How to Become a Military Counselor
Active duty military personnel, veterans and their families seek counseling help for a wide variety of mental, emotional and social needs. In a 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry, the National Alliance on Mental Illness summarizes that 1 in 4 active duty military members were exhibiting signs of a mental health condition to include posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and/or a traumatic brain injury.
Military personnel may require assistance during training, deployment, transition from active duty and in retirement. They may face a variety of psychological and social issues including depression and anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and family and marital issues. Additionally, personnel returning home may seek support with their transition back to civilian life, including career and education assistance.
Counseling services within the military are also provided to military families. Military OneSource provides non-medical counseling to help military personnel and their families navigate the military lifestyle and the challenges that they may face. These services include addressing marital problems, parenting, stress management, and grief and/or loss to include a few.
The U.S. military employs counselors, case workers, and psychologists in a variety of roles with various levels of education and training to provide a host of support options for our military personnel and their families. In many cases, a military counselor will work as part of a team that may include social workers, psychologists, medical officers, chaplains, personnel specialists, and commanders.
What does a Military Counselor do?
Military counselors, case workers, and psychologists caseworkers and counselors perform a variety of duties, including:
- Providing therapeutic services to personnel who request help or are referred by their commanders
- Offering off site counseling to service members deployed overseas, typically via video conference
- Identifying problems and determining if a referral for further help is needed, such as psychiatry, drug treatment or a community support group
- Counseling family members of military personnel
- Administering psychological tests
- Helping personnel explore career and education opportunities
- Teaching classes on human relations and transitioning back to civilian life
- Providing ongoing support to disabled veterans and those with severe mental trauma
- Offering crisis intervention, mental health assessments and suicide prevention support
Within six months of return from overseas deployments, the U.S. military service branches conduct mandatory screenings for mental health conditions via the Post Deployment Health Reassessment. Installation support programs provide referrals for assessment, treatment, suicide prevention and other counseling services as deemed appropriate. Service members and their families have more options than ever before for accessing counseling assistance, including government sponsored initiatives like the Army Substance Abuse Program, Family Advocacy Program and various TRICARE support offerings.
Steps to Become a Military 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 professional 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 counseling, social work, or psychology with a focus on military populations.
There are some CACREP accredited universities that offer degree programs with a focus on working with military populations. Obtaining your graduate degree in counseling is a requirement for for practice as a licensed professional 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 counselor, gaining hands-on experience under licensed mental health professionals.
Step 4: Pass any required counseling exams for licensure.
Some states and/or counseling programs require the passing of a recognized 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 counseling certifications.
Licensed professional counselors can pursue a national certification through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). Counselors can also pursue specializations in grief, pastoral, military and trauma, or other mental health challenges, concerns, or disorders.
Step 6: Continue your education and stay up to date on military 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 in military and government changes, mental health care, counseling, and client advocacy.
What are the licensing requirements?
Counselors who support active duty military must be able to accept TRICARE, the healthcare program for military personnel and their families. To be able to do so requires a master’s degree or higher in mental health counseling or related field from an accredited university and passage of the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).
Additional licensing requirements may apply in the state where you will be employed. See state licensure requirements.
For counseling employment with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), master’s degrees must be from universities accredited by the Council on Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).
Are there certification requirements?
To become a military counselor, any individual must have obtained at least, their master’s degree in counseling, psychology, or social work. Some states do offer an add-on certification which guides applicants through veteran and military specific counseling courses, such as those offered by the Licensed Professional Counselors Association of North Carolina (LPCANC). Some universities and colleges may offer an add-on certification for work with the military population. While a certification is not a requirement for practice, it is a benefit for both the counselor and employers seeking military counseling professionals.
Career Outlook for Military Counselors
Whether you are a military counselor employed directly as a contractor or as an independent practice, U.S. government and U.S. Department of Defense have made a conscious effort to expand counseling services available to military personnel, veterans and their families. Seven categories of counseling services are offered to active duty service, National Guard, and reserve members. Many of these services are free of charge.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides mental health counseling services through over 1000 centers, clinics, or through their Veterans Crisis Line.its According to the VA, more than 1.6 million veterans received mental health treatment in the fiscal year 2015. This has risen each year, in part to proactive screening to veterans who exhibit symptoms of a mental health concern.
Mental health counselors, psychologists, and social workers are employed as military counselors. As such, the job outlook can vary as employment can be contracted through the government or counseling can be provided through an independent practice - contracted through TRICARE. Employment is projected to rise 19% between 2014 to 2024 for mental health counselors with average earnings of about $42,000 per year. The employment of psychologists is projected to increase 20% from 2014 to 2024 with an average earning of $70,000 per year. The field of social work is expected to grow 12% between 2014 and 2024. Licensed social workers earn, on average, about $45,000 per year.