Complete Guide to Online Counseling Degrees

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Quick Facts
Accreditation: CACREP
Degree Levels: Associate, Bachelor's, Master's, Doctoral, and Certificate
Avg Tuition: $20,323
Avg Salary: $75,085

An online degree in counseling can prepare graduates for careers in a variety of counseling specializations, such as mental health, rehabilitation, substance abuse, school counseling, or marriage and family counseling. To become a counselor, however, more than just a solid education is required: a counselor must also have the ability to work well with a diverse range of age groups, cultures, and personality types; be able and willing to handle physical and emotional stress that may result from the job; maintain sincere desire to help others; and uphold standard ethical and legal standards pertaining to the mental health profession.

The accreditation of a counseling degree program or school should be a very important consideration for prospective students. Attending an accredited program will ensure you have received a quality education, help you meet the requirements to transfer credits to other accredited schools, allow you to apply for financial aid, and prepare you for a professional counseling licensing exam after you graduate. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) currently accredits master's programs. Read More

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Comprehensive List of Schools for an Online Counseling Degree (151)

Available Online Counseling Degrees

Graduate certificates and master’s degrees are the most common counseling programs and generally prepare students for state licensure. Each state determines its own set of standards for licensed counselors, and the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) contracts with all of the states to administer the licensing exam. Students should review their state's requirements in order to determine which degree program is best suited for their professional goals.

Online bachelor’s degree programs in counseling typically focus on substance abuse, addictions, or human behavior. While a bachelor's degree in counseling will provide an introduction to the field, most states require that counselors have at least a master's degree in order to become licensed.

Master’s degree programs allow prospective counselors to specialize in a particular area, such as marriage and family or mental health counseling. Coursework varies greatly depending on the specialization, but most programs that prepare graduates for direct client assessment require supervised counseling practicums, fieldwork, and internship experience.

Doctoral degrees are designed for current counselors who want to advance in their careers, either as educators, advanced practitioners, researchers, or supervisors in counseling settings. Advanced classes within the doctorate generally cover topics such as counseling assessment, group counseling, supervising, counseling diverse populations, and counseling curriculum development.

Online Bachelor's Degrees in Counseling

The Bachelor of Arts (BA) in counseling provides solid preparation for graduate study in counseling, marriage and family therapy, social work, and other human services and helping professions. The four-year bachelor's degree may also lead to positions in substance abuse or behavioral disorder counseling or nonclinical positions in human services or helping professions, but it alone will not qualify graduates to become a licensed counselor in most states.

Students who choose to earn bachelor's degrees in counseling will study general psychology and sociology, and they will also take a broader scope of classes in math, sciences, communications, and social sciences. The classes students take as undergraduates will often mirror the courses they will take as graduate students, but the undergraduate curriculum revolves around learning existing theories rather than developing one's own ideas and techniques. Students gain a firm foundation in psychology and sociology through classes such as child development, addiction, abnormal psychology, and emotional disorders. Other courses discuss particular counseling issues, such as case management, drugs and behavior, substance abuse recovery, counseling skills, and counselor ethics. Many counseling bachelor's programs also include field experience requirements, where students observe experienced counselors and practice basic counseling skills in a supervised setting.

Online undergraduate programs in counseling follow the standard admissions protocol and require a high school diploma, SAT/ACT scores, a resume, and letters of recommendation. Online graduate counseling degree programs accept undergraduate majors in a wide variety of areas, although experience with psychology and sociology coursework is helpful.

Online Master's Degrees in Counseling

The Master of Arts (MA) in counseling is the baseline requirement for state licensure in most professional counseling positions, including school, marriage and family, addiction, clinical mental health, and career counseling. It is also the main educational requirement for national certification by the National Board for Certified Counselors. Online graduate counseling degrees generally take two to three years to complete, and students learn how to apply an understanding of psychology and the social sciences to help people facing a variety of difficulties.

Common core requirements in the master's curriculum include human development, communication skills, ethical counseling, human sexuality, group therapy, and psychological assessment. Students must also complete a significant amount of field experience hours while practicing client interviews and counseling. Graduates of master's programs may go on to complete the additional requirements to earn a state license or national certification; these usually include completing 2,000-4,000 hours of clinical experience and passing an exam.

