According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 American adults experience a mental illness in a year. Of adolescents (aged 13-18) in America, about 21% experience a severe mental disorder at some point in their lifetime. The need for licensed mental health professionals is greater than ever.
Clinical mental health counselors combine psychotherapy with problem-solving approaches to support clients who are dealing with a variety of mental, emotional and behavioral health issues to include, but certainly not limited to, anxiety, depression, stress, grief, or low self-esteem, among other concerns.
Mental health counselors provide treatment to individuals, couples, families, and groups. They may work with diverse populations or offer specialized therapy to a specific population, such as the elderly, disabled, military personnel, adolescents or children.
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The practice of professional mental health counseling includes the diagnosis and treatment of mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. Mental health counselors are trained to recognize the symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, personality disorders, obsessive or compulsive behaviors, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, psychoses, and a host of other conditions. Counselors in the mental health field take a client-centered, and not illness-centered, approach to counseling and use effective counseling strategies such as cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal or psychodynamic therapy.
Mental health counselors also engage in assessment, treatment planning, psychoeducation and prevention programs, and crisis management - all while holding a holistic view of the client.
In cases where a more chronic mental illness is present a mental health counselor may work in concert with a psychiatrist or provide a referral.
Steps to Become a Mental Health Counselor
Step 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 sets the groundwork for graduate studies in counseling. Coursework for undergraduate studies in these fields will typically include the evaluation of human development, counseling skills and foundation, introduction to psychology, and/or basic approaches to counseling/therapy.
Step 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 for practice as a licensed professional mental health counselor.
Step 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.
Step 4: Pass any required counseling exams for licensure.
Some states and/or counseling programs require the passing of a recognized counseling examination for gradation or licensure such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and/or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).
Step 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). Mental health counselors can also pursue specializations in grief, pastoral, school-based mental health counseling, or other mental health challenges, concerns, or disorders.
Step 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.
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State licensure is required in order to practice as a mental health counselor. Counseling licensure equirements vary by state, but typically include completion of a counseling master's degree program from an accredited university, 2,000 to 4,000 hours of postgraduate supervised clinical experience, and a passing score on a state-recognized licensing exam. Practicing mental health counselors may also be required to take continuing education to maintain their license.
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.
Career Outlook for Mental Health Counselors
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, mental health counseling positions are projected to grow 20% from 2014 to 2024, faster than average. Because of the federal health insurance reform, the number of individuals who will or currently have access to mental health services provided through their insurance is expected to increase. 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, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York as having the highest employment levels.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average annual salary for a mental health counselor in the U.S. is about $43,000. Salaries vary depending on the industry and setting. For example, counselors employed by the government could earn about $51,000 per year while mental health counselors employed in individual and family services earn about $40,000 per year. Level of education and experience may also influence salary level. The highest annual wage can be found in Alaska, Utah, and Idaho. However, Napa and El Centro, California hold the highest paid mental health counselor positions at about $71,000 per year.
Program Name: Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
Program Length: Two years
Instruction Methods: N/A
60 credit hours
A minimum combined score of 900 on the GRE General Test or a minimum combined score of 290 on the new GRE General Test
Undergraduate GPA of 3.0 overall or on the last sixty semester hours of undergraduate course work
A bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited college or university
Complete an application online, submit official transcripts from all schools attended, and submit a score from either the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Administration Management Test (GMAT)
Have official transcripts sent directly from the issuing institution or evaluation agency in a sealed envelope or send electronically