Online Master’s in Counseling and Mental Health Degrees

Last updated: December 2020

Establishing a career in counseling begins with education. Both for the relevant knowledge base and requisite credentials, education is the foundation for any practicing counselor. While licensing or certification requirements for counseling vary by state, one requirement that is consistent across the board is the completion of a master’s degree, such as an online counseling degree. Even if you don’t immediately plan on pursuing licensure/certification in counseling, most clinics, hospitals and mental health practices will only hire candidates with a master’s degree to practice counseling.

As a counselor, the degree you earn provides you with the theoretical and practical knowledge and experience needed to demonstrate your level of expertise in the field. This degree will also help to qualify you for state licensure or certification and clinical positions within the counseling field. Learn how online counseling degrees can help you reach your career goals and make a real difference in people’s lives.

Why Get a Master’s Degree in the Counseling or Mental Health Field?

Almost 20% of American adults live with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Counselors and mental health professionals help people who are living with mental health disorders or otherwise experiencing difficulties with life, and the field can be extraordinarily rewarding if you want to make a difference in people’s lives.

Each state has its own requirements for licensure to become a counselor, social worker or other type of mental health professional. Check with your state licensing board to learn the specific requirements for licensure in your state.

In online mental health degree programs, you’ll learn from experienced professionals. Supervised field work is also typically a part of a master’s program in mental health or counseling, which gives you real-world experience. Through classroom and supervised field work, you’ll prepare for working with real clients.

Master’s Degrees in Counseling vs. Psychology vs. Social Work

Counseling, psychology and social work are all mental health fields. There is some overlap in the degree programs as well as some key differences regarding curriculum, requirements and program length.

Master’s Degree in Counseling

A master’s degree in counseling program helps prepare graduates to become licensed counselors in the state where they want to practice. A master’s degree in counseling is a requirement for licensure in most states.  

During this program, which typically takes around two to three years to complete, students may learn counseling theories, counseling assessment and counseling methods. Students also typically complete supervised practicums under licensed counselors. Some applicants may be required to complete certain coursework during the master’s program, depending on the state in which they wish to practice.

Master’s Degree in Psychology

A master’s degree in psychology program helps prepare students to get a doctorate in psychology and become a psychologist. Students learn psychology principles, research theory and lifespan development.

Master’s degrees in psychology take around at least 30 credits to complete. A master’s degree may help you earn a doctoral degree in psychology or advance in your current career. 

Master’s Degree in Social Work

Master’s degree in social work programs help prepare graduates to become social workers or earn higher credentials in the social work field. To enter a master’s degree in social work, you typically need to have a bachelor’s degree and meet specific admissions criteria, depending on the university.

MSW programs typically take two years to complete and require field placement or an internship working under a licensed social worker. During the program, students may learn research-based therapy techniques as well as how to assess clients and how to help clients cope with social issues like abuse, poverty and neglect.

Types of Online Counseling Degrees

Master of Arts

Earning your Master of Arts, or MA, in counseling focuses on social sciences and humanities. MA programs in counseling take a theoretical and cultural perspective to understanding human nature and behavior.

Master of Science

Pursuing a Master of Science, or MS, in counseling focuses on a quantitative and analytical approach to human behavior and development. An MS in counseling may also be more focused on research, analysis and evaluation.

Master of Education

Obtaining a Master of Education in Counseling prepares you for licensure in the educational field, such as school counseling. With a focus on learning theories and topics such as educational research and policy, an MEd helps prepare individuals entering the education field.

PhD in Counseling

doctorate in counseling helps prepare graduates for research and clinical work in counseling, as well as teaching in higher education or obtaining leadership roles in counseling.

Types of Online Mental Health Degrees

Master’s in Psychology Online

Earning a master’s degree in psychology may prepare you to work with many different clients. In a master’s in psychology program, you may learn about personality development, clinical research and treatment of mental health diagnosis. For any clinical practice, a master’s in psychology helps prepare you for completion of a doctorate of psychology program.

Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy Online

master’s in marriage and family therapy helps prepare you for licensure as a marriage and family therapist in working with families, couples and children. Throughout a master’s in MFT program, you may learn about multicultural differences, family dynamics, relationship development and different schools of thought in theoretical approaches.

Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis Online

Master’s in applied behavior analysis programs guide the development of mental health professionals to work with individuals with autism and related diagnoses. In preparation for licensure or certification, you may want to look for BACB-accredited programs.

Master’s in Behavioral Psychology Online

Earning a master’s degree in behavioral psychology may prepare you to help patients with substance abuse, intellectual disabilities and mental health disorders. During a master’s in behavior psychology program, you may learn research methods, applied behavior analysis and principles of behavior.

Master’s in Clinical Psychology Online

master’s in clinical psychology helps prepare you to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology, which is required to practice clinical psychology. Throughout a master’s program in clinical psychology, you may learn about multiculturalism and diversity, developmental basis of behavior, theories of psychopathology and biological basis of behavior.

Master’s in Counseling Psychology Online and On Campus

master’s degree in counseling psychology helps prepare you to work with clients who are facing emotional, physical or mental health challenges. Master’s in counseling psychology programs help prepare students to work toward a doctoral-level degree in psychology to become a psychologist and possibly be able to become licensed as a counselor, depending on state requirements.

Online Master’s and Doctoral Degrees in Educational Psychology

Master’s and doctoral degree programs in educational psychology help prepare graduates to work with children, adolescents and adults within education systems, at schools and at colleges. With a doctoral degree, a graduate may become an educational psychologist; with a master’s degree, they may be qualified to enter a doctoral program for educational psychology. 

