quick to attempt to overtake turf that is not firmly defended. For example, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has in the last decade created and supported a counseling credential, which some states now recognize [and] consider in pay grades and the like. This credential was developed without input from our professional organizations or counseling professionals and [only] requires a bachelor’s degree. The creation of this credential has made it much easier and more convenient for state-level entities to undermine and dismantle the standards set by counseling organizations themselves.”

Psychology and medicine each have a host of different specialties, Ritchie points out, yet their practitioners maintain a firm identity as psychologists or doctors first. “We should aspire to the same [level of] strong identity as professional counselors,” he says. “It will begin by states standardizing training and other requirements for licensed professional counselors. This will allow for portability and will result in a national legal definition of a licensed professional counselor. Under that umbrella, counselors can pursue specialties that are within their scope of practice. Subgroups that do not possess a strong professional counselor identity, such as graduates with master’s degrees in psychology, currently pursue licensure as counselors, particularly when they cannot be licensed or recognized by their own professions. This will not strengthen the professional identity of counselors and will impede efforts for uniform licensure. Specialties that do identify with counseling, such as school counseling and marriage and family counseling, can take similar steps to [pursue] uniform licensure and certification, which will result in greater recognition and a stronger professional identity.”

‘United we stand’

Looking ahead, Gladding believes professional counselor identity must crystallize for the profession to continue making gains within society and at the legislative level. “Legislators want to deal with professions [and] society wants to deal with professions,” Gladding says. “If you don’t have that professional identity, you really don’t have people who want to work with you or know who you are. All you have is confusion.”

Nassar-McMillan says enhanced counselor identity and unity stand to benefit not only counselors but also society. The profession must know itself in order to communicate that “self” effectively to consumers and potential clients, she says. “Frankly, I am amazed by the strides that have been made in terms of achieving counselor parity within large-scale organizations such as [the Department of Veterans Affairs], TRICARE and other major medical insurance providers and panels, despite the divisiveness within the profession over its history, and especially in the past decade or two. The education of the public and subsequent deeper understanding of counseling as a profession have served to benefit all counselors across settings and divisions. I worry about dialogue that continues to splinter the profession, such as the notion of two separate doctoral degrees in counseling. I continue to believe that the profession needs to focus on the ways in which we are the same, not different. That holds true for counselor education as well as counseling.”

The costs are too high for counseling not to aim toward greater unity and a common identity, Ritchie says. “United we stand, divided we fall. There are other helping professions competing for our clients and our positions in the workforce. They already have strong professional identities and high membership in their professional associations, which results in effective lobbying and political clout. We have witnessed this time and again in our attempts for counselor licensure and recognition. We are making headway, but as long as counselors are confused about their identity, unwilling to join their professional associations and unable to speak with one voice, we will be marginalized.”

The profession has further to go in this effort, Ritchie says. “Historically, counseling has had a big-tent approach where everyone is welcome regardless of their training or primary professional identity. One can become a ‘professional member’ of ACA without holding a degree in counseling. Unfortunately, all the inclusiveness has resulted in role confusion, multiple voices and divided loyalties. As a result, the public is not sure of who we are and what we do. Consequently, the public is less likely to recognize us as qualified to provide services. Recognized criteria for a profession include ethical standards, standards of accredited training and licensure. All other helping professions meet these criteria. Counseling has ethical standards and all states have counselor licensure, but [our] requirements and scopes of practice are far from standardized and do not require graduation from a CACREP-accredited program. If we want to be recognized as approved providers, we have to develop standards of training and scopes of practice that are uniform and recognized by the public. Only then will we develop a unified, strong professional counselor identity.”

As the field presses on, tackles these issues and seeks answers to complicated questions, Gladding says the key is to keep the lines of communication open so that all counselors will better understand their own profession. “It is important for professional counselors to have an identity that is strong and respected. The only way to get there is through continued dialogue,” he says. “Counseling is past its adolescence and into adulthood. It is important for all counselors to know the history of the profession and how we evolved, and to claim what we are now as well as where we are going. Those counselors who do not know the history of the profession are confused [about] who they are … what the profession is and where we are going. I think this is less a problem than it [once] was, but it is still out there. Education is enlightening. Conversations on identity are educational and worth having. We are moving forward and need to make sure we are stronger yet by helping those who do not understand the profession to become more grounded.”

To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

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