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Have you ever felt like you were bottling up things that bothered you? Maybe you’re having trouble with a teacher, or you’re feeling pressure from your family to excel academically. Maybe your romantic partner has been distant lately, or you feel left out because your friends hung out without you after school yesterday. Even seemingly small things can add up and start to bring you down.

“I use [a counselor] to learn coping skills and talk out my issues, I’d recommend it to any high schooler who has heightened stress levels.” —Thomas*, a senior in Miami, FloridaYou don’t need to be in the midst of a crisis to benefit from talking with your school counselor or a therapist in your community. Just voicing your concerns, frustrations, or future plans can positively impact your mood and help keep stress at bay. “I use [a counselor] to learn coping skills and talk out my issues,” says Thomas*, a senior in Miami, Florida. “I’d recommend it to any high schooler who has heightened stress levels.”

Science backs up the benefits of therapy for helping students deal with depression, anxiety, and stress. Plus, it could even help your grades. In a 2018 study, 65 percent of college students who received counseling said it boosted their academic performance.

“I was able to seek help and quiet my anxiety. Sometimes it’s a comfort just knowing someone cares.”
—Natasha*, junior, Virginia

Reasons to see a school professional counselor or therapist

There’s a common misperception that the only people who work with professional counselors are those with serious mental health concerns. In truth, anyone can benefit from having a place to talk and focus on themselves. According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, over 43 percent of high school students say they’ve used the services of a school counselor or therapist.

What kinds of problems are students dealing with? According to data on the issues people report to counselors, the most common reasons for counseling are:

Anxiety 59%
Depression 48%
Stress 47%
Relationship problems 30%
Family issues 29%
Suicidal thoughts 28%
Academic performance problems 28%
Sleep problems 19%
Loneliness 19%

You might also want to talk with a counselor if:

  • You want to be more assertive
  • You want to feel better about your body or yourself in general
  • You’re having trouble concentrating
  • You’re overwhelmed by all your responsibilities
  • You want to talk about something that happened recently or in the past
  • You want to talk about your use of alcohol or other drugs
  • Someone has hurt you—emotionally, physically, sexually, or in another way
  • You need a confidential place to share your feelings and experiences

This is just the beginning. There really isn’t anything you can’t talk about with a counselor.

“Your counselor can help you in a variety of areas—academic, social, emotional,” says Joe Attubato, guidance director and counselor at Burlington High School in Vermont. “We are here to get to know you, build a relationship with you (and your family), and when it comes time to decide on classes, college, or any difficult situation, we can help you work on ways to handle it and make a decision.”

Is a counselor the same thing as a therapist?

“Counselor” is a catchall term for people who have been professionally trained to listen and help people. Sometimes called “therapists,” there are different types of counselors, with different degrees. Within high school counseling centers, you’re likely to find:

  • Social workers
  • Psychologists
  • Licensed mental health professional/professional clinical counselors

Usually students will meet with a social worker, psychologist, or licensed counselor for their sessions. Some schools even have psychiatrists or psychiatric nurse practitioners on staff part time for supporting students who might need medication. If your school doesn’t, don’t worry—in the case where a counselor feels that you might need a prescription, they’ll guide you on how to meet with a psychiatrist.

Some people think, or hope, that a counselor will solve their problems or tell them what to do. While some will make suggestions, their main focus is on helping students figure out what they want to do and how they want to do it.

Some counselors do more listening than talking, and others ask many questions. Overall, the goal is to get to know you and what you’re hoping to accomplish by meeting. You will be encouraged to build a toolbox of skills that you can use in many areas of your life. A counselor’s goal is for you to feel confident and balanced—in short, to be your best self.

What to expect at a counseling session

“Counselors try our best to make a student feel comfortable,” says Attubato. “We allow students to speak their mind and not worry about repercussions.”

In your first session, which will probably last about an hour, your counselor will ask questions about what made you decide to make an appointment. They’ll probably also ask some questions about your family and your experiences in general so they can get to know you. The goal here is to help you feel at ease and put your current situation into context.

