How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree in a behavioral, social science, or psychology field.
  2. Earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling.
  3. Complete graduate and postgraduate internship experience for certification/licensure requirements.
  4. Pass any required counseling exams for licensure.
  5. Apply for licensure.
  6. Apply for and earn additional mental health certifications.
  7. Continue your education and stay up to date on mental health counseling trends and changes.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 51.5 million adults in the United States were diagnosed with some form of mental, behavioral and/or emotional disorder in 2019. About 44.8 percent of diagnosed adults received mental health services in the past year. As a result there may be a greater need for mental health professionals now, and this page may help you understand common steps in order to become one.

What is the role of a mental health counselor?

Mental health counselors combine psychotherapy with problem-solving to help individuals, couples, families and groups dealing with a variety of mental health issues, according to the American Counseling Association (ACA). They may work with diverse populations or offer specialized therapy to a specific population, such as the elderly, disabled, military personnel, adolescents or children.

We’ll dive in further into the work of mental health counselors below, but first we’ll outline the common steps for how to become a mental health counselor. Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves.

Table of Contents

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Master of Arts in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness

Aspiring mental health counselors are prepared to pursue licensure with NYU Steinhardt’s MPCAC-accredited online counseling master’s. Students can earn their degree in as few as 21 mos. GRE not req. 

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Steps to Become a Mental Health Counselor

1. 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, 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, including a bachelor’s in social work or a bachelor’s in psychology. 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.

Obtaining your graduate degree in mental health counseling is a requirement for practice as a licensed professional mental health counselor. Earning a degree in mental health counseling from an institution accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) indicates the program’s content and quality meet the high standards set forth by the mental health profession. Though CACREP is the widely preferred accreditor, a CACREP-accredited degree is not required in every state and there may be other accreditors for specific degree specializations. Be sure to check with your state board for more information.

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.  CACREP customarily requires at least 100 clock hours over the length of a full academic term or 10 weeks, also including 40 hours of direct client contact. An internship should take place after the completion of the practicum and should include at least 600 clock hours and 240 hours of direct client contact in the speciality area.

Before earning mental health counseling licensure, applicants must gain hands-on experience through graduate and post-graduate internships under the supervision of licensed counselors. States may require several thousand clinical hours for some levels of licensure. Students will need to obtain an initial license, which allows the graduate to be supervised by a licensed independent practitioner in post-degree practice and can be thought of as a temporary professional license. The name of this license may vary by state and include Associate Licensed Counselor or Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern.

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) and/or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Some states may have additional examination requirements for licensure, which aspiring counselors should become familiar with, depending on the state in which they intend to pursue licensure.

5. Apply for Licensure

Passing the licensing exams is a big step in a graduate’s journey. Next, students will need to apply for a mental health license in their state. This will be considered as an independent practice license. Specific licensing requirements vary between states, so it is essential to follow the state’s counseling board guidelines where a student wishes to practice.

6. Apply for and earn additional mental health certifications.

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

7. 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.

Sponsored Online Counseling Programs

The Family Institute at Northwestern University info

Master of Arts in Counseling

Earn a CACREP-accredited master’s in counseling online from top-10 ranked1 Northwestern University.
 

1U.S. News & World Report: 2020 Best National University Rankings 

  • CACREP Accredited
  • Earn your MA in Counseling from Northwestern in as few as 18 months
  • Accelerated full-time, traditional, or part-time tracks available

NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development info

Master of Arts in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness

Aspiring mental health counselors are prepared to pursue licensure with NYU Steinhardt’s MPCAC-accredited online counseling master’s. Students can earn their degree in as few as 21 mos. GRE not req. 

  • Prepare to become a mental health counselor
  • Accredited by the MPCAC
  • As few as 21 months to complete
  • GRE not required 

Graduate School of Education and Psychology info

Master of Arts in Psychology

Pepperdine University’s online Master of Arts in Psychology program prepares students to pursue doctoral study or a career in human services.

  • Open to all undergrad majors
  • No GRE required 
  • Can be completed in about 18 months

infoSPONSORED

What Is a Mental Health Counselor?

A mental health counselor is a licensed professional (commonly known as an LPC or LMHC) who provides care for clients with emotional and behavioral issues. They typically see clients on a recurring schedule to help with an ongoing issue. Counselors use psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy and other models of psychological treatment that they’ve learned from an accredited mental health counseling degree program.

A mental health counselor is not the same as a psychiatrist, which is a medical professional who is licensed to prescribe medication for diagnosed disorders. Counselors may work in teams with other types of health professionals to provide comprehensive care to a client in need.

LPC vs. LMHC

Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) and licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs) are two different titles for counselors who have obtained licensure in their state. Licensure requirements for professional counselors (PDF, 414 KB) and naming conventions vary between states.

What Do Mental Health Counselors Do?

The practice of professional mental health counseling includes the diagnosis and treatment of mental, behavioral and emotional disorders, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Behavioral addictions
  • Psychoses

Mental health counselors also see clients who may not have a specific diagnosed disorder, but need support navigating challenges including anger management, bullying, grief, self-esteem and body-image, relationships, chronic stress, and other topics.

