How To Become a Mental Health Counselor

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As we continue to build our understanding of human psychology and mental health, and as we work to break down the stigmas around prioritizing our own emotional well-being, the need for compassionate and high-quality counseling professionals is on the rise.

Counselor talking with clipboard

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in five adults in the United States lives with mental illness like anxiety, trauma, stress or personality disorders, and nearly a third of adults will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

Are you passionate about helping others navigate life’s challenges? You can help. Becoming a mental health counselor might be a good career path for you. And with the Pew Research Center listing mental health experts among the most-trusted people with whom to discuss personal mental challenges and concerns, these professionals are well-positioned to make a difference.

In this article, we’ll delve into the educational requirements, essential skills, job outlook and more to guide you on your journey toward becoming a licensed mental health counselor.

What is the difference between a counselor and a therapist?

Before diving into the specifics of becoming a mental health counselor, it’s crucial to understand the distinction between a counselor and a therapist. While both roles involve providing guidance and support to individuals dealing with mental health issues, therapists typically have more extensive training and may focus on diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. Counselors, on the other hand, often concentrate on helping clients navigate life transitions, manage stress and improve relationships.

As we’ll discuss, becoming a counselor typically requires a master’s degree in counseling or a related field, whereas the education required for therapists can vary widely depending on the type of therapy they practice. Some therapists may also have a master’s degree, while others may hold a doctoral degree (such as a Ph.D., Psy.D. or Ed.D.) in psychology, counseling psychology, clinical psychology or a related field.

When it comes to licensing, counselors may need to be licensed in the state where they practice. Licensure requirements vary by state but often include completing a certain number of supervised clinical hours, passing a licensure exam and meeting continuing education requirements. More specifics on licensure for counselors can be found later in this article.

Therapists may also need to be licensed depending on their specific area of practice and the regulations in their jurisdiction. For example, clinical psychologists typically need to be licensed to practice independently. Licensing requirements for therapists often include completing a doctoral degree, accruing supervised clinical experience, passing a licensure exam and fulfilling continuing education requirements.

What are the education requirements for becoming mental health counselor?

To become a licensed mental health counselor, you must build a strong educational background, such as earning a relevant bachelor’s degree then a Master of Arts in Counseling, then gain supervised clinical experience and obtain licensure in your state.

While a bachelor’s degree in psychology is not typically sufficient to become a licensed mental health counselor, it provides a solid foundation in the principles of psychology, human behavior and research methods, and it can serve as a strong starting point as you prepare for graduate-level education.

The standard steps through the process of becoming a licensed mental health counselor are:

1. Obtain a relevant bachelor’s degree

Your first step toward becoming a counselor is to choose the right bachelor’s degree. To do this, consider the area of counseling in which you hope to practice — for example, substance abuse, mental health or education. Then, find a bachelor’s degree program that suits your needs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests areas like psychology, public policy, social services and social science as common options.

Regardless of the degree you choose, your bachelor’s program is likely to offer flexibility in selecting electives tailored to your desired counseling specialization. In fact, foundational undergraduate studies commonly encompass courses that may be relevant to your goals as an aspiring counselor. Some of these include the following:

  • Biology
  • Social psychology
  • Abnormal psychology
  • Adolescent psychology
  • Theories of personality
  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Statistics
  • Child development

2. Obtain a master’s degree

