How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Do you want to know how to become a Mental Health Counselor? Learning about other people is what makes this job interesting. It is interesting because you never know who will walk onto your campus. If you are interested, understand that this career choice does not come with an easy road to success. Are you wondering how to become a mental health counselor? If yes then this article provides the right direction to you. It discusses How To Become A Mental Health Counselor, mental health counselor education requirements, mental health counselor salary, how to become a mental health counselor uk & how long does it take to become a mental health counselor.

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mental health counselor programs

Mental health counselors help clients navigate difficult life experiences, help them set goals and provide critical emotional support. They enjoy rich, rewarding careers where they make a difference by using their listening, problem-solving and interpersonal skills.

Whether working in rehabilitation, education, mental health or other fields, there are hundreds of thousands of professionals who’ve found their calling as counselors in the United States. This is unsurprising when considering that counseling is a profession that’s in demand and could be personally gratifying, but many people are unaware of what exactly it is that counselors do, how to become a counselor, and what opportunities await counselors. These subjects, and more, are covered below.

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There are a number of mental problems that mental health counselors might encounter during their careers, from people dealing with everyday stress to those with diagnosable mental illnesses and disorders. For instance, they might counsel people that are having had times due to family, job, or social issues. They might also offer counseling to individuals experiencing:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Grief
  • Phobias
  • Eating Disorders
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Addiction
  • Grief
  • Chronic Pain
  • Substance Abuse
  • Suicidal Impulses
  • Self-Esteem
  • Marital Distress

Why Do We Need Mental Health Counseling?
Trying to cope with a mental disorder – or even extreme everyday stress – can be very difficult and overwhelming for most. These disorders are often very scary, confusing, and frustrating. Some people suffering from mental illnesses and disorders may even feel ashamed of their conditions.

Mental health counselors, however, can help people learn to cope with their disorders and anything else life throws their way in a healthy manner. The guidance and skills that these professionals provide can often help people lead normal, happy lives.

Licensed Mental Health Counselor - PicsHealth

The Path to Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

  1. Earn your bachelor’s degree.

Although students aren’t required to major in sociology or psychology to obtain a graduate degree in counseling, many instructors agree that it’s beneficial to get a good foundation in these subjects if you plan to become a licensed mental health counselor. Franc Hudspeth, an associate dean of SNHU’s online counseling program, said courses in human growth and development help students understand the continuum of human growth, giving them a better understanding of the transitions that take place during childhood, adolescence, adulthood and older adulthood.

Taking classes that focus on cultural diversity is also important, as mental health counselors work with men and women from diverse socioeconomic and multicultural backgrounds, he said. After completing a bachelor’s degree, students interested in applying to a graduate program will need to furnish their transcripts, letters of recommendation and answer questions that assess how well they handle things like conflict, he said.

  1. Assess your strengths and suitability for the role.

Although you may have a passion for topics related to counseling in your academic classes, it’s important that you enjoy working with people before you commit to licensure in mental health counseling, said Metoka Welch, associate dean of counseling at SNHU. Getting good grades is only part of the equation. Patience and flexibility are two traits all good counselors should exhibit.

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“It’s a nice mix of different traits that make someone a good counselor. And it’s not always a 4.0 (grade point average). There’s the academic component, soft skills and being willing to trust the process and be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Welch said. While it’s not required that students have on-the-job experience when they apply to a graduate program, it can be helpful to work in a mental health setting to gain a better understanding of how well suited you are for a counseling role.

  1. Complete a master’s degree program that aligns with national standards.

To become licensed in most states, prospective mental health counselors must complete 60 credit hours of graduate-level coursework in counseling. National accreditation bodies determine the core content that students must master throughout their experience, Wilson said.
“What we did … was build the curriculum with national accreditation and state statutes in mind. We settled on 18 courses that would meet both national and state criteria, which leaves two courses that could be electives, depending on where you live,” he said.

Courses should cover topics such as research methods and program evaluation, group counseling, substance use disorders and addictions, and diagnosis of emotional and mental disorders.