Before applying to an online graduate counseling degree program, students must first complete a bachelor's degree. Most graduate school admission boards prefer that students major in sociology or psychology, but people with diverse backgrounds may pursue graduate degrees in counseling. Some master's degree programs in school counseling and psychology require applicants to prove that they have some related experience in education or counseling, while others accept all kinds of students, provided they have a bachelor's degree and can submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, a resume, and a personal statement. The personal statement of purpose is essentially an admissions essay that details how a person came to be interested in the field of counseling and declares what a person's postgraduation goals are. Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores are also requested by many schools.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Counseling

Master's-level counselors can pursue a doctorate, or PhD, in order to become counselor supervisors, researchers, and educators. These programs take three to five years to complete and include a large foundation of classes in the social sciences. Research techniques, psychological statistics, human learning, behavioral neuroscience, developmental psychology, and social psychology are some common course options. Along with studying psychological systems, students also undertake a large dissertation research project in an area of counseling psychology that interests them, such as vocational psychology, individual and family counseling, or diagnosis and treatment. Graduates can go on to research and teach counseling at the college level, while others oversee counselors in group practices.

Doctoral degrees require the completion of a dissertation, an extensive research paper on the topic of a student's choice. Most students who seek these degrees have a topic in mind, and they will dedicate years to finishing their work. Highly advanced coursework is also expected, and most doctoral students are already working as school counselors and psychologists, providing them with experience on which to base their learning. 

Online Counseling Certificate Programs

A wide variety of counseling certificate programs are available to students and professionals who wish to work toward licensure, a graduate degree, or just to advance their current understanding of counseling for professional or personal reasons. The types of certificates that are available vary greatly in subject matter, duration, and requirements, but most require at least a bachelor's degree and last approximately six months to one year. For example, invididuals with a bachelor's degree may pursue a certificate in clinical mediation counseling, college admissions counseling, pastoral counseling, or drug and alcohol counseling as part of a graduate school track or simply to enhance their professional counseling skills.

A family counseling or lay counseling certificate might be a good option for community leaders and care-giving professionals with a variety of academic backgrounds, such as physicians, campus residential advisors, pastors, social workers, or nurses. Advanced or clinical mental health counseling certificates are typically designed for people with a master's degree who must meet specific educational requirements in order to earn or renew a state license.

What Students Learn in an Online Counseling Program

Online graduate counseling degrees offer courses that contribute to helping students better understand how to interact with diverse populations. Psychology and sociology courses are offered with a variety of titles and will probably play a role in every class a counseling student takes. Because counselors are bound to legal parameters, graduate students will likely study ethics and the legal procedures that counselors must abide by. Some counselors will take classes in general social work and cultural studies, as well, so they can prepare for work in settings that serve populations in need. Students may also take courses that explore counseling procedures and theories, including group and individual counseling sessions.

The subjects that online students take are essentially the same as those in traditional schools: Both types of students will complete extensive reading and writing assignments, but traditional students have more opportunities for role play, group work, and discussion. Online students must be comfortable working alone, and they may need to take more responsibility for their licensure process by finding an apprenticeship in a local school, clinic, or community agency to get the hours they need. 

In order to gain the hands-on experience that an expert counselor needs, all quality online graduate counseling degrees require a practicum and internship experience. Practicums put students in mock counseling settings, which allow them to work on their counseling skills in low-stakes situations. Internships in a counseling office allow students to shadow experienced counselors and practice their counseling skills under the watchful eye of a professional. The amount of fieldwork required will depend on the state in which the training takes place and the type of counseling the student specializes in.

The following list provides an example of some of the general courses covered in a online graduate counseling degree program:

  • Clinical Assessment: Students learn about different tools, such as standardized questionnaires, which can be used to determine a patient's diagnosis.
  • Counseling Psychology: This class discusses how personality and personal interaction can manifest in the client-counselor relationship. Students learn different methods for working with clients, depending on what the client wants to get out of counseling.
  • Ethics: Since counselors have the ability to make a deep impact on their clients, both in a positive and negative way, they must be careful to abide by high ethical standards at all times.
  • Evidence-Based Counseling: Students learn how to use evidence and counseling research to improve their therapy practice. Students study different interventions and findings and apply research in a clinical setting.
  • Group and Family Therapy: Students practice methods for interviewing, assessing, and treating groups of individuals.
  • Interviewing: This course covers methods of initial interactions with clients to determine the problems they are facing and the results they hope to achieve with therapy.
  • Lifespan Development: This course discusses how people change from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood and old age. All aspects of development are covered, such as cognitive, physical, and emotional development.

Understanding Licensure and Certification Requirements

Licensure refers to the set of laws and regulations that professional counselors must follow, as determined by each US state. Most states require that all mental health counselors complete an accredited master's degree program and two years of supervised training (or 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised fieldwork) in addition to passing a state licensing exam before they are allowed to work with clients. Licensing standards for counselors vary from state to state, so it is important that prospective counseling students consult with their state's regulatory board to learn about their particular requirements. The American Counseling Association provides information about the licensure requirements for each US state.

