How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

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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What do Mental Health Counselors do?

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.
Counseling@Northwestern offers online coursework in professional counseling on psychodynamic viewpoints, family, marital, and couples counseling, theory of substance abuse, and career development. Discover more on earning your M.A. in counseling by requesting information from Counseling@Northwestern

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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.

What are the licensing requirements?

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.

Detailed information for state licensing requirements for mental health counselors is available through the National Board for Certified Counselors.

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.

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.

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Adams State University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Counseling
  • Program Length: 2 1/2 years
  • Instruction Method: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • Completion of five consecutive semesters
  • Maintain a 3.0 GPA
  • Complete 12-credit hour internship

Admission Requirements

  • Completed online application with $30 fee
  • Official transcripts from baccalaureate degree
  • Two letters of professional recommendation
  • Personal statement, 3-5 pages typed, double-spaced on your past helping experiences, future goals in the helping profession, and personal qualities that will enable you to be an effective counselor
  • Minimum undergraduate GPA of 2.75
Antioch University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Three years for full-time students
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • Two intensive week-long residencies
  • A semester-long practicum (100 hours)
  • A three-semester internship (900 hours) 

Admission Requirements

  • A bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university
  • A minimum cumulative GPA of 2.7
  • International students must live in the U.S. and have a TOEFL score of 550 for the paper-based test or 79 for the Internet-based examination
  • Supplementary admissions statement
  • Resume
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Completion of an admissions interview with a faculty member
Bellevue University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Science in Clinical Counseling
  • Program Length: Two to three years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credit Hours
  • 100-hours practicum
  • 600-hours internship
  • Residential and online students are responsible to complete practicum and clinical internship hours under supervision of a licensed counselor.
  • Candidates for the master’s degree program must have completed a prerequisite requirement of 6 credit hours in the behavioral sciences.

Admission Requirements

  • A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university, or a U.S. equivalent degree from a nationally or internationally accredited college or university
  • GPA of 2.5 or better from the most recent 60 credits of coursework earned toward the bachelor’s degree OR
  • GPA of 3.0 or better in previous graduate level coursework earned toward the graduate degree
  • May require letters of recommendation and essays in certain circumstances
Bradley University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Counseling
  • Program Length: Two to three years
  • Instruction Method: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60-61 Semester Credit Hours (CACREP Accredited curriculum)
  • Completion of 750 hours of supervised experiences: practicum - 100 Hours, internship - 650 Hours
  • Two required campus-based residencies

Admission Requirements

  • Completed graduate online application  with $40 application fee
  • Admissions essays on one of the following:
    • Achievements and work experience relevant to one's interest in and capacity for graduate study
    • Career objectives and how this graduate program at Bradley University will assist in attaining these goals
  • Official transcripts from an accredited baccalaureate university or college
  • Maintained a 3.0 GPA for the last 60 credit hours of undergraduate work
  • Three professional letters of recommendation - one must be a current supervisor
  • Official GRE or MAT scores may be used if other requirements are not available
  • Complete the program's online screening interview.
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Three years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • Required Core Courses: 51 credits
  • Electives: 9 credits
  • Total Program: 60 credits
  • Two, four-day residencies at the Chicago campus.
  • 100-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship

Admission Requirements

  • Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution
  • GPA of 3.0
  • A course in psychology, with a grade earned of C or better
  • A course in either statistics or research methods, with a grade earned of C or better
  • An interview with Program Director/Department Chair and/or designee
  • Application/Apply Online
  • Application Fee: $50
  • Two-page essay
  • Official College/University Transcripts from all regionally accredited schools where degrees have been earned
  • Official transcripts
  • Three Letters of Recommendation from professors and/or supervisors
Cornerstone University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master's Degree in Counseling
  • Program Length: Three to Four Years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 69 Credit hours
  • 100 hour practicum experience
  • 600 hour internship experience

Admission Requirements

  • Application
  • Official undergraduate transcripts with at least a 2.5 GPA from an accredited university
  • Ministry Reference
  • Personal Reference
Edinboro University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Counseling
  • Program Length: 2 to 3 years depending on student’s pace
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60-63 credits
  • A degree student may not be admitted to Candidacy until:
    • At least 12 semester hours of degree credit have been completed
    • An Application for Admission to Candidacy has been filed with the advisor
    • The student has maintained a minimum 3.0 GPA
  • Comprehensive examination
  • Cpstone project in one designated class
  • 12-credit internship of 600 hours of on-site experience