Students should be prepared to work individually, with partners, and in small groups throughout their coursework. Hudspeth said programs are designed this way to foster good listening skills and develop a student’s ability to hear what someone is saying and take that information and be able to assess and act.

How Long Does it Take to Become A Licensed Mental Health Counselor?

Welch said it’s important for graduate students to demonstrate that they can multitask, prioritize, and assimilate information.

“I like that our program is not only interested in building your knowledge base to become a counselor, but we ask that you be willing to look at your own self and understand that as a therapist, you are the conduit,” she said. “They have to be inter-personally relatable and have the courage to be honest with themselves and their clients.”

  1. Develop your interpersonal skills

To hone counseling skills, SNHU’s online program also includes two required face-to-face residencies that help students put their skills into practice, as well as a practicum and two internships.

“The residencies by nature are intensive, and the experiences there have been designed to help students uncover implicit bias they may have,” Wilson said. “Counselors should strive to be nonjudgmental and accepting. It’s an opportunity for students to look at themselves and question whether counseling is the right career for them.

“On the flip side, such residencies also give an opportunity for faculty to ensure students are not only receiving adequate training but are also people who are going to be ethical, competent counselors,” Wilson said.

In the practicum, students work with actual clients under the supervision of a licensed counselor for a minimum of 100 hours. Each internship requires that students spend a minimum of 300 hours, usually 30 hours per week, working at approved sites under supervision. Many schools cultivate relationships with sites, but students are often called upon to find their own sites and have them approved, Hudspeth said.

“Students often go to sites that pique their interests, and we encourage them to stick to one site for the duration of their training,” Welch said. “When at a site, supervisors spend time training you on their protocols and procedures, and you build a caseload.”

Exploring Becoming a Mental Health Counselor - ppt video online download
  1. Understand and fulfill state licensure requirements

Students must understand the specific requirements of the state in which they intend to apply for licensure and be apprised of any changes to those requirements. If they move to another state, licensing requirements could be different from the state where they currently reside, for example. The American Counseling Association provides a directory of all state professional counselor licensure boards.

“States have differing criteria for what has to happen during internships, what types of clients students must see, how many client interactions should be face-to-face and the range of client issues students need to see,” Wilson said. “Some states expect you to complete your post-graduate work within a specific time frame.”

State licensure application processes also vary. States may specifically require the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Some states require both examinations or allow you to choose which examination you will take, said Welch.

“Exams in most of these states are taken after graduation but before students begin supervised clinical experience,” said Hudspeth.

In some states, before students sit for an exam and apply for their licenses, they must demonstrate hours of supervised post-graduate work. In Virginia, for example, graduates must acquire 3,000 hours of post-degree counseling work before they can take the licensing exam, Welch said. States require somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 documented hours for licensure. (To check state requirements, visit the American Counseling Association or the National Board of Certified Counselors.)

A Comprehensive Process for a Vital Career
Completion of post-graduate work with supervision can take up to three years to complete. At that point, graduates are working in a paid position but with a supervisor approved by their state board who is documenting their hours, Welch said. Once a state issues a license to a counselor, that counselor may work without supervision.

In total, an individual may spend up to five years completing graduate and post-graduate work before they can be recognized as licensed mental health counselors, which is why it is not a profession to take lightly, according to Wilson.

“The reason that a master’s degree in counseling is 60 credits instead of 36 is that you do not get the breadth of knowledge you need to know in one year of coursework. You are not going to get the experience you need to work independently that quickly either,” he said. “The reason for becoming licensed is that you can be prepared to work with anyone you meet.”

mental health counselor education requirements

Complete a bachelor’s degree in a behavioral, social science, or psychology field.

Because a master’s degree is a requirement for licensure as a mental health counselor External link , pursuing a bachelor’s degree in counseling related fields may help set the groundwork for graduate studies in counseling. Bachelor’s degrees in other similar fields may be accepted as prerequisites for a master’s degree program. Coursework for undergraduate studies in these fields typically include the evaluation of human development, counseling skills and foundation, introduction to psychology, and/or basic approaches to counseling/therapy.

2. Earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

There are many CACREP accredited universities that offer studies specifically in mental health counseling. Obtaining your graduate degree in mental health counseling is a requirement for practice as a licensed professional mental health counselor. CACREP External link  is an the preferred accreditor for mental health counseling degrees, but there may be other accreditors for specific degree specializations.

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3. Complete graduate and postgraduate internship experience for certification/licensure requirements.

As a crucial aspect of accredited counseling master’s programs, graduate supervised counseling experience allows students to dive into their future role as a licensed professional mental health counselor, gaining hands-on experience under licensed professional counselors. Postgraduate activities include internships that occur after the completion of an undergraduate degree, and graduate internships are a part of the requirements to complete a master’s degree program.

4. Pass any required counseling exams for licensure.

Some states and/or counseling programs require the passing of a recognized counseling examination for graduation or licensure such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) External link  and/or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) External link . Some states may have additional requirements for licensure, which aspiring counselors should become familiar with, depending on the state in which they intend to pursue licensure.

5. Apply for and earn additional mental health certifications.

Licensed professional counselors can pursue a national certification through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) External link . Mental health counselors can also pursue specializations in grief, pastoral, school-based mental health counseling, or other mental health challenges, concerns, or disorders.

6. Continue your education and stay up to date on mental health counseling trends and changes.

Continuing education is imperative to maintaining professional counseling licensure and keeping in the know on changes, updates, and movements in trends on mental health care, counseling, and client advocacy.

how long does it take to become a mental health counselor

Generally speaking, becoming an LMHC requires a solid base of psychology, therapy, and counseling training. The entire process can take anywhere from three to five years, based on your time commitment, internship hours, and post-grad supervised experience.

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Even though becoming an LMHC has its requirements, the industry continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 25 percent increase in mental health counselors’ jobs—much higher than the average job growth rate. This demand can be accredited to a rise in people seeking out mental health services nationwide. According to John Hopkins Medicine, one in four Americans struggle with mental health challenges.

The road may seem long, but if your goal is to work with individuals, groups, and communities to improve mental health, these are the four steps that will get you there.

1. Complete the required graduate education.

Time commitment: 2-4 years

To become an LMHC, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling or a related field (60 credits).

How long it takes you to complete your graduate degree will ultimately depend on your schedule. Are you pursuing your degree as a full-time student? If so, you will likely be able to finish within two years. Are you pursuing your degree part-time while also working? Then you may find that a more relaxed schedule will be better, which may take up to four years to complete.

2. Complete post-grad supervised clinical work.

Time commitment: 2 years minimum

To qualify for your license, you’ll need to complete a certain amount of clinical work. The exact amount will depend on the state in which you live and hope to work.

For example, in Massachusetts, it’s required that you complete at least 3,360 hours of mental health counseling over a period ranging between two and eight years. The total hours are full-time. If the student is not full-time, they must complete the equivalent of this part-time. Of these hours, at least 960 must be face-to-face with individuals, couples, or groups, including families. Full-time experience is defined as 35 hours per week, 48 weeks in a year. You will learn more about this process as you progress.

3. Pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) licensing board examination.

Time Commitment: 3 hours, plus study time

The NCMHCE is administered in April and October of each year. The test is taken by computer at over 900 testing centers throughout the United States Monday through Saturday. 

Of course, you may spend more time studying and otherwise preparing for the exam.

4. Apply for your Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) license.

Time Commitment: Varies 

Guidelines for an LMHC license vary depending on the state. In Massachusetts, you are required to have two professional references. You will also need a head-and-shoulders photo of yourself, a score report of your completed NCMHCE, as well as completed Pre- and Post-Masters Degree forms. You must also provide completed graduate school transcripts and any licenses you have previously held, regardless of their status. Before applying for your license, you must complete board-approved training in domestic and sexual violence. A complete list of guidelines and prerequisites can be found here

For more resources to help you become a licensed mental health counselor in Massachusetts specifically, visit the Massachusetts Health Counselors Association, and visit Mass.gov for a complete list of requirements. When you’ve fulfilled all of the requirements, you can apply for your license through the Massachusetts Allied Mental Health and Human Services Professional Board.

how to become a mental health counselor without a degree

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.

