how to become a mental health counselor without a degree

Last Updated on December 16, 2021

How To Become A Mental Health Counselor Without A Degree is designed for those who wish to enter into the helping profession as a counselor, therapist, or psychologist. The information found in this book allows you to take the important steps towards obtaining your licensure by providing you with the steps and resources that is needed so that you can obtain your degree from an approved online school. It will also show you how to obtain your license without taking the lengthy route of obtaining the traditional bachelor’s degree first. This book gives specific information about how to get your degree and about getting licensed through these organizations:

For those looking to pursue a career where they can help others, there are a variety of options available that don’t require a degree. Counselors help their clients navigate diverse topics including family relationships, substance abuse, career challenges, stress and anxiety and other areas that affect their health and well-being. By researching more about counseling, and how you can achieve a position without a degree, you can start making important career decisions.

In this article we define what a counselor is, review their roles and responsibilities, list how to become a counselor without a degree and provide additional information about skills, salary expectations and job outlook.

9 Careers With a Master's Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

What does a counselor do?

Counselors have a variety of job responsibilities to ensure they provide effective services to their clients. Here are some specific examples of their job responsibilities:

  • Meeting with clients throughout the day to conduct counseling sessions
  • Listening to clients to gather information and help them feel heard
  • Referencing the DSM for potential mental conditions that align with a client’s symptoms
  • Taking detailed notes after each appointment to add to their client’s file
  • Referring their clients to advanced specialists in situations that require medical intervention
  • Helping their clients set goals to improve their current situation
  • Following up with clients to schedule additional appointments and ensure their well-being
  • Helping clients develop coping mechanisms or activities they can perform to handle stressful situations
  • Communicating with social workers, medical professionals and their clients’ loved ones about their client’s needs and progress

How to become a counselor without a degree

Some counseling careers require degrees at the bachelor, master or doctorate levels. However, there is a way to work as a counselor without a degree. Review this list of steps to determine what education and professional experiences you need to become a counselor without going to college:

1. Determine which types of counseling you can pursue without a degree

There are a few key areas that allow you to work as a counselor without obtaining a college degree. The most common options include:

  • Peer counselor: A peer counselor uses their personal experiences with mental health, life traumas, or substance abuse to provide guidance to someone currently going through a similar situation.
  • Life skills counselor: Life skills counselors help clients address personal or professional issues and help them develop methods to overcome them. This could include family-related incidents, current work situations and other circumstances.
  • Drug and alcohol counselor: A drug and alcohol counselor works specifically with clients who want to overcome a drug or alcohol addiction. Some states do require a degree, so be sure to check your state guidelines before you pursue a drug and alcohol counselor certification.

2. Research available certification options

There are a variety of colleges, universities and professional institutions that offer certifications online for counselors without degrees. These certifications can range from a few days to a year in length. Another great resource to find certification programs is on your state government’s department of health website.

3. Determine which program meets your needs

After reviewing a few certification program options, determine which one aligns with your schedule, finances and professional goals. This can help you narrow your selection and finalize your decision.

4. Consider working in a related position during your program

As you complete a certification program, consider working in an entry-level role that requires a high school level education. This may include working as an office assistant or receptionist for a mental health clinic, or working as a home health aide for the elderly or disabled. By gaining one or more professional experiences that relate to your career goals, you can enhance your qualifications for future employment.

5. Apply to entry-level positions

Market your certification and additional professional experiences on your resume and cover letter before applying to entry-level counseling positions through your state government, social services agencies and non-profit organizations.

What Qualifications Do You Need to Be a Therapist?

Many find that becoming a therapist is a rewarding career goal, but there are a number of skills and qualifications needed to enter and be successful in the profession.

A couple of qualifications that may be required for you to become a therapist are:

  • Master’s or doctoral degree in psychology: The level of education you will need depends on the type of therapy work you’re interested in pursuing.
  • Licensure: Depending on your career goals, you may need to become licensed in order to practice in your state of choice.