Admission Requirements

  • Online graduate application and application fee
  • An official transcript verifying an earned bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution
  • Three letters of reference and contact information to be submitted via online application
  • Writing sample of up to 500 words
  • Admissions interview
Grace College

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Two to three years
  • Instruction Method: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • Completion of practicum and internship
  • Attend a seven to ten day reisdency on campus annually
  • Comprehensive "exit exam" 
  • Development of a portfolio

Admission Requirements

  • Official transcripts from an accredited undegraduate university
  • Minimum 3.0 GPA
  • Complete online application
  • Two references, one professional and one spiritual
  • Pass a background check
  • Resume Submission
  • Phone Interview
Hodges University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Two 1/2 to Three years
  • Instruction Method: Asynchronous and Synchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 coursework credits
  • 150-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship
  • Four weekend-long residencies

Admission Requirements

  • Official transcripts from an accredited undergraduate program
  • Completed application with $50 fee
  • Interview
  • Admission Essay
  • Online Learning Study Eligibility form
Indiana Wesleyan University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: 2 ½ to 5 years full-time or 3 ½ to 5 years part-time
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements: 60 credits

Admission Requirements

  • A bachelor’s degree and official transcripts from an accredited college or university
  • An undergraduate grade point average of 3.0
  • Six credit hours in Psychology, of which three credit hours must be in Abnormal Psychology (Developmental Psychology for Student Development Counseling and Administration)
  • Six credit hours in Bible
  • GRE taken within five years of application to the program. Verbal (V) score of at least 146 required.
  • Submit an autobiography
  • Three recommendations

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Lamar University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Depends upon enrollment
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 credits
  • 100-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship
  • Attend two residencies

Admission Requirements

  • Complete online application and pay a one-time application fee of $25
  • Official transcripts from all colleges/universities attended*
  • Applicants for the MEd in Clinical Mental Health Counseling need a GPA of 2.75 (cumulative or last 60 hours)
  • Students must have a valid state-issued teaching certificate upon enrollment
  • Applicants must have at least two years of teaching experience
  • US Citizen or Permanent Resident
Lindsey Wilson College

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Education in Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: N/A
  • Instruction Method: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • 150-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship

Admission Requirements

  • Official transcripts from baccalaureate degree
  • Online Application
Lock Haven University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Up to three years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous and Synchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • 100-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship

Admission Requirements

  • Undergraduate degree in psychology or related discipline
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0
  • Work and/of life experience surrounding clinical mental health counseling
  • Personal interview
  • Completed online application
  • Official transcripts from previous universities
  • Three letters of professional recommendation, at least one discussing your ability to succeed academically
  • Statement of Professional Goals - one page in length
Malone University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Up to three years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • 100-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship

Admission Requirements

  • Undergraduate degree from an accredited university
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0
  • Completed online application
  • Official transcripts from previous universities
  • Two Professional References
  • Autobiography - Two to three pages
  • Personal interview
Messiah College

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Counseling
  • Program Length: Two to four years
  • Instruction Method: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • Maintain a 3.0 GPA
  • Recommendation of graduation from advisor
  • Six credit internship and one practicum
  • Attend at least one professional counseling conference
  • Attend two one-week, one campus sessions

Admission Requirements

  • Official transcripts verifying baccalaureate degree from an accredited institution
  • Completed application with $30 fee
  • Minimum cumulative undergraduate 3.0 GPA
  • Personal statement of purpose, 300-500 words
  • Two recommendations
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • 150 word answers to four essay questions
  • State Authorization (Messiah can NOT accept online graduate students taking classes while living in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, or Wisconsin)
New York University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Mental Health and Wellness
  • Program Length:1 ½ to 2+ year depending on enrollment basis.
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous and Synchronous

Program Requirements:

  • 60 Credits
  • Completion of 700 hours of field work

Admission Requirements:

  • Completed online graduate application
  • Application Fee: $75, priority application timelines are $45
  • Statement of Purpose: Introduction of your goals, interests, career plans and reasons why you are pursuing a master's degree in counseling.
  • Current Resume or Curriculum Vitae
  • Transcripts from every postsecondary school uploaded. If admitted, you will need to provide official copies.
  • Two letters of recommendation from academic references.
  • If your native language is not English, you will need to submit TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE scores.
Learn more about NYU's mental health counseling online program, request information directly from Counseling@NYU.

