While I was in graduate school for clinical mental health counseling, I began to have serious reservations about the program I was in, the modern counseling profession as a whole, and the licensure requirements for professional counselors in my state. I also began contemplating how and whether I could proceed with my career goals and do the work I wanted to do while avoiding “wokeness” and overregulation. Because the title “counselor” is regulated in my state, unlicensed helping professionals must choose another title; hence many have gravitated toward the term “coach.” There are pros and cons to obtaining licensure, as well as to forgoing the license and operating a coaching practice instead.
My exploration of coaching as an alternative started with observing a disturbing trend: like many areas of public life, counselor education and training has become increasingly politicized and polarizing. The program I attended focused heavily on Critical Social Justice Theory, aka “Social Justice,” ideology, promoting divisive identity politics that I believe are harmful to mental health on an individual and societal level. When a “diversity pledge” requirement was implemented I could not in good faith sign the document, which I found to be misleading and unethical, and continue taking classes, even though I only had a few credits to complete.
These issues are not specific to the university at which I was enrolled but are rampant in contemporary university undergraduate and graduate programs. In accordance with current social trends, counselors emerging from these programs have been indoctrinated with a heavy dose of critical race theory, and have been taught to view sex and gender as mere social constructs, encouraging medical interventions for adults and children who do not fit neatly into gender stereotypes. Not only are education programs steeped in Social Justice ideology, it is creeping into ethics codes and continuing education requirements for counselors, as well. The writing is on the wall: if current trends continue, joining the Social Justice cult will be a requirement in order to hold a license.
Perhaps less shocking but still of concern to me is the increasing medicalization of the mental health field. Counseling clients are all to be assigned diagnosis codes, and treatment planning is done in order to maximize efficiency for insurance purposes, not efficacy for clients’ individual needs. To an extent, this turns the counselor into a data entry technician with insurance companies dictating patient treatment options. I am trained in mental health diagnosis and treatment, and I do believe that there are some clients with significant mental illness who benefit from psychiatric diagnosis and treatment in a clinical setting. However, I do not think it is in many clients’ best interests to be categorized and catalogued via the medical model.
Even with all these reservations, I might have continued obtaining my license for other professional reasons and then tried to practice in my own way regardless of convention. However, recent legislation in my state creates burdens on licensed counselors that I wish to avoid. One new law amends the definition of “conversion therapy” to include protection for gender identity, and penalizes health care professionals including counselors who take an exploratory approach with gender-questioning clients rather than an affirmative one. The affirmative model may be appropriate with some clients, but with others it may be in their best interest to have a therapist who will encourage them to examine themselves more deeply, and I do not want to be forced to provide inauthentic and possibly damaging treatment because my career is held hostage. Similarly, my state is now requiring medical injections for all licensed healthcare workers, including counselors and counseling interns. I feel strongly that as individuals we should be able to make medical decisions based on our own assessment of the risks and benefits, not because we are being threatened with job loss. These are just a few examples of how licensing is being used as a tool to pursue governmental aims that burden the individual practitioner unduly. I would rather operate outside of that system.
So for all of these reasons, I decided to pivot from the counseling career I was working to build and open a coaching practice, instead. What is coaching, one might ask, and how is it similar to and different from counseling? What are the pros and cons of sidestepping licensure and opening a coaching practice?
Coaching really is like the wild west of the helping professions in that it has a low barrier to entry with no required license or certification. This makes coaching a particularly appealing career for people who want to help others and feel that they have something to offer, but do not wish to put in the time needed to go obtain professional licensure, or disagree with convention and want to carve their own path. Thus there are coaches with various qualifications, from experienced professional counselors and psychologists who have decided to terminate their licenses to people with very little training, and everything in between. Certificate programs abound, but there is no consensus definition of what a coach does, nor is there widespread professional regulation. There are life coaches, health coaches, wellness coaches, relationship coaches, business coaches, parenting coaches, career coaches, intimacy coaches, spiritual coaches… on and on ad infinitum, all offering help with different aspects of the human experience.
Depending upon the practice model, coaches and counselors can perform many of the same functions for their clients, and there are some important differences as well. Like counselors, coaches work with clients to understand their personal needs and goals, overcome obstacles, and improve their lives. Coaches can help clients with self examination, life changes and transitions, grief and loss, relationship and communication issues, and much more. Many of these fall under the purview of counseling as well, where they would be addressed from a different lens that usually includes diagnosis and treatment- something that is absent entirely in coaching.
Unlike counselors, coaches are not considered health care professionals, which means that their services are typically not billable to or reimbursable by health insurance. There may be exceptions when a client works with a health coach through a doctor’s office or medical clinic, but coaching sessions are typically paid directly by the client either in advance as part of a package or at the time of service. Coaching should not be confused with clinical mental health care and may not be appropriate for individuals with significant mental illness. Additionally, because coaches can possess a wide range of skills and qualifications, clients must exercise discretion in choosing the right practitioner to fit their needs.
For the professional there are pros and cons to choosing a coaching career over a career in clinically oriented therapy, as well. Coaches have greater freedom to formulate their own business models and practice as they see fit. They are not bound by the dictates of licensing bodies and ethics boards, or forced to practice within strict standards for fear of being reported for making even a tiny misstep. As my graduate school ethics teacher told us: turn back now and become a coach if you want to avoid the liability minefield that is the modern counseling profession. The structure of the coach-client relationship is more flexible than that of the counselor-client relationship, and can be more informal or just as boundaried, depending upon the practitioner’s preference and style.
Despite all the freedoms of coaching over counseling, there are a few significant drawbacks, to consider. A reduction in professional status may seem superficial, but for people who have worked hard to attain a higher level of education, having professional recognition can be an important accomplishment. Taking on the nebulous and lay-sounding mantle of “coach” instead can feel anti-climactic and does not come with the same professional standing as an established title like “counselor.” Counselors work with other health care and medical professionals, networking and referring back and forth with doctors, psychiatrists, and other therapists, whereas coaches often work outside of these circles and without recognition as a professional peer.
Establishing a practice can also be challenging outside of conventional career and networking circles. Whereas counselors have become ensconced in many cultural institutions and can find work in schools, clinics, or community mental health centers, coaches often work in solo practices or with other alternative wellness professionals. Clients who value official credentials will be more likely to seek out a practitioner with the right letters after his or her name. In addition, many clients choose to work with practitioners who accept their health insurance as payment, putting private-pay coaches at a competitive disadvantage.
If you have invested a great deal of energy in preparing for or establishing a counseling career, or if you rely on having a steady and predictable income right away, beginning a solo coaching practice may seem too risky. For some, however, the opportunity to find a meaningful way to use counseling skills to help clients while bypassing some of the political baggage placed on counselors will be worth the risk. As more and more helping professionals move into the coaching sphere, we may eventually see increased regulation of the field, but for now, having no license means not having to answer to a licensing body with whom you may disagree. I hope this overview has been a helpful starting point and food for thought as you consider the pros of cons of a career in coaching versus counseling.
When I came to a stand-still as I surveyed the counseling landscape, I decided that opening a coaching practice made the most sense for me. In the future it is possible that I may go back and complete the requirements for counseling licensure, but for now, the freedom of working as a coach is very rewarding. I am grateful for the opportunity to disengage from the woke madness that is overtaking the counseling profession, and work with my clients as unique individuals without the focus on group identity labels and diagnoses.
By Leslie Elliott, a holistic wellness coach in Washington State. She works alongside her clients using an existential, person-centered approach, and currently has no plans to pursue counseling licensure. She also volunteers for Counterweight, offering supportive listening sessions for clients whose lives have been negatively impacted by Critical Social Justice Theory