Published on: 26 Jul 2023
Mental health counselor challenges are an often-overlooked aspect of the profession, and they can significantly impact both physical and emotional well-being. Left unaddressed, the most common challenges can affect how well you’re able to do your job. Knowing how to set boundaries, practice self-care for therapists, and implement other strategies can help.
Read on to learn how to combat common counseling challenges and be the best therapist possible for your patients.
Common problems faced by counselors include things like:
- Finding work-life balance
- Client resistance and lack of engagement
- Multicultural competence
- Vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress
- Professional development
- Confidentiality and ethical dilemmas
- Crisis intervention
- Limited resources
- Emotional resilience
- Insurance limitations
1. Finding Work-Life Balance
As a mental health professional, one common challenge most therapists face is finding work-life balance. Everything from long hours to high caseloads to emotionally draining sessions makes the role of a therapist incredibly taxing. So, maintaining a healthy work-life balance is a critical skill for you to master.
Strategies to help you find work-life balance — you can enhance your therapist work-life balance by:
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- Setting boundaries between personal and professional life
- Prioritizing self care practices
- Engaging in hobbies
Why it’s so essential: Achieving a more balanced lifestyle helps maintain your commitment to helping others before burnout.
2. Client Resistance and Lack of Engagement
Lack of client engagement is one of the hardest challenges of being a therapist. There are many reasons for a client not to engage in their treatment. They may not want to be there — for example, if their therapy is court-ordered — or they might be in denial or unable to accept what’s happening in their life at the moment — which might be likely if they or someone they love has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. They could’ve had a negative therapy experience in the past, as well. Client resistance can look like someone who’s:
- Unresponsive to your questions
- Unwilling to share personal information
- Resistant to “going deep” with you
- Adverse to following through with your treatment recommendations
Strategies to help you — some ways to re-engage clients include:
- Building rapport and trust by showing empathy
- Using motivational interviewing techniques
- Exploring the underlying cause of the resistance
- Going back to the basics and providing psychoeducation about the benefits therapy can offer
Why it’s so essential: When you help your clients engage with their treatment, you’re helping them grow in their recovery, which is why you chose this profession in the first place.
“At times, clients can be resistant to engaging in therapy. There are many reasons, such as mandated or court-ordered therapy or therapy doctors recommend due to a medical condition. When this happens, the therapist can address it with the client and alleviate some of their concerns around therapy or simply explain how therapy can benefit them.”
3. Multicultural Competence
When you’re equipped to work with clients from diverse backgrounds, you’ll be able to overcome common counselor challenges by understanding and respecting different cultures. Developing cultural sensitivity helps you recognize your own biases and limitations — some of which you may not even be aware of — so you can be sensitive to others’ perspectives.
Strategies to help you — you can assume and enhance your multicultural competence by:
- Actively seeking out education on various cultures
- Being open to learning from clients
Why it’s so essential: Culturally adapted interventions can help you improve treatment for superior health outcomes.
4. Vicarious Trauma and Secondary Traumatic Stress
One of the biggest counseling challenges for many mental health professionals is learning to manage vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress. This can occur when you have clients who’ve experienced significant or distressing trauma. The reaction can be similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can manifest in intrusive thoughts or dreams connected to a client’s experiences.
Strategies to help you — you can prevent vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress as a mental health professional by:
- Making self care a priority
- Creating clear boundaries
- Seeking professional help from a trusted colleague
- Participating in professional development opportunities that focus on managing vicarious trauma
- Maintaining a strong support network
Why it’s so essential: Recognizing the signs of secondary traumatic stress early on, and implementing coping strategies proactively, will ensure you can continue providing quality care while protecting your emotional well-being.
“During COVID, many therapists experienced vicarious trauma as they were also experiencing or directly relating to what their clients were going through. It made therapy challenging and rewarding in many ways, as healing could happen for the client and the therapist.”
5. Professional Development
Looking for ways to become a better therapist? Don’t stop learning. Mental health professionals must continue building competencies and understanding to deliver the best care and services. By staying current and up-to-date with new trends, developments, and research in the field, you can enhance your skills as a therapist.
Strategies to help you — there are several ways to keep up with your professional development, including:
- Attending relevant education events
- Joining professional associations that offer continuing education opportunities
- Staying informed of the latest research and studies
- Pursuing new certifications and advanced degrees
- Creating a network of colleagues you can share ideas with
Why it’s so essential: Professional development is crucial in the mental health field — it lets you keep up with the newest information, trends, and therapies so you can provide effective treatment plans best-tailored to every client’s needs.
It’s not uncommon for mental health professionals to suffer from burnout — it’s one of the most prevalent problems faced by counselors. A recent study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that almost half (45%) of mental health practitioners have signs of burnout. This is often due to the intense emotional requirements of your job, but it can also be attributed to long work hours and heavy patient loads.
Strategies to help you — fortunately, there are several things you can do to help you effectively manage therapist burnout before it becomes a problem. Try the following:
- Prioritizing hobbies, relaxation, and spending time with friends and people you enjoy
- Creating and enforcing boundaries to ensure you’re taking enough “me time”
- Getting support from others who understand counselor challenges
- Focusing on healthy living habits like eating well, getting enough sleep, and working out to balance your stress and anxiety
Why it’s so essential: Tackling and avoiding burnout is crucial if you want a long career as a therapist. If you don’t learn to manage symptoms of burnout, you can’t possibly do as much for your clients as you want to.