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North Carolina Central University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: N/A
  • Instruction Methods: N/A

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • 100-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship

Admission Requirements

  • Undergraduate degree from an accredited university
  • Minimum GPA of 2.7
  • Completed online application with $40 fee
  • Two Recommendations
  • GRE Scores
  • Application Essay
North Carolina State University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Education in Counseling
  • Program Length: Three years
  • Instruction Method: Asynchronous and Synchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • Internship completion

Admission Requirements

  • Official transcripts verifying baccalaureate degree from an accredited institution
  • Online and Department Application with fee
  • Resume
  • GRE or MAT scores
  • TOEFL for International Students
  • Three Academic Recommendations
Northwestern University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Counseling
  • Program Length: 18 months to three years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous and Synchronous

Program Requirements

  • Enrollment in:
    • The Standard Curriculum: 24 courses OR
    • Bridge to Counseling Program: 27 courses included coursework to orient students to key theories of the field
  • 200-hour Practicum
  • 600-hour Internship

Admissions Requirements

  • Bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university
  • Unofficial transcripts
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • Current Resume
  • Statement of Purpose
  • One Supplemental Essay
  • Recent Photo
  • Official scores of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) if post-secondary work was outside the United States
Discover Northwestern University's online master of arts in counseling program by requesting information from Counseling@Northwestern.

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Palo Alto University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Up to three years
  • Instruction Methods: Synchronous

Program Requirements

  • 90 Quarter Credits
  • 100-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship
  • One week summer residency
  • Coursework completion of a B grade or better

Admission Requirements

  • Undergraduate degree from an accredited university
  • Official transcripts from previous universities
  • Minimum 3.0 GPA recommended
  • Completed online application with $50 fee
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Three letters of recommendation - academic or professional
  • Interview with the program director via videoconference
Regent University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Counseling
  • Program Length: Two years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 credit hours
  • 100-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship

Admissions Requirements

  • Bachelors from a regionally accredited college or university
  • A minimum of a 3.0 GPA for all undergraduate coursework
  • Complete application online and pay application fee
  • Submit official and unofficial transcripts and test scores
  • Writing sample
  • Recent resume or curriculum vitae
  • Pre-admissions workshop
Union Institute and University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Two years minimum
  • Instruction Methods: Synchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 credit hours
  • 100-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship
  • Three 3-day residencies
  • Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examiniation

Admissions Requirements

  • Undergraduate degree from an accredited university
  • Official transcripts from previous universities
  • Minimum 3.0 GPA recommended
  • Completed online application
  • Resume or curriculum vitae
  • Personal Statement: Personal and professional goals
  • Professional reference - at least one from a person who can evaluate potential for clinical work
  • Individual Interview
University of Louisiana-Monroe

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Two years
  • Instruction Methods: N/A

Program Requirements

  • 60 credit hours
  • Internship

Admissions Requirements

  • 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
University of Massachusetts - Boston

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling
  • Program Length: Two to three and a half years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credit Hours
  • 100 Hour Practicum
  • 600 Hour Internship
  • One Two-Week Summer Session

Admission Requirements

  • A Bachelor’s Degree from an Accredited College or University
  • Online Application
  • Official Previous Transcripts
  • Minimum 3.0 Undergraduate GPA
  • GRE/MAT Scores
  • Three Letters of Recommendation
  • Statement of Intent
  • Resume
  • Personal Interview
University of the Cumberlands

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Professional Counseling
  • Program Length: Two to three years
  • Instruction Methods: N/A

Program Requirements

  • 60 credit hours

Admissions Requirements

  • Completed Graduate Application and payment of the associated fee
  • A completed Bachelor’s degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0 on (a lower GPA may be acceptable for conditional admittance)
  • Official transcripts must be received for all coursework
  • Submit a 500-word Statement of Purpose for graduate study
  • Submit two letters of reference
Wake Forest University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Counseling
  • Program Length: Two to three years
  • Instruction Method: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • 200-Hour Practicum
  • 600-Hour Internship

Admission Requirements

  • Complete online application with $75 fee
  • Official transcripts verifying baccalaureate degree from an accredited institution
  • Undergraduate GPA greater than 2.5
  • GRE Scores
  • Three Letters of Recommendation