Professional certification for counselors is optional, but it serves as a way for professional organizations, employers, and clients to recognize whether a counselor is competent, educated, and adheres to a strict code of ethics. Certification may also improve job prospects and increase your salary.

The two primary certification agencies for counselors are the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC). NBCC offers a national certification for the broad counseling profession (NCC, or National Certified Counselor) and specialty certifications for mental health counselors (CCMHC), school counselors (NCSC), and addictions counselors (MAC), while CRCC offers certification for rehabilitation counselors (CRC). Certification in any of these categories requires a master's degree, supervised clinical experience, and a certain number of approved continuing education courses every five years in order to remain current.

The Importance of an Accredited Online Graduate Counseling Degree

In most counseling professions, practitioners must have a state-issued license or credential in order to work with clients; to earn this license, students must graduate from an accredited master's or doctoral degree program. Accredited programs are those that are deemed to be properly established and meet the standards approved by the profession. Accredited counseling programs are the most tailored to providing you with the right skills and knowledge needed to pass a state licensing exam. Graduates of CACREP-accredited programs are also immediately qualified to acquire national certification from the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) upon passing the National Counselor Examination (NCE).

While it is not strictly required that students attend an accredited school to obtain a master’s degree in counseling, it is strongly recommended because doing so will open up better employment opportunities, help with state licensure, and make it easier to work in a different state. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) evaluates graduate counseling programs to ensure that they meet the highest educational and professional standards. Currently, CACREP accredits master's degree programs in the following counseling disciplines: addiction; career; clinical mental health; marriage, couple, and family; school; and student affairs and college counseling.

CACREP-Accredited Online Master's in Counseling Programs

The following 14 schools offer CACREP accredited master's programs in counseling:

Adams State University

  • Annual Tuition: $18,081
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: NCACSTHLC and CACREP
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This Colorado-based university offers two different online specializations for counseling—Clinical Mental Health and School Counseling. The mental health program prepares students for work in a variety of settings with therapy and intervention skills. The 60 units of coursework includes classes like Diagnosis and Psychopathology, Evidence Based Counseling, and Crisis, Disaster and Trauma. The School Counseling specialization requires the same number of units, but required different courses, including Professional School Counseling Issues, Counseling Modalities in a School Setting, and Life Span Development. Both programs require two semesters’ worth of internships with supervised experience. Both programs prepare students to become licensed, either as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or a School Counselor, in the state of Colorado. While the curriculum may align with other states’ requirements as well, it’s best to check to make sure.

Antioch University Connected

  • Annual Tuition: $19,744
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: NCACSTHLC
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, clinical mental health counseling is a field that is expected to grow more than 20% in the next 10 years, making Antioch University’s Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling a great option. With a focus on hands-on learning, it will prepare students for the career field with real-world experience. Overall, students must earn 48 units from coursework and another 12 units from internships, totaling 60 units. Required courses include Crisis and Trauma Counseling, Counseling Theories, and Counseling Special Populations: Military Couples and Families. The internship courses require start out with lower requirements and work their way up to requirements of at least 300 hours of clinical experience each semester with 120 hours working directly with patients. Students can also opt for a concentration in Substance Abuse/Addictions Counseling.

Bradley University

  • Annual Tuition: $29,664
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: NCACSTHLC and CACREP
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Bradley University is another college that allows students to earn degrees in either Clinical Mental Health or Professional School Counseling. Both programs require classes like Loss and Grief Counseling, Human Growth and Development, and Brain Based Counseling Interventions, but they each have some classes unique to their specialization as well. For clinical mental health, students will take Clinical Mental Health Counseling as well as Counseling and the Dynamics of Aging. The school counseling program, on the other hand, requires Understanding Schools: A Primer for Non-Teachers and Professional School Counseling. Both programs require one semester of practicum and two semesters of internships. Each program requires a total of 60 units, but non-teachers studying school counseling must have 61.

Capella University

  • Annual Tuition: $12,348
  • School Type: For-Profit
  • Accreditation: NCACSTHLC and CACREP
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At Capella University, students have a variety of options; they can choose between Mental Health Counseling, Marriage and Family Counseling, and General School Counseling. They also offer an additional master’s degree in General Addiction Studies. The college runs on the quarter system and degrees range anywhere from 48 units to 92 units. Two degrees—Marriage and Family Counseling and Mental Health Counseling—require at least 90 units, including Principles of Psychopathology and Counseling and Advocacy with Diverse Populations. As part of Marriage and Family Counseling, students will take Foundations of Addiction and Theories of Personality while Mental Health Counseling requires Crisis Assessment and Intervention as well as Life Planning and Career Development. The School Counseling specialization has fewer classes with 72 required units for classes like Ethical and Legal Issues in Professional Counseling and Group Counseling and Psychotherapy. It also requires 20 units of internships, practicums and residencies. General Addiction Studies requires only twelve courses totaling 48 units.