This is also your opportunity to share how you’re feeling. The job of a counselor is to be nonjudgmental, so there’s no need to be embarrassed or feel shame about anything you want to share. No matter how strange, shocking, sad, funny, difficult, or sensitive it is, they’re prepared to hear about it.

guy shaking hands with counselor

Almost everything you tell a counselor is confidential. If they’d like to share something with another practitioner, you’ll be asked for your consent in writing. The only exception to this rule is if you are in immediate danger of hurting yourself or someone else.

“Many times, I try to be honest with students, and if a call home is needed, I often ask the student if they want to be present when I call or if they would like to call,” says Attubato.

After this initial “intake” appointment, you’ll likely set up another time to meet with your counselor. In the next meeting(s), you’ll continue to talk about what’s bothering you and work together to resolve the issues.

If you’d benefit from more time in therapy than the school counselor can offer, or your counselor feels you should see a different type of professional, you’ll be provided with a referral. If you’re under 18, though, you will likely need your parent’s permission to see a therapist. It can be tough talking to your family about getting help or scheduling your first therapy appointment, but remember that it’s always OK to ask for help, and the sooner you do it, the better. Try bringing it up casually when everyone is in a good mood and explaining what you’re feeling and that you’d like to see a therapist about it. You don’t need to go into a lot of detail about what you’re going through, but let them know that you think you could use some professional help. If they don’t agree the first time you bring it up, try asking again. If that still doesn’t work, find another adult you trust who may be able to help by talking to your parents about it.

Online counseling is also an option, and it makes some people feel more at ease. Talk to a parent about looking into reputable, nationwide providers, like Talkspace or BetterHelp. Both have therapists specializing in teen issues, and they’ll even help match you to an online counselor who’s just right for your situation.

If you don’t connect

Working with a counselor is something that requires trust and openness. Just like in any other relationship, you might not connect with the first person you meet. This is completely OK and something counselors are accustomed to hearing. It’s important to find someone you connect with and trust—studies have even shown that it’s one of the most important factors in therapy success rates.

If you’d like to try talking with someone different, tell the counselor and/or the person who makes appointments. You can simply say that you think you might get more out of the experience with someone who has a different approach. If you describe what you’re looking for, you’ll likely get a recommendation. Sometimes it can take a few tries to find the right match, and that’s normal. If you aren’t connecting with your school counselor and aren’t able to switch to someone else, ask for a recommendation for a counselor in your community who specializes in teen issues.

“[Fit is] very important! If you can’t find a mental health professional who is good for you, you won’t gain anything out of it.”
—Crystal*, junior, Tavares, Florida

Counselors and therapists are great resources, no matter what it is you’d like to work on. There is no issue too small or too big. Reaching out to talk is something students do every day. If you need support, it’s likely as close as a few steps down the hall.

*Names changed.

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Article sources

Ali Yates, North County Campus CaFE Counselor & CMC Counselor at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California.

American College Health Association. (2018, Fall). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Undergraduate student reference group data report. Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_Fall_2018_Undergraduate_Reference_Group_Data_Report.pdf

National Survey of Student Engagement. (2018). Engagement insights: Survey findings on the quality of undergraduate education. Retrieved from http://nsse.indiana.edu/NSSE_2018_Results/pdf/NSSE_2018_Annual_Results.pdf

Stamoulos, C., Trepanier, L., Bourkas, S., Bradley, S., et al. (2016). Psychologists’ perceptions of the importance of common factors in psychotherapy for successful treatment outcomes. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 26(3), 300–317. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-30467-001

Student Health 101 survey, July 2019.

CampusWell. (2018). Talk it out: The science behind therapy and how it can help you. Retrieved from http://campuswell.com/the-science-behind-therapy/

The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. (2018). Annual Survey Results. Retrieved from https://www.aucccd.org/assets/documents/Survey/2018%20AUCCCD%20Survey-Public-June%2012-FINAL.pdf