There are many skills and traits that can be useful as a therapist as well, including:

  • Empathy
  • Communication skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Ability to set boundaries

All of these things can help you become an effective therapist that is ready to help others.

Common Pathways to Becoming a Therapist

A bachelor’s degree, even one unrelated to psychology, is not enough to become a therapist, but it is the first step in the process.

After earning your bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to pursue additional education in the form of graduate studies. This may include various master’s and doctoral level programs, such as a master’s in counseling, social work, or marriage and family therapy or a PhD in psychology.

Master’s in Counseling

Earning a master’s in counseling can help you become a therapist in several different professional areas, ranging from mental health to education.

While pursuing your master’s in counseling, you may have the option to choose between different specialties. Some options may include clinical mental health counseling, school counseling, substance abuse counseling, and applied behavior analysis.

Common topics for this degree are human growth and development, counseling theories, treatment of psychopathology, principles of psychotherapy, and group therapy practices.

Master of Social Work

Earning a Master of Social Work may not only allow you to break into the field of therapy, but it may also connect you with work in advocacy, policy, and child welfare.

Graduate degree programs in social work commonly require studies in the foundations of social work practice, social environment, human rights and social justice, and social policy analysis. Other common topics of study are psychopathology and clinical social work practices.

As part of your degree, you may choose to focus on child and family, addictions, healthcare, trauma-informed practice, or the military.

Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy

Earning a master’s in marriage and family therapy can help you play an important part in helping individuals, couples, and families cope with stress, conflict, and difficult life circumstances.

Marriage and family therapy programs typically require courses in couples and family counseling, human sexuality, and crisis and trauma response. Child and adolescent counseling practices and substance abuse are common topics of study as well.

PhD in Psychology or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)

Earning a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) can help you become a licensed therapist or psychologist in most states.

These programs typically require intensive coursework in areas such as cognitive behavioral therapy, developmental psychopathy and treatment, and organizational psychology.

Marriage and family psychology, biological bases for behavior, ethical issues in psychology, and approaches to psychotherapy are common topics of study as well. In order to work as a clinical psychologist a license and usually a doctorate-level education are required.

Masters in Psychology Specialty Areas

While pursuing your master’s in psychology, you may have the option to choose from a number of specialty areas to help craft your education into a more concentrated and focused study plan.

Potential specialty areas include:

  • Applied behavioral analysis: This specialty is focused on understanding developmental disabilities to help individuals and families manage various behaviors and improve the lives of those with different disabilities.
  • Applied psychology: This focus of study is designed to provide an in-depth understanding of principles, methods, and theories in the field of psychology from a research and practical application perspective.
  • Educational psychology: This specialty is designed to provide an understanding of different educational abilities and the psychological factors related to those varying abilities.
  • Health psychology: This specialty focuses on understanding health through biological, social, and psychological lenses.

Available specialty options may vary from one school to the next.

3 Things You Can Do with a Therapy Degree

There are a number of different career paths available for you to pursue with a therap degree. You might pursue a job as a marriage and family therapist, correctional treatment specialist, or substance abuse counselor, to name a few.

1. Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists help individuals, couples, and families work through complex issues. This may include assessing communication issues and developing strategies to improve familial communication.

Marriage and family therapists may also help partners work through stressful life events or help patients understand and manage their mental health issues.

2. Correctional Treatment Specialist

Correctional treatment specialists work closely with forensic populations. These include young offenders, adult offenders, inmates, and those experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues.

In this role, you may support individuals and groups in the rehabilitation process. This might include the assessment of offenders in order to advocate for or against their readiness for parole or release. In some cases, correctional treatment specialists provide counseling support to the families of offenders.

3. Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors help individuals across a range of age groups cope with and manage their specific circumstances.

Their work often includes performing assessments of mental health, substance abuse, or behavioral issues. After assessments are complete, they provide recommendations for managing those issues and potential treatment options.