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.

Beneficial skills for counselors without degrees

For those who want to achieve success in a counseling role without a degree, they should have a variety of beneficial skills. Here are some examples:

  • Self-discipline and motivation: When an individual wants to pursue a career as a counselor without obtaining a degree, they can benefit from having excellent self-discipline and motivation skills. This can help them pursue certification programs and study on their own time.
  • Empathy: Empathy refers to an individual’s ability to visualize the emotions of another person and understand what they’re going through. For counselors, empathy is an important skill as it enables them to connect with their clients and convey to their clients that they care about their well-being.
  • Desire to learn: All counselors should have a desire to learn and enhance their skills. However, for counselors determined to start their career without a degree, having a desire to learn can be a valuable trait that influences their success. This encourages them to complete multiple certification courses and work hard to absorb materials.
  • Networking: Networking refers to the process by which professionals connect with potential employers or coworkers, who can connect them with work opportunities. For prospective counselors without a degree, having good networking skills can enable them to enhance their employment opportunities upon completing a certification program.
  • Flexibility: For counselors without a degree, it’s important to be flexible about the employment opportunities available to them. This allows them to go for opportunities outside of their comfort zone, from which they can expand their qualifications for more advanced opportunities.
  • Interpersonal communication: Interpersonal communication is the process by which an individual can adjust their language or communication tactics to aide someone else’s understanding. It also means being able to connect with people from different backgrounds. Counselors should have excellent interpersonal communication skills in order to connect with a wide variety of clients, regardless of their personalities.
  • Attention to detail: Counselors need to have a strong attention to detail so they can identify changes in their clients’ moods or behaviors. This allows counselors to redirect their conversation and help clients open up more.
  • Compartmentalization: Counselors need to be able to compartmentalize their work from their personal life. This is important, as counselors can encounter client situations that cause them to empathize with one client more than others. By being able to compartmentalize, counselors can ensure their mental health. This also ensures that they provide their undivided attention to other clients throughout their workday.
  • Time management: Because counselors typically have multiple client appointments each day, they need to have good time management skills. This ensures that each client gets the time they need and continues to feel valued.

how to become a mental health counselor uK

Mental health is just as important as physical health – and just like physical health, anyone can be struck down by something unexpected.

Mental health charity Mind report that mental health problems affect around one in four people in any given year, ranging from common problems, such as depression and anxiety, to rarer conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

This is why we are opening up the discussion throughout our Mental Health Awareness Week, a series focusing on why talking about mental health is important and what support is out there for those struggling.  

This includes counselling. Here, we explain what a mental health counsellor does, how to find a counsellor and what to do if you wish to become one.

To become a professional mental health counsellor, you will have to train.

female counsellor smiles
There are three main avenues into counselling (Picture: Getty Images)

The three main avenues into counselling include training in:

  • Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT) – Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.
  • Person-centred therapy – Based on the approach of Carl Rogers, person-centred therapy, also known as person-centred or client-centred counselling, is a humanistic approach that deals with the ways in which individuals perceive themselves consciously, rather than how a counsellor can interpret their unconscious thoughts or ideas.
  • Psychotherapy – Psychotherapy tackles issues with cerebral methods, which could involve talking to a therapist, art, music, drama and movement. It can help you discuss feelings you have about yourself and other people, particularly family and those close to you.

Most training courses will do a brief overview of all counselling types while allowing someone to pick a particular focus.  

man being consoled by friends in group therapy

Prospects.ac.uk explain that most courses necessary to become a counsellor take around one year full-time or two years part-time, with a minimum of 100 hours in supervised placements.

You can see what universities offer the course via UCAS – most will require 2-3 A levels or equivalent as a minimum, but this varies across different institutions.

As this is such a serious undertaking, many might not be able to do so but still want to volunteer their time helping those struggling with their mental health.

Major mental health charities like Mind have different volunteer positions, from working in shops to talking with the media.

