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7 Surprising Advantages of Having an Intern as a Therapist

Some overlooked benefits to ponder when considering a clinical intern.

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While I completed my master’s degree, I provided counseling to several clients as part of my graduate program, and I was consistently surprised at how quickly parents agreed to let me counsel their children. At the time, I thought that if I was a parent, I would certainly demand that a licensed clinician see my child instead. However, looking back at my internship several years later, I can see how my clients benefited from having a counselor with fresh training, a minuscule caseload, and three hours of supervision per week.

Since most states require mental health professionals to complete a clinical internship as part of their graduate degree, chances are good that you will one day be faced with the question, “Are you okay with having an intern?” Here are some advantages to consider at that moment; the disadvantages (which do exist) will be discussed in a later article.

Energy and Enthusiasm

You won’t find a clinician with more energy to pour into your child’s case than an intern. Although beginning a career in counseling is nerve-racking, there is nothing more exciting than finally putting your years of education to work for the benefit of a struggling child or family. And nothing draws a kid in like a fountain of enthusiasm, creating the potential for a stronger therapeutic relationship.

Smaller Caseload

Due to working fewer hours and needing more time for supervision, most interns have a caseload that is a fraction of the size of the caseload they will have as full-time clinicians. During my internship, I maintained a caseload of five in a clinic where full-time staff saw at least 30 clients per week. This meant that I had significantly more time to plan my sessions, develop client-specific activities, and coordinate care with other providers (such as pediatricians, teachers, and social workers) than my non-intern peers. A smaller caseload can also equate to greater scheduling flexibility, which can be a major advantage if your transportation is inconsistent.

Activities Specific to Your Child

There are many different ways to teach coping, social, and daily living skills, and new counselors spend a significant portion of their first year developing treatment activities for their clients that will help them learn these skills in creative and interesting ways. Because your child will be among this intern’s first clients, it is likely that their therapeutic games and activities will be developed with your child in mind, keeping therapy as relevant and interesting as possible.

Toa Heftiba/Unsplash
Although they don't have experience of their own, interns have ready access to experienced mental health professionals.
Source: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

Willingness to Ask Questions and Receive Help

Although an intern will not have much mental health experience (and possibly no experience), they will always be supervised by a highly seasoned counselor for at least one hour per week. Most states require that this supervisor has been licensed in counseling, social work, or a similar field for several years, and often you will find that an intern attends supervision both at their internship site and at their university.

Interns’ ready access to highly skilled clinicians and student mindset means that they are always learning, and may be more willing to ask for help with their cases. A more experienced clinician, on the other hand, may feel that it is a sign of weakness or personal failure to ask co-workers how they might approach a case differently, and a therapist who works alone in private practice may not have someone available to consult even if they are willing to ask.

Current Training in Evidence-Based Practices

Although all counselors are required to keep themselves current on new treatment methods through continuing education courses, interns spend up to nine hours a week learning about the latest treatment approaches and psychotherapy research. Most mental health counseling programs have a strong emphasis on the use of evidence-based practices, which means that most interns are trained to use treatment interventions that research has shown to be effective. In some cases, older counselors who have not continued to learn about new approaches to psychotherapy find themselves using outdated practices that are not based on current research findings.

Fewer Assumptions Based on Past Cases

The only advantage to having less experience in counseling is that an intern is less likely to assume that your child is similar to another case they have had in the past. Although excellent counselors treat each client as an individual, there can be a temptation among clinicians who do repetitive work to overlook possible alternative explanations for a child’s symptoms because they have had many similar cases.

For example, a therapist who sees a continuous stream of trauma cases may assume that your child’s refusal to attend school is a reaction to the recent death in your family, even though it could also be due to a phobia, bullying, depression, a learning disability, or a number of other factors. These assumptions can manifest themselves in limited information gathering at your intake session, copy-and-paste treatment plans, and pushing your child to participate in interventions that have worked for similar cases, despite significant resistance or alternative preferences.

It’s Free!

Receiving counseling from an intern can be a great way to access mental health care if you are uninsured. Since interns work for free, agencies often do not charge clients to see them. Additionally, many organizations have a waiting list for individual therapy, and accepting an intern as your child’s counselor may be the fastest way to get your child an appointment.

Mimi Thian/Unsplash
Source: Mimi Thian/Unsplash

Although there are many advantages to having an intern counsel your child, there are also some disadvantages you should consider. Whether you choose an intern or a more seasoned clinician, make sure you have made an informed decision that you are comfortable with.

During your first session, you should feel free to ask your child’s counselor about their specific qualifications—and remember, if you don’t feel comfortable with your child’s therapist for any reason, you can request to change clinicians. Your child’s counselor should be someone you can trust and be open with as you work together to meet your child’s needs.

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About the Author
Elise M. Howard M.A.

Elise M. Howard, M.A., has worked with children and families since 2012 in in-home therapy programs, school settings, a residential unit, and community mental health offices in Massachusetts, Florida, and the U.K.

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