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Experiential learning for advanced mental health counseling students


If you’re planning to undertake advanced study in mental health counseling, you will already have a considerable amount of practical experience behind you.So why is it important for you to undertake experiential learning as well as attending classes and developing your thesis? Quite simply, counseling hinges on the way that you connect with and understand the people you work with, and that will change as you learn, even at this stage. You will make different, more in-depth observations and will learn to engage with clients in more sophisticated ways. This article explores the crucial ways in which experiential learning factors into skills development and will help to prepare you to work at the next level.

Keeping the human element in focus

When you’re engaged in intensive study, it’s important to keep up real-world work with clients so that you don’t start losing confidence, and it’s also important not to lose sight of their humanity. While this might sound odd in a caring profession, the reality is that counselors, especially when under pressure, sometimes struggle to keep from thinking of clients as puzzles to solve. Discussing mental health issues in the classroom is very different from seeing the ways in which they affect real people who are there in the room with you. Maintaining a practical element helps you to remember why counseling matters and who you’re really doing it for.

Gaining direct familiarity with rare illnesses

Some mental illnesses are primarily treated by specialists, so you may not have had the opportunity to encounter them — or spend much time around people affected by them — in your earlier counseling career. As you strive for the qualifications that could see you making leadership decisions, you will need a deeper understanding of the issues involved.Becoming familiar with such illnesses as they manifest in reality will help you to go beyond what other people have observed and set down on the page. You will be able to develop the intuitive understanding necessary to support vulnerable people both directly and as part of a population group for which you may become responsible.

Improving your ability to relate

As you will no doubt already be aware, it’s one thing to understand an illness on the page and another to encounter it in practice. Experiential learning will help you to become familiar with the symptoms of more unusual or severe mental illnesses to the point where you are no longer distracted by them and can focus on their causes. This will help you to get at the core of your client’s experiences and more successfully relate to them as human beings trying to make sense of the world through a disordered experiential framework. By developing the ability to put yourself in their shoes, you will become better able to show them the real understanding and respect that they need.

Developing cooperative strategies

When you can find a good starting point from which to relate to patients regardless of what they’re dealing with, you’ll be better placed to work with them in order to help them cope more effectively with their symptoms, or even recover. You’ll be able to develop cooperative strategies for tackling unusual problems in a way that, no matter how much you read about it first, can only be done one-on-one and is always different. You’ll become more aware of the specific challenges that you face as a result of your own psychological makeup and better able to work around them in pursuit of client-focused solutions.

Observing dynamic situations

As well as engaging directly with clients, you will spend part of your experiential learning time observing established experts at work. This will give you the chance to learn from their approach but also, crucially, it will let you observe the dynamics at play between them and their clients. Because you won’t be under pressure to respond directly to a client yourself, you will be better placed to reflect on these as the situation develops, and afterward, you can work with classmates to apply what you have learned to your own experiences, helping one another to identify the different elements that you might bring to a similar situation and what you might expect as a result.

Exploring theory in practice

As you prepare your thesis, you will need to test out theory in practice. The opportunity to observe can often help you to make useful, relevant observations in a non-intrusive way. If you have new ideas that you want to introduce into practice, you will have the opportunity to explore them with oversight from more experienced professionals who can step in if they identify risks to you or your clients, and who can also make their own observations which could help you in developing your work. This context makes it easier to explore different therapeutic dynamics in an ethical manner, and thus to test your theories before you begin to write about them.

Time-keeping and note-taking

Alongside the theoretical aspects of your work, there are more practical considerations. When working with new sorts of patients, new strategic approaches, or simply the distracting weight of a lot of recently acquired knowledge, you will need to make sure that you’re still keeping proper track of time so that you are able to guide clients smoothly through the structure of a session. You will also need to make sure that you’re taking the right notes.For students who want to study for an online doctorate in counseling, reputable institutions such as the American International College, will be able to help you take advantage of field practicum hours by offering a field placement in your local area, which will help you to translate your classroom learning to a practical environment and refine all the skills that go with that.


Taking an advanced counseling degree isn’t just about moving forward in your career and acquiring new opportunities. It’s about the exciting process of learning for its own sake, and the still more exciting process of applying your new knowledge and understanding in practice to improve people’s lives.

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