7. Confidentiality and Ethical Dilemmas
Almost every therapist realizes that confidentiality and ethical dilemmas are some of the most challenging aspects of the job. You might need to break confidentiality if one of your clients intends to harm themselves or others.
While every potential breach of confidentiality must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, staying informed on ethical guidelines — for example, those set forth by the professional organization American Psychological Association (APA) — will help guide your decisions.
Strategies to help you — in addition to following the APA guidelines, if you’re struggling with an ethical or confidentiality dilemma with a patient, you can also try:
- Attending seminars or sessions geared toward knowledge of current standards
- Seeking consultation from a supervisor, colleague, or another trusted member of the profession to gain valuable insight
Why it’s so essential: Staying on top of the ethical challenges of counseling will help you feel confident if you ever need to make difficult decisions in the best interest of your clients. It’ll ensure you can provide responsible, effective services.
8. Crisis Intervention
If you ever face a client in crisis — for example, someone having suicidal thoughts or expressing self-harm tendencies — you need to be able to think quickly and have proven intervention strategies ready to go.
Strategies to help you — strategies for addressing patients in crisis can include:
- Educating yourself on intervention techniques through workshops, seminars, or online resources
- Creating a safety plan that’s personalized for high-risk patients that you can instantly deploy if ever needed
- Outlining coping strategies, support networks, and emergency contacts for high-risk patients (before they’re needed)
- Collaborating with other professionals you trust to review your response and be a sounding board
Why it’s so essential: Being able to put in place timely interventions might prevent a client from harming themself — it may even potentially save a life. Be ready to address critical situations by offering immediate support before it’s needed.
“Crisis intervention is a skill that most therapists have, but at the same time, they don’t want to use. It means their client is not doing well and could be engaging in self-harm, harming others, or thinking of ending their life. Crisis intervention helps to take the client out of a crisis by the therapist providing support and resources to help the client.”
9. Limited Resources
As a professional counselor, the challenge of restricted or limited resources can hinder your ability and capacity to deliver the most effective care and support to your clients. Lack of funding, lack of access to materials and items you need, and inadequate staff are just some of the resource issues mental health counselors face.
Strategies to help you — the following methods can help you combat the limited resources you might be facing in your practice:
- Partnering with an online platform to offer affordable, convenient online counseling services means less overhead and no time or money spent on marketing yourself, so you can focus on doing what you love – helping people.
- Collaborating with other professionals will allow you to find solutions for clients that you may not have otherwise been able to provide.
- Seeking out the latest therapeutic techniques means you can offer the newest, most effective care plans for optimal healing.
Why it’s so essential: By staying persistent and focusing on overcoming obstacles that stem from limited resources, you’ll enhance your personal growth as a therapist and improve your clients’ health outcomes.
10. Emotional Resilience
Working with clients who are navigating extreme trauma recovery can be one of the more intense emotional challenges of counseling. Maintaining resilience is critical if you’re going to avoid compassion fatigue or burnout.
Strategies to help you — some of the more effective ways to establish emotional resilience include:
- Engaging in activities that are self-nurturing, like doing hobbies you enjoy or working out
- Practicing mindful meditation
- Socializing with others
- Take time off
Why it’s so essential: Fostering emotional resilience lets you protect your own mental well-being while continuing to offer compassionate care.
“Therapists need to take care of their own mental health to be present for their clients. If a therapist is struggling with burnout or compassion fatigue, then they cannot be as effective with their clients. Therapists should take breaks, do self care, or go on vacation so that they can be the best version of themselves with their clients.”
11. Insurance Limitations
Dealing with insurance can be a significant source of anxiety and stress for mental health professionals. Insurance companies often impose restrictions on the number of sessions, modalities of care, and types of treatment covered. They may require extensive documentation to justify the services you provide. The burden can weigh heavily and ultimately prevent you from being able to extend the types of care you strive to offer.
Strategies to help you — you can learn to deal with insurance companies by:
- Staying informed about changes to insurance coverage
- Educating your clients about coverage options
- Considering offering a sliding scale fee to encourage people to pay out-of-pocket
- Partner with an online therapy platform (such as Talkspace) that will deal with insurance for you
Why it’s so essential: Navigating the ins and outs of insurance can be exhausting, but addressing limitations head-on and becoming more informed about the processes can reduce the strain on you, your practice, and your clients.
Overcome Obstacles in Your Career with Talkspace
Talkspace is an online therapy platform that can help you overcome some of the challenges of being a therapist. When you become a Talkspace therapist, you can work flexible hours that are best for your needs and lifestyle. This allows you to maintain a work-life balance that can be difficult to achieve when you run a private practice. The intuitive platform makes interaction with clients simple and straightforward. Talkspace therapists don’t have to deal with insurance alone, they have flexible hours, and they don’t have the headaches of billing and other administrative work — they also don’t have to market themselves as much.
When you recognize and can appropriately and effectively address the struggles of being a counselor, you can focus on being the best therapist possible, offering your clients the best chance they have to heal.
You’ve chosen a rewarding but admittedly challenging profession. The service you do to help others does not go unnoticed. When times are trying and you feel overwhelmed, remember how much of a difference you make.
- Practitioners are overworked and burned out, and they need our support. Monitor on Psychology. Accessed June 6, 2023. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2023/04/psychologists-covid-burnout.
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