A career in mental health counseling may include the following duties:

  • Recognizing the symptoms of mental health disorders in their clients
  • Planning treatment for clients over a period of time
  • Supporting clients through recovery or therapeutic practices
  • Conducting group sessions with a client’s family or supportive peers
  • Helping clients unpack complicated emotions and behavioral patterns
  • Educating clients about different types of therapy
  • Tracking the progress of clients as they move through treatment
  • Referring clients to other sources of help, like support groups, out-patient clinics, health care providers and social work organizations
  • Providing clients with strategies and behavioral skills they can use to problem-solve in the future.

Counselors in the mental health field take a client-centered, holistic approach to providing care for their clients. They are trained to understand how environmental, interpersonal and physical factors can contribute to a person’s mental health.

Though mental health counselors do not prescribe medication to their clients, they often work in multidisciplinary teams with other providers, such as psychiatrists or primary care providers who are licensed to write prescriptions. In non-medical settings, counselors may also work alongside social workers, school counselors and other professionals who ascribe to holistic care models.

Job Description at a Glance

A mental health counselor’s job includes working with clients from various backgrounds to improve their mental health, understand complicated emotions and work toward wellness goals. Mental health counselors offer support to individual clients, couples, families or groups with similar situations.

Career Outlook for Mental Health Counselors

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, mental health counseling positions are projected to grow 23% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than average. The industries that employ the most mental health counselors include outpatient care centers, individual and family services, inpatient/residential care facilities and local government. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also lists California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York as having the highest employment levels of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors. If you’re interested in becoming a counselor in Texas, California, New York, Florida, or any other state, it is important to familiarize yourself with the requirements for the state where you are interested in becoming a counselor since each state has their own requirements.

The Occupational Outlook Handbook indicates that the median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $48,520 in May 2021. Salaries vary depending on the industry and setting. For example, counselors employed by the government earned a median salary of $60,450 per year, while mental health counselors employed in individual and family services earned about $47,940 per year (as of May 2021). Level of education, location and experience may also influence salary level.

Skills Mental Health Counselors Utilize

Mental health counselors develop skills through education and training in order to safely, legally and effectively serve the needs of their clients who may have a variety of mental health diagnoses.

Through courses and experiential learning, counselors build basic skills (PDF, 122 KB) for interpersonal communication, including listening, problem-solving, research, and critical thinking.

  • Communication: The vast majority of counseling services require conversations and clear communication between the counselor and their clients. Being able to educate clients about the treatment process and implement treatment plans requires effective understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Listening: Being an active listener is a crucial skill for counselors to understand and untangle the concerns and needs of their clients. Counselors will learn what language to listen for and how to identify what information isn’t being said.
  • Problem-Solving: Working through complicated issues is a key part of helping clients solve problems in their own lives or with others in their lives.
  • Research: Scientifically studying patients and their behavioral patterns is a part of a counselor’s role, which they will learn through education and clinical residencies.
  • Critical-Thinking: Counselors combine communication and active listening to make diagnoses, implement therapy models and conduct research with clients.

Where Do Mental Health Counselors Work?

Mental health counselors work in the public and private sector in a variety of settings, including community centers, hospitals, public schools, universities, veteran health agencies, outpatient facilities, recovery centers, career centers, religious institutions and private practices, according to the American Counseling Association.

If they choose to specialize in a specific population, counselors will likely work in agencies or organizations that serve those populations. For example, specializing in children’s mental health could lead a counselor to work in elementary schools, pediatric hospitals, youth homes, foster care organizations or social service agencies. Specializing in geriatric counseling might lead to working in veteran medical hospitals, assisted living facilities, senior community centers, retirement homes and palliative care facilities. Make sure to check your specific work environment’s requirements as some may require additional schooling or credentials.

Counselors who choose a career in the public sector work with organizations that are publicly funded, like government organizations, non-profits, correctional facilities, elementary, middle and high schools, colleges and universities, social services organizations and publicly-owned hospitals.

Working in the private sector may include counseling individual clients, couples or small groups of clients on a recurring basis to work on chronic issues over time. Counselors can also open their own private practices to serve clients, which could require managing a small number of other counselors and administrative staff, as well as performing the responsibilities of running a small business.

What Are the Licensing Requirements?

State licensure is required in order to practice as a mental health counselor. Counseling licensure requirements vary by state, but typically include completion of a counseling master’s degree program from an accredited university, 3,000 to 5,000 hours of postgraduate supervised clinical experience under an initial license and a passing score on a state-recognized licensing exam, all which must be completed prior to obtaining an independent practice license. Practicing mental health counselors may also be required to take continuing education to maintain their license.

Licensing requirements vary by state and should be checked thoroughly by counselors pursuing licensure in any state. Detailed information for state licensing requirements for mental health counselors is available through the National Board for Certified Counselors state board directory.

Are There Certification Requirements?

While not mandatory, mental health counselors can earn certification through The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). NBCC’s National Certified Counselor designation gives you an additional credential that demonstrates your experience, education and level of counseling skills.

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Last updated: April 2022