The History of Mental Health Counseling: 1800s – Present Day

Description of the Mental Health Counselor

Most of us are familiar with the terms psychologist, psychiatrist, and social worker. Fewer of us have heard the term mental health counselor and consequently may not be aware of the service provided by this professional. The American Mental Health Counseling Association defines the profession as “A distinct profession with national standards for education, training, and clinical practice.

As highly skilled professionals, clinical mental health counselors provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy. They combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution.” Although currently a well-defined and accepted profession, this has not always been the case.

A Professional Identity

Many label it as the youngest profession in the field of mental health services; it has a short but bold history. Counselors have been around for many years, however, only recently have they created and solidified their professional identity and the purpose of this discussion is to review the journey towards this goal by looking at significant historical events that made it possible.

Late 1800s

  • The Counseling profession emerges as vocational guidance in response to the Industrial Revolution and social reform movements.

Early 1900s

  • Frank Parsons, considered by many as the father of vocational guidance, opens the Bureau of Vocational Guidance in Boston. The Bureau’s mission was to help match individuals with suitable careers based on their skills and personal traits. 


  • Clifford Beers, the leader of the mental health movement, establishes the first mental health clinic in America. He advocated for the more humane treatment of institutionalized patients with psychological disorders.


  • During this decade, owing in part to World War II, there is a need for counselors and psychologists to help the government select and train specialists for military and industrial work placements. In addition, the United States Veterans Administration (VA) funds the training of counselors and psychologists to accomplish these goals.
  • In 1942, Carl Rogers publishes Counseling and Psychotherapy, advocating a client-centered approach to psychotherapy. His work later becomes a pillar of the profession’s identity. It emphasized a client-centered theory, which had at its core the belief that the client is a partner in the healing process rather than a patient on which the professional imposes a cure.


  • In 1952, The American Personnel and Guidance Association was created to provide counselors, who were already in the field providing mental health services, with a professional association. This association will later become the American Counseling Association, as it remains to this day.
  • In 1958, The National Defense Education Act passes, providing funds to establish counseling and guidance institutes to train counselors.


  • In the early 1960s, humanistic theories continue to emerge and provide a theoretical framework to view the human existence from a holistic approach; this will also greatly contribute to the profession’s identity and help in distinguishing it from other mental health professions.
  • In 1963, The Community Mental Health Centers Act passes and provides federal funding for the creation of community mental health centers across the United States.
  • In 1965, The Secondary Education Act establishes that public funding for human services, redirected into supporting the Vietnam War efforts. Graduates of counselor programs, who at the time were primarily trained to work in elementary and secondary education settings, are not able to find employment in those markets. They began to seek employment in University counseling centers or in the Veterans Administration. However, the psychology profession, also facing a scarcity of jobs, began to block the entrance of these counselors into their professional terrain.


  • In the early 1970s, counselors, particularly mental health counselors, find themselves a loosely defined profession without a clear identity or a professional organization.
  • By the mid-1970s, it is evident that a number of professionally trained individuals were delivering a wide variety of services very similar to the more established mental health care providers (psychiatry, psychology, and social work). However, without a professional association, they were not being recognized as a professional group.
  • In response to the aforementioned situation, in 1976, The American Mental Health Counselor Association (AMHCA) is created. This is the first step towards solidifying and differentiating mental health counselors as a unique and valid profession. Soon after, they approached the American Counseling Association in order to be part of a larger professional family. This year Virginia becomes the first state to offer counselors the option to seek licensure.


  • In 1983, ACA establishes its own credential, The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).
  • By the mid 1980s, it has become obvious that, if mental health counselors were to work in the health care system, new and more rigorous standards were going to have to be established.
  • The 1986-1987 AMHCA Board of Directors adopts a set of comprehensive training standards for mental health counselors: 60 semester credit hours and a minimum of 1,000 clock hours of clinical supervision.


  • In 1992, Counseling is included as a primary mental health profession in the health care human resource statistics of the Center for Mental Health Services and the National Institute of Mental Health.


  • In 2002, California adopts a counselor registry, which represents the first step towards licensure.
  • Minnesota state legislature passes a counselor licensure bill.

The Profession Today

These are some of the highlights in the history of Mental Health Counseling. If you’re interested in learning more about the current state of the profession, feel free to read more below:

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