Colorado Christian University

  • Annual Tuition: $25,046
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: NCACSTHLC and CACREP
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The online Master’s in Counseling at Colorado Christian University requires 60 units, which can be completed in a minimum of two and a half years but must be finished within six. More than half of those units make up the counseling core of the program—39 units. Another nine units are dedicated to practicums and internships. There are also four units each reserved for a residency, elective classes, and bible and theology courses. Students will take courses like Counseling Skills, Psychopharmacology, Theories of Personality, Crisis and Trauma, Theories of Groups, and Social and Cultural Foundations. For electives, choose from Empathy Training, Addictive Behaviors, Human Sexuality, Anxiety and Mood Disorders, and Child and Adolescent Diagnosis and Treatment. Required bible and theology classes are the Spiritual Formation and Theological Foundations for Counseling.

Grace College and Theological Seminary

  • Annual Tuition: $23,970
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: NCACSTHLC and CACREP
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Grace College Online offers a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. The entirely web-based program does require an annual, weeklong residency on-site in Winona Lake, Indiana. The residencies are designed to offer personal interaction between students and faculty. This can be great for networking, advising, and learning. Coursework consists of 60 units of classes, which take students between three and four years to complete. Following an orientation, students will take courses in Theological Foundations in Counseling, Ethical and Legal Issues, Personality and Counseling Theories, Group Counseling, and Psychotherapy with Children and Adolescents. In addition to the annual residencies, students must complete a semester-long practicum and a semester-long internship. The program provides students with the education needed to apply for counseling licensure in the state of Indiana.

Liberty University Online

  • Annual Tuition: $20,768
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: SACS COC and CACREP
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While most colleges have 16-week semester programs, Liberty University’s Master of Education program for school counseling breaks those semesters up further into two eight-week terms. Students will complete virtual classes through the use of linked resources, video lectures, and participation assignments as well as quizzes and exams. There are a variety of core classes that are required for all students working toward this degree. They must complete distinct education courses—Foundations of Education, Understanding Educational Research and Assessment, Human Development Across the Lifespan—as well as counseling classes like Professional, Ethical, and Legal Issues in Counseling and School Counseling Program Development and Evaluation. Education courses make up 15 units while counseling classes are another 24. The final nine units are devoted to a practicum and internship where students can gain real-world field experience.

North Carolina Central University

  • Annual Tuition: $16,099
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: SACS COC and CACREP
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With only 48 required units, it’s easy for students to complete a master’s degree in career counseling online with North Carolina Central University in two years. Their program is the only online career counseling program in the country—one that teaches students how to guide youth and adults toward understanding their likes and dislikes in order to make proper education and career choices. The program is broken up into three phases. The first phase is dedicated to counseling courses like Theories and Techniques, Ethical and Professional Orientation to Counseling, Vocational Theory and Career Development, Cultural Diversity and Gender Issues, and Group Counseling. The second phase is dedicated to courses like Statistics, Advanced Career Counseling, and classes that prepare students for clinical experience. In the third phase, they enter the workforce, completing a practicum, an internship, and educational research.

Northwestern University

  • Annual Tuition: $45,527
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: NCACSTHLC and CACREP
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The online master’s program in counseling at Northwestern includes both part- or full-time options. While the part-time track lasts for either nine or 12 quarters, the full-time track can be completed in only six. Some classes that are unique to this program include Individual Systems: Psychodynamic Viewpoints; Group and Organizational Dynamics; Counseling Methods: Outreach, Prevention & Advocacy; and Ethics and Legal Issues in Counseling. Supervised practicums and internships span three quarters each. The program offers one specialization as well, in child and teen counseling. Northwestern also has a unique option known as the Bridge to Counseling Program, where students who are new to mental health can take an extra quarter to learn more about the theories and concepts that create the foundation of the entire field. This option is also ideal for those who don’t have any prior experience in either mental health or counseling.