Many counselors in this field also work closely with families to help them understand the life experiences of family members dealing with these types of health issues.

Counseling & Therapy Careers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in therapy tend to earn more per year on average than many other occupations. Some of the highest-paid psychologists earn median annual salaries of $105,780. Industrial-organizational psychologists earn median annual salaries of $92,880. 

Some positions, such as marriage and family therapists ($51,340) and mental health counselors ($47,660) earn less on average per year than the top-paying psychologist roles. They still have higher average earnings than other community and social service occupations though.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are a number of counseling and therapy careers that may be available to you with a therapy degree.

CareersAnnual Median Salaries
Social and Community Service Managers$69,600
School and Career Counselors and Advisors$58,120
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists$55,690
Social Workers$51,760
Marriage and Family Therapists$51,340
Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers$48,140
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors$47,660
Rehabilitation Counselors$37,530

These are just some of the jobs you can pursue with a therapy degree. You can pursue careers in a number of different industries, including education, nonprofit, government agencies, hospitals, correctional centers, and private clinics. 

Some of the jobs listed above may require additional licensure, education, or work experience to obtain.

Internship Opportunities

For many states, becoming a licensed therapist requires you to complete a specific number of clinical placement hours in order to become eligible for licensure. Internships, even at a master’s level, can be an important way of gaining relevant work experience in the field of psychology and therapy.

Some places that you may find rewarding and valuable internship opportunities include:

  • On-campus counseling centers
  • Hospitals and health clinics
  • Mental health facilities
  • Schools and other educational settings
  • Correctional facilities
  • Nursing homes

In some cases, you may have the opportunity to gain experience through an internship at a private practice or private counseling office. Connecting with an academic advisor for support and direction can help you find the right internship positions for your career goals.


Regional accreditation is a status that verifies the academic quality of various educational programs.

Attending an accredited therapy graduate program is an important consideration because it can impact your ability to register for various professional licensing bodies. It can also influence your ability to enroll in future academic programs.

The accreditation status of the program you attend may also impact the hiring decisions of potential employers. For more information on regional accreditation, you can visit the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, or CACREP, is the programmatic accreditation for counseling and therapy. CACREP accredits graduate-level programs, including masters and doctoral programming.

Similar to regional accreditation, CACREP ensures a certain level of academic quality, but this accrediting body is specifically focused on programs in the field of counseling. Attending a CACREP accredited institution and program can help you ensure that the counseling education you’re receiving is of high quality.

Counseling and Therapy Licensure and Certifications

The process of becoming a licensed counseling and therapy professional may vary from one state to the next, but common steps in the process include:

  • Obtain a PhD in psychology or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) from an APA-accredited institution.
  • Complete supervised work hours. While the specific number of hours can vary, the average number of hours required for licensure is 3000.
  • Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP)

In some cases, you may also be required to take a jurisprudence examination after successfully passing the EPPP.

What Does a Therapist Do?

The roles and responsibilities of a therapist can vary depending on the type of work they engage in and the types of individuals or groups they support.

In many cases, therapists work with individuals or groups of people to provide support through emotional, stressful, or traumatic life events. Therapists may also evaluate or assess individuals. They may work with children who have experienced abuse or have behavioral issues, adults in correctional institutions, or people needing mental health support.

Can You Become a Therapist Without a Psychology Degree?

How to become a therapist without a degree in psychology can be a common question for those who are interested in becoming a psychologist but don’t have bachelor’s degrees in psychology.

It is possible to become a therapist without having an undergraduate degree in psychology. You may be able to secure a position as a therapist at the organizational or educational level with a master’s degree in psychology or a related field. To act as a licensed psychologist or therapist, a PhD or PsyD may be required.

Where Do Therapists Work?

