Counselor Professional Identity

Being a professional counselor means being a part of a larger profession, with established training standards, ethical codes, and overall identity. On this page we will explore what it means to be a professional counselor, and we will introduce the major organizations that help to define counselor professional identity.

The American Counseling Association

The American Counseling Association (ACA) is the largest professional counseling organization in the world. Counselors who join the ACA agree to uphold the ACA Code of Ethics. Benefits of membership include access to the peer-reviewed Journal of Counseling and Development and the Counseling Today magazine.

ACA members can also join divisions, which are groups of counselors who are interested in counseling specialties. One of the largest divisions is the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

The 20/20 Vision Statement

20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling was the culmination of effort from 31 different professional counseling organizations, who came together from 2005 through 2013 to develop a strategic plan for the continued advancement and development of the counseling profession. This American Counseling Association (ACA) sponsored task force developed a single consensus definition of counseling as well as key issues for continuing to advance the counseling profession.

Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.
(Kaplan, Tarvydas, & Gladding, 2014, p. 368)

  1. Strengthening identity
  2. Presenting ourselves as one profession
  3. Improving public perception/recognition and advocating for professional issues
  4. Creating licensure portability
  5. Expanding and promoting the research base of professional counseling
  6. Focusing on students and prospective students
  7. Promoting client welfare and advocacy
(Kaplan & Gladding, 2011, p. 371)

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)

Part of what defines the counseling profession is a consistent set of knowledge and skills that counselors possess. CACREP accredits professional counseling programs, so that graduates from those programs are able to demonstrate that they met established training criteria. Multiple state licensure boards have recognized the value in accredited education, and they have required that applicants for licensure show that the graduated from a CACREP accredited program or demonstrate that their degree from a non-accredited program met CACREP requirements.

The CACREP Standards define eight areas that are core to the professional counseling identity:

  1. Professional counseling orientation and ethical practice
  2. Social and cultural diversity
  3. Human growth and development
  4. Career development
  5. Counseling and helping relationships
  6. Group counseling and group work
  7. Assessment and testing
  8. Research and program evaluation

In addition to defining training standards that represent a core professional identity, CACREP also provides standards for training counselors in the following specialty areas:

  • Addiction Counseling
  • Career Counseling
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling
  • College Counseling and Student Affairs
  • Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling
  • School Counseling
  • Rehabilitation Counseling

The National Board for Certified Counselors

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) publishes the National Counselor Exam (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam (NCMHCE). Most states require one of these exams for licensure as a professional counselor.

In addition to publishing licensure exams, NBCC also endorses counselors through their certification programs. NBCC certifications include:

  • Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC)
  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC)
  • Masters Addiction Counselor (MAC)
  • National Certified School Counselor (NCSC)

Note that certification is different from licensure, as licensure happens through state governments. However, there are efforts by the ACA and NBCC to increase license portability, so that counselors who are licensed in one state can easily obtain licensure in the other 49 states. The NCC credential has been suggested as a foundation for licensure portability, as NCCs must pass the NCE, agree to uphold the NBCC Code of Ethics, and complete post-degree continuing education. Starting on January 1st, 2022, anyone applying for certification through NBCC will have to hold a degree from a CACREP accredited program.