Regent University Online

  • Annual Tuition: $15,838
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: SACS COC and CACREP
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Regent University, too, offers all three specializations, each requiring 60 units of classes. They are all licensure tracks that provide the exact education necessary to earn counseling certification in Virginia. All three can be finished in a minimum of two years. There are certain core classes that are required for any of the concentrations, including Counseling Skills and Techniques, Research and Statistics, Multicultural Counseling, and Ethics, Professional Orientation & Legal Issues in Counseling. The clinical mental health specialization also requires courses on addiction therapy, psychopathology, and crisis and trauma. On the other hand, the school counseling concentration includes classes in counseling children, program development for school counselors, and addiction therapies for individuals and families. The final specialty—marriage, couple, and family counseling—includes Theories of Human Sexuality and Marital and Couple Therapy. Each requires an internship as well, and online students must complete two residencies.

University of the Cumberlands

  • Annual Tuition: $20,000
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: SACS COC and CACREP
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Recent graduates and counseling professionals alike will find value in the online master’s degree in counseling from the University of the Cumberlands. Terms are cut short, meaning that the program has two terms each fall, spring, and summer, totaling in six terms each school year.  The program requires 60 units, which includes 16 core classes like Lifestyle and Career Development, Etiology and Diagnosis of Abnormal Behavior, and Advanced Clinical Assessment. University of the Cumberlands offers two different tracks—the ever-popular clinical mental health track and the rare addiction track. When learning about clinical mental health counseling, students will take courses in marriage and family counseling, clinical supervision, child counseling, and counseling theories. The addiction counseling track includes specialized courses as well, including Motivation and Change, Psychopharmacology and Addictions, Family Therapy in Addiction Treatment, and Spirituality and Values in Counseling.

Wake Forest University

  • Annual Tuition: $44,742
  • School Type: Non-Profit
  • Accreditation: SACS COC and CACREP
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The online clinical mental health program at Wake Forest University teaches students to do many things, like counsel those dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse and addiction issues, and marriage and family issues. Some of their more unique classes on clinical mental health counseling include Classification of Mental and Emotional Disorders and Issues in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. They also have a school counseling track that ensures students learn how to become a child advocate, guiding and supporting younger students and at-risk youth. These students will need to take Counseling Children, Issues in School Counseling, and School Guidance and Counseling. Both programs are 60-unit programs that require practicums and internships within the field prior to graduation.

Walden University

  • Annual Tuition: Not Provided
  • School Type: For-Profit
  • Accreditation: NCACSTHLC and CACREP
View Online Counseling Degrees (36)

At Walden Universary, students can earn a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. What is truly unique about this program is their additional specialization list, which covers Addiction Counseling, Career Counseling, Forensic Counseling, Military Families and Culture, and Trauma and Crisis Counseling—all of which really allow students to tailor their education to their interests and ideal area of specialty within the field. Those not interested in a specialization also have the option to complete the general clinical mental health program. Students can also obtain a Master of Science in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling—and all of the same specializations apply. Required classes for any and all combinations include Assessment in Counseling and Education, Counseling Addictive Disorders, Lifespan Development, and Multicultural Counseling. The general programs require 90 quarter units while those with specializations require 100 units.

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Career Specializations for Counseling Graduates

Counseling is a broad profession that encompasses many settings and populations, so a wide variety of career specializations are available. Possible settings include community agencies, schools, universities and community colleges, hospitals, and private practice. Counselors may also travel within the community to see clients. Although a master's degree in counseling is necessary to become a licensed counselor, graduates with a high school or bachelor's degree and relevant experience may qualify for the following counseling-related positions:

  • Social and Community Service Manager: Community organizations and social services departments require managers who understand complicated cultural and social dynamics and can help their employees better serve their clients.
  • Social and Human Service Assistant: Counselors and social workers utilize social and human service assistants to help them find and apply for benefits and community services for their clients. These assistants may also help the patients under the guidance of a licensed counselor or social worker.
  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor: Depending on the setting and the state in which they work, graduates with a bachelor's degree may qualify for a position as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor. They work with individuals and groups with addictions or other behavioral disorders by providing therapy, designing treatment and recovery plans, and helping them manage stress in a healthy way.

The following specializations are just a sample of the many careers available to counseling graduates with a master's degree and a state-issued license:

  • Career Counselors: Career counselors help recent graduates and mid-career professionals assess and evaluate their interests, strengths, and goals in order to select a new profession. They also advise clients regarding resumes, interviews, networking, decision-making, and general job-search skills.
  • Clinical Mental Health Counselors: These counselors provide a wide range of mental health services and help clients better understand their own behavior. Counselors work with people who are experiencing mental illness, as well as people who have experienced trauma or setbacks in life, such as divorce or grief. They also provide diagnoses and treatment, as well as prevention plans.
  • Marriage, Couple, and Family Counselors: These counselors evaluate individual and group dynamics within the family system and help define the roles and behaviors that contribute to difficult situations or transitions. They often provide group therapy, help clients set goals and make decisions, and create strategies to change behaviors.


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