How to Become a Mental Health Counselor in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a mental health counselor. Learn about education requirements, average wages and job duties to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Mental Health Counseling degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

As a mental health counselor, you'll work with distressed and traumatized patients on issues that may range from self-esteem to addiction. Mental health counselors can work with individuals or groups, sometimes with a specific population, such as college students or children. Their goal is to help clients make decisions about the future, and develop coping and behavioral modification strategies. The following chart gives you an overview about education and licensure requirements as well as job growth for this career.

Degree Required Master's degree
Training Required 3,000 hours supervised clinical experience
Education Field of Study Psychology, counseling, social work, marriage and family therapy, or a related mental health field
Licensure and/or Certification All states require mental health counselors to be licensed; professional certification is available
Job Growth (2014-2024) 20%*
Median Salary (2015)$41,880*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Mental Health Counselor?

As a mental health counselor, you help patients overcome vocational, educational, marital, spiritual and emotional issues such as grief, stress and depression. You may counsel patients individually or in group sessions. You'll also work closely with other professionals involved in mental health, such as clinical social workers and psychiatrists.

Step 1: Get a Bachelor's Degree

Relevant programs available at the bachelor's degree level for aspiring mental health counselors include, for example, psychology and counseling. These programs introduce you to topics in human and cognitive development, psychological theory, counseling principles and social structures. You can also gain practical experience through internships in bachelor's degree programs.

Step 2: Continue Your Education

Master's degree programs in mental health counseling are offered through a number of colleges. In these programs, you can take courses in subjects such as psychopathology, domestic violence, substance and sexual abuse, personality disorders, gender, grief counseling and group counseling. The curriculum also requires you to complete multiple sessions of supervised counseling practice.

Step 3: Complete Post-Master's Experience Requirements

According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), you'll need to complete counseling experiences under the supervision of a licensed mental health practitioner after completing a master's degree program (www.amhca.org). A minimum of at least two years or 3000 hours of post-master's practice is generally necessary for licensure eligibility, though exact requirements depend on the state.

Step 4: Earn Licensure

The AMHCA reports that all states license private practice mental health counselors. Although each state may have differing requirements for licensure, prerequisites to sit for a state-sanctioned licensure exam generally include a master's degree in a relevant field and completion of supervised clinical work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that you may also need to agree to comply with ethical standards and complete continuing education to maintain licensure (www.bls.gov).

Step 5: Seek Certification

Voluntary certification is available through the National Board for Certified Counselors (www.nbcc.org). The most relevant certification for this field is the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor credential. To sit for the qualifying exam, you must have completed a combination of a stipulated amount of graduate coursework and clinical experience. Applicants must first earn the board's general National Certified Counselor credential before seeking the mental health certification.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Becoming a rehabilitation counselor or a school counselor might also be of interest to you. Rehabilitation counselors assist clients with various disabilities in gaining the skills and resources necessary to live independently. They can also help clients become successful in dealing with the psychological and emotional struggles that come with having a disability. School counselors help students advance in their social and academic skills. They also administer various tests and assessments to help identify students' strengths and weaknesses, as well as their interests. Like mental health counselors, you'll also need a master's degree if you want to work in these fields.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

  • 1. Degree Options:
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  • Colorado Christian University

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    • Master
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  • Grand Canyon University

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  • Purdue University Global

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  • Capella University

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  • Northcentral University

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  • Regent University

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  • Southern New Hampshire University

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  • Maryville University

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  • Indiana Wesleyan University

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    Popular programs at Indiana Wesleyan University:

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  • Penn Foster High School

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