Interview with Mike Elliot, MSPC, NCC, LPC, CCTP
Mike Elliot is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional (CCTP) practicing from his own office, Elliot Counseling, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He holds his Master of Science in Professional Counseling (MSPC) from Carlow University and has completed such post-graduate training as the Gestalt Training Program at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland and the Advanced Certificate Practicum at the Albert Ellis Institute.
1. You describe yourself as a cognitively-oriented therapist; how does this approach differ from other schools of practice?
I pay more attention to your thoughts than anything else as it is your thoughts that cause your emotions. You send someone a text and they don’t respond right away. One thought might be that something bad happened to them and they are lying half-dead in a ditch somewhere. If that is my thought I’m probably going to be pretty anxious. Another thought might be that the other person is busy or doesn’t have their phone with them right now. When this is my thought my emotions will probably be pretty neutral.
So we look at your thoughts and see if they are accurate and helpful. If they aren’t then we work to help you shift them in a more functional direction. In cognitive models, we typically aren’t too concerned with the origins of problems but on finding solutions.
Psychodynamic approaches are much more interested in the origins of the problems. Gestalt believes that we have unfinished business that needs to be addressed so it looks back at origins but only in how it affects you in the here and now. There are a plethora of therapeutic approaches out there and more than I can discuss at this time.
2. You went to graduate school in your forties in order to transition to professional counseling. Is there any advice or experience you would share with older students who might be considering a similar transition?
Time management is very important. I had a very successful career as a software engineer and could not afford to put everything on hold for graduate school. So I worked 40 hours a week while taking classes and doing internships. At the busiest, I had two classes, a 20-hour internship, and a 40-hour job each week. It was incredibly busy. I had to prioritize sleep to make it manageable and also schedule pretty much every activity of my life.
On the plus side, it was so much easier doing it in my 40’s than when I did my undergrad (between 18 and 22). I was much more mature and aware of myself. I had learned the discipline I needed to go through the program successfully. I also had a lot of life experience under me which made it easier to connect with and help clients.
The other main concern is financial. In the early years in this field you will make very little money so you have to be prepared for that (regardless of what age you are). Once you get licensed you can get credentialed with insurance companies and make a decent living if you start your own private practice, but until then the money isn’t great.
3. How do you build trust with your clients?
I’m honest and open with them. I use humor when appropriate. I use stories from my own life to help normalize their experience. E.g., some clients are very wary of telling you they are suicidal because they are afraid you will put them in the hospital. So I tell them that a lot of us have had thoughts and struggles with suicide. I tell them about the bridge I used to think of driving off. Typically they will visibly become more calm at this point.
4. What do you consider the toughest aspect of a mental health counselor’s job?
I love my job but there are definitely things I don’t like about it, especially paperwork and dealing with insurance companies. But the hardest problem is when you have a highly suicidal client and your best clinical judgment tells you that in their case the hospital will be more traumatizing than helpful but you second guess yourself until the suicidal ideations start to diminish.
5. What do you see as the growth areas in counseling as far as careers?
There aren’t nearly enough counselors for the number of clients out there. Most of us are pretty full and constantly having to turn people away. We need more well-trained and credentialed counselors to fill the demand. And as the stigma of counseling continues to diminish and more and more people see the benefit, the desire for counseling is only going to increase.
6. Is there any further advice that you would share with counselors who are new to the field?
DO YOUR OWN WORK! You can’t help clients and might even endanger them if you haven’t done your own counseling work. This doesn’t mean you have to be this idealized and unobtainable person. But you need to at the very least understand what your own issues and biases are. I have learned more about being a counselor from having been a client than I did in graduate school. And I loved my graduate program. It was top notch but it is only the beginning of being a counselor. The three things that have helped me the most at becoming a good counselor are the work I have done (and continue to do) as a client, clients (they teach you so much), and continuing education.
Thank you, Mike, for sharing your thoughts with us! You can read more about his approaches and practice on his website, Elliot Counseling.