Q&A with Psychotherapist and Wellness Speaker, Judith Belmont, MS, LPC
Q: What is your current position?
I have a master's degree in clinical psychology, and I'm a psychotherapist as well as the author of Tips and Tools for the Therapeutic Toolbox for other therapists. Also, I am a speaker on wellness issues for organizations and companies.
Q: What is mental health counseling and how is it different than other types of psychology?
A lot of the time people think if you go into psychology, you're going to be a counselor. But, there are a lot of disciplines within the field. Mental health counseling is a big umbrella - under that you could have social workers, counseling psychologists, clinical psychologists, educational psychologists, and a lot of other mental health practitioners who don't necessarily need to have a master's degree or a doctorate.
Q: In your work what is an average day like?
If you work in a mental health clinic or agency, a typical day is going to be very different than if you're in a private practice. A typical day at an agency includes seeing clients. They're usually called clients instead of patients. There might also be some group or individual supervision and other types of meetings. Then, there will often be a lot of documentation. Even though you might work a 40-hour work week, you might not actually be seeing people more than 20 hours a week.
I have my own practice, so I have a much more flexible schedule. Basically, I spend some time billing, but other than that it's direct patient or client contact. I see mostly adults. I see a lot of couples, and once in a while I see them with their children if they want to work on parenting issues or family issues.
Q: What are some of the challenges you work on with your clients?
I think there are general themes that a lot of people struggle with including trouble communicating with people and problems in relationships. I do a lot of what I consider psycho-educational, life skills training. I teach people how to communicate better. For example, I have handouts to give clients hands-on tools for communicating better. We do role-plays. On the worksheets I give them, they can see examples of assertive, aggressive, and nonassertive communication. They have it in black and white, and we go over it together. It helps them to identify the kind of communication problem they have and how they need to change it in order to communicate better.
The other main issue that I see is self-esteem problems. A lot of the time people don't feel as good about themselves as they can. They often compare themselves to others. Just yesterday, I had this woman who was crying because she just felt like she was worthless because of some of the mistakes she had made in her past. Low self-esteem seems to permeate peoples' mindsets so that they don't necessarily think very clearly.
Q: In general, are there any specific traits that work well for someone hoping to specialize in mental health counseling?
I would absolutely say that you have to be interested in working with people if you want to go into mental health counseling. If you want to be good at what you do, you need to be active, not passive. I'm seeing a client now who I've been seeing for about four years, and the person she saw before, she saw for about 10 years. She said that she didn't learn that much from that other person because she was like a friend. They developed a great rapport, but she didn't offer life skill tools. I would say that the sign of the best therapists is offering life skill tools to people. Also, you need to be insight-oriented and interested in looking behind the scenes - the 90 percent behind the 10 percent symptom.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you about the profession before you entered it?
I was very lucky that right after I graduated from grad school I needed to find a complement to a 25-hour per week job that I had at a mental health center. I ended up just trying to make ends meet and got another job at a YWCA where they did assertiveness training. That started a whole career for me in speaking. No one told me about this, and I just lucked into it. Workplace wellness has been a passion of mine and has really been a focus for many years.
Q: What are some of the challenges that psychologist in the field today face?
I think it's becoming more and more difficult to deal with insurance companies. Probably, the least interesting part of my job is doing billing. I don't do it often, and I put it off a lot. The cap that insurance companies put on therapy is frustrating. I'm not accepting insurance anymore for that reason. I will have a lot less people, but I will be able to focus on them more, and I won't have to worry about dealing with insurance companies.
Q: What do you see for the future of this field?
I think the future is very bright because there is less of a stigma on mental health counseling. Sometimes it's almost considered a status symbol to go to a therapist. Therapy is almost becoming more like coaching. I consider myself a coach as well as a therapist. When you think about therapy 20 or 30 years ago, you might think of someone lying on a sofa and going back into his or her past. There is definitely a place for going back into the past, but we want to bring the issue to now and how it affects you now. We all need to do some psychological unpacking.
Q: You're currently an entrepreneur - can you tell me about how you moved into this role and the challenges and opportunities it presents?
The thing that I think is so amazing about being in the counseling field is that there is so much you can do with it and there are so many vehicles that you can find if you're creative. The field of psychology has been very good to me because I made it good by pursuing my interests. I kept on evolving, I was flexible and I kept on rethinking what I wanted to do. I'll give you an example - when my last child was going away to college, I thought that this was the time to be more of a speaker. I got a flyer in the mail for a seminar about mood disorders. I thought, "I could speak on that," so I called up the number and I ended up being a national seminar trainer.
Q: What are the critical questions potential students should ask themselves before entering the field?
I think they should ask themselves why they are going into this field. They should make sure they are really interested in helping people. If you are not interested in finding out more about yourself, you're probably not going to be as open to really understanding enough about other people.
Q: Any other particular recommendations for aspiring mental health counselors?
Be flexible. Try to have fun with it, and separate yourself from some of the problems that you see. Make sure you guard against that medical student syndrome in which you feel like you're more messed up than you thought you were when you went into the field.