Therapists work in a variety of industries and environments. Some examples include correctional centers, educational institutions, hospitals, mental health centers, senior living facilities, individual or family services, child welfare, and nonprofits. It’s also common for therapists to be self-employed in private practices.

Pay can vary greatly depending on the type of therapy services you provide. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists working for government agencies earn a median annual salary of $100,360. Those working in school systems, though, earn a median annual salary of $77,560.

How Do You Become a Therapist without a Degree?

There are many types of therapist roles available in the workplace, some requiring a degree and others not. Certain positions, including mental health counselors, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists, require at least some education in psychology or a related field.

Other positions can be entered into without holding a degree. These may include:

  • Peer support counselors
  • Career counselors
  • Substance abuse counselors
  • Life skills counselors
  • Youth workers
  • Community outreach workers

It’s worth noting that specific entry-level requirements can vary from one employer to the next.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Therapist?

To become a psychologist or licensed therapist, it is common to need a graduate degree in psychology. The specific requirements vary from one state to the next, but it is generally accepted that a doctorate in psychology is required in order to qualify for licensure. 

In some cases, you may be eligible for positions, such as an organizational psychologist or school therapist, without a PhD or PsyD. For these positions, a master’s degree in psychology may suffice.

How Many Years of College to Be a Therapist?

Pursuing the path of a licensed therapist commonly requires 4 to 6 years of graduate-level education, though the number of years required to become a therapist varies from state to state. Prior to enrolling in a graduate-level program, you will likely need to complete an undergraduate degree, which usually takes around 3 to 4 years. 

After your undergraduate studies, you may decide to enroll in either a master’s program or a doctorate program. Master’s degrees generally take 2 years, while doctorate degrees can take around 4 years to complete.

Should I Become a Therapist?

When deciding on whether or not you should become a therapist, there are a number of questions you may want to ask yourself, including:

  • Are you interested in working with individuals, families, and groups of people on a regular basis?
  • Do you have the patience and empathy to listen to individuals and understand their perspectives and experiences?
  • Are you interested in investing a number of years toward obtaining the necessary skills and knowledge to become a therapist?
  • Do you have effective communication skills

If you answered yes to these questions, then becoming a therapist may be right for you. If you answered no, you may want to consider other options or work on some of the skills that are listed before becoming a therapist.

What’s the Difference between a Psychologist vs. Therapist?

Psychologists’ and therapists’ roles and responsibilities can overlap, and the key distinctions between the two depend on the field or industry that each position is being performed in.


  • Work is typically focused on counseling or research
  • May be licensed or unlicensed
  • Usually need a PhD
  • Able to perform clinical counseling


  • Work is generally centered around counseling
  • May be licensed or unlicensed
  • Education level could be a master’s or doctorate level

In some cases, the titles of psychologist and therapist may be used interchangeably.

What’s the Difference between a Counselor vs. Therapist?

The titles of counselor and therapist are also often used interchangeably. In many cases, the roles and responsibilities of these professions overlap, but some differences can exist.


  • May provide services more short term than a therapist
  • States may have specific counselor licensing requirements


  • Services may be provided over a longer period of time
  • States may have specific therapist licensing requirements

Additionally, therapists are commonly trained in the practice of psychotherapy, unlike counselors.

Getting Your Therapist Degree Online

There may be a number of ways for you to become a therapist without having a psychology degree.

Various education pathways, from a master’s in psychology to a master’s in marriage and family therapy, social work, or counseling, may be options. A PhD or PsyD can also help you become a therapist. Careers in the field of therapy are available across multiple areas, ranging from criminal justice and law to mental health and family services.

Plus, there are a number of universities that offer psychology degrees online. In fact, a growing number even offer dual masters and PhD programs in psychology online, allowing you to earn both degrees at the same time.

With higher than average annual salaries, pursuing the path to becoming a professional therapist may offer you a good return on your investment.

About the author

Study on Scholarship Today -- Check your eligibility for up to 100% scholarship.