Other volunteer roles include taking on flexible text and phone line support for the likes of Samaritans and Shout.

If you volunteer with Shout – a 24/7 text service for anyone in crisis – people will receive online training and be overseen by Clinical Supervisors and coaches.

mental health counselor schools

Aspiring mental health counselors must earn graduate degrees before they can begin practicing in the field. Excellent master’s and doctoral programs are available at highly ranked universities around the country. Graduate programs in mental health counseling teach students how to treat patients with mental and emotional disorders through group, individual, and family sessions. Each of these schools was nationally ranked by U.S. News & World Report and the Princeton Review for 2019.

Boston College in Massachusetts

Boston College is a Catholic Jesuit college that was tied 37th among national universities by U.S. News & World Report for 2019. That same year, the university was designated as a best value school by U.S. News & World Report, and The Princeton Review also categorized it as one of the top schools in the Northeast.

In preparation for state licensure, students can pursue a 60-hour Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology program with a concentration in mental health counseling. Aspiring professionals who intend to pursue a doctoral degree can apply to the 48-hour Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology – Mental Health Counselor program. At Boston College, the doctoral program culminates in a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Counseling Psychology. This course of study is fully accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Faculty members in the counseling program specialize in spirituality and mental health, among other areas of research.

University of Wisconsin – Madison

The University of Wisconsin is a public institution that U.S. News & World Report ranked 46th in a tie among national universities and ranked 13th among public schools for 2019. The university was also named as one of the best midwestern colleges by The Princeton Review for the same year.

The university offers a terminal Master of Science in Counseling program with a concentration in community counseling. On the doctoral level, students can enroll in the Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology program, which is APA-accredited. Counseling programs at the University of Wisconsin emphasize multiculturalism and diversity.

George Washington University

In the 2019 rankings, George Washington University tied for 70th on the U.S. News & World Report list of national universities. In the same year, the university also made The Princeton Review‘s list of the best northeastern colleges.

George Washington University offers a Master of Arts in Educaiton and Human Development with a clinical mental health counseling specialization, which is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Additional programs can lead to a Ph.D. or a post-master’s certificate in counseling. The school’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling Services Center provides opportunities for internships.

Clemson University in Clemson, SC

For 2019, Clemson University tied for 70th among national universities by U.S. News & World Report, and it ranked as one of the best Southeastern colleges by The Princeton Review. At Clemson, aspiring counselors can enroll in the Master of Education/Educational Specialist in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, which is accredited by the CACREP. This program consists of 60 credit hours and can be completed in as few years as two years of full-time study, although part-time study options are available.

Students take mental health counseling classes on topics such as group counseling, crisis counseling, and addictions counseling, and they must also log at least 700 hours of clinical field experience before graduating.

Top Mental Health Counseling Programs

There are many other schools that offer excellent mental health counseling programs and have notable characteristics.

School NameDistinctionLocation
Johns Hopkins UniversityStudents pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling participate in applied learning experiences within the communityBaltimore, MD
Marquette UniversityProgram in clinical mental health counseling allows for a specialization in addiction-mental health counselingMilwaukee, WI
Pennsylvania State UniversityMaster’s degree program in mental health counseling emphasizes community and schoolworkUniversity Park, PA
St. John’s UniversityStudents in the clinical mental health counseling program complete a minimum of one practicum and two internshipsQueens, NY
University at BuffaloMaster of Science in Mental Health Counseling admits only 10-15 students per year and uses a cohort modelBuffalo, NY
Western Michigan UniversityOffers the counseling psychology program at multiple campusesKalamazoo, MI

For students who want to become mental health counselors, relevant graduate programs are available at top-ranked regional and national universities, including Boston College and Clemson University. These schools have varying considerations, such as programs with unique specialization options or accreditation by psychology associations.

mental health counselor salary

The salaries of mental health counselors varies, depending on the are of specialization experience. Mental health counselors that have worked for the military for several years, for instance, will often earn much more than those starting out in entry level positions with non-profit groups.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for mental health counselors was $52,900 2019.

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