Master’s in Social Work Online

Master’s in social work programs may prepare you to work with many different types of people, groups and organizations. During a master’s in social work, coursework may include human behavior, research methods, diversity and oppression in a social work context and social policy and services.

Other Online Degrees: Master’s in Human Resources

master’s in human resources helps prepare graduates for senior positions in human resources (HR) fields. HR professionals work on employee initiatives at a variety of companies, including onboarding, employee benefits and employee engagement projects. A master’s degree in human resources helps prepare HR professionals for leadership roles like HR managers, directors and executives.

Online Learning Structures


Online learning that occurs at a specific set time and day is referred to as synchronous learning, where students within a course are synced with one another in attendance and participation. Synchronous learning elicits an engaging virtual classroom, enlightened with stimulating discussions, live lectures and real-time faculty-to-student interaction.


A common reference when speaking about online degree programs is the ability to log in whenever from wherever and complete coursework. Asynchronous learning allows students to log in and view lectures and coursework at their convenience―considering deadlines, of course.

Clinical Placement Support

For any mental health degree, an on- or off-site internship and practicum experience is imperative to the application and learning of mental health counseling, psychology or therapy. When looking for a mental health degree, you may want to consider programs that offer clinical placement support to assist you in securing an internship that is close to home and supports your growth.

Live Classes

In online master’s degree programs, live classes may help you feel as if you are in an on-campus classroom. With live classes, you may “meet” your colleagues face-to-face via webcam discussions. This also provides opportunities to practice your counseling or therapeutic skills and garner direct feedback from other classmates.  

Class Sizes

When preparing future mental health professionals, individualized attention is important for the development of skills, understanding of bias and awareness of culture. When comparing programs, you may want to seek a low student-to-instructor ratio or small class size to help ensure the availability of more one-on-one time learning opportunities.

Student Support Services

When on-campus, student support is often close by, perhaps in another building. However, for online students, this may not be true—and finding programs that offer student support services may be a deciding factor for enrollment. In your mental health degree program search, you may want to ensure that universities offer flexible hours, online resources and/or virtual meeting times for online students.

Online Counseling Degrees vs. Hybrid Counseling Degrees

Online Degrees

When you enroll in an online mental health degree program, lectures, coursework and interactions with cohort members and university staff is virtual. You will be held to the same standards that are placed for on-campus students such as timely submission of coursework, exam completion and participation. When it comes time to enroll in your field experience or internship courses, which are a requirement of any counseling degree program, you will need to ensure that you meet requirements for both the university and state counseling licensure by pursuing required supervision hours by a licensed, approved supervisor at your clinical site.

Hybrid Degrees

Partially online, hybrid counseling degree programs offer some on-campus courses and experiences that are either mandatory or voluntary as a part of completing your degree. Some hybrid and online counseling programs may require that students attend a residency where they will meet other online and on-campus students in an effort to develop counseling skills, network with program peers and meet university staff. Some programs offer access to academic advisors who can help you find fieldwork opportunities, and others have mandatory short-length intensive sessions on campus to fulfill your fieldwork requirement.


Are online degrees equivalent to on-campus degrees?

While the format is different, the outcome of an online degree program is equivalent to an on-campus degree program. You’ll graduate with the same credential you can list on a resume.

Are counselors in demand?

Yes. In most counseling fields, the demand for counselors is expected to be higher than average compared to all careers. Employment of behavioral disorder, substance abuse and mental health counselors is expected to grow 25%  between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For school and career counselors, the BLS projects 8% job growth between 2019 and 2029, which is also much faster than average. For marriage and family therapists, the BLS projects 22% job growth between 2019 and 2029 (again, much faster than average). The BLS reports the job outlook for rehabilitation counselors between 2019 and 2029 is expected to grow 10%, which is much faster than average.

What is CACREP accreditation?

CACREP stands for Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. CACREP accreditation designates that a counseling program has met standards for exceptional educational quality. CACREP accreditation is a requirement for counseling licensure in some states. When it’s not necessary, the CACREP accreditation may help show employers the program you’ve graduated from meets certain educational standards.

What jobs can you get with a counseling degree? 

With a counseling degree, you might consider careers such as marriage and family therapist, school counselor, rehabilitation counselor, substance abuse counselor, behavioral disorder counselor, mental health counselor or grief counselor. 

What is the difference between a psychologist and a counselor?

Both a psychologist and a counselor may provide counseling services, but there are a few differences. A psychologist is a title that requires a doctoral degree in psychology. Psychologists use psychotherapy to make diagnoses and treat severe mental disorders using scientific research–backed processes to achieve measurable outcomes. A counselor helps clients achieve overall mental health wellness. Counselors typically need a bachelor’s and master’s degree in order to get licensed.

What’s the difference between a counselor and a social worker?

Counselors provide clinical guidance and support for people with mental and emotional disorders. Social workers may also provide therapeutic services, as well as recommend social services to help clients undergoing social functioning challenges. Social workers may also work in non-client-facing roles, such as in positions related to policy change. Counselors typically work primarily with clients. Both counselors and social workers must typically obtain a graduate degree in order to get licensed.

What’s the difference between a marriage and family therapist and a counselor?

Both marriage and family therapists and counselors help clients overcome mental health–related issues. Marriage and family therapists work with clients primarily in marriages or in familial units, on issues that affect these groups. These issues may include abuse, addiction and infidelity. Counselors work with individuals who are experiencing mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Get a Master’s in Counseling or Mental Health Degree Online

There are a number of online master’s programs related to counseling and mental health. You can attend the program you want from anywhere in the world, without having to relocate to school. Research the requirements of the job you want to have, including licensure requirements and education requirements. You may want to consider counseling programs with specific accreditation, like CACREP, as you’re comparing master’s in mental health or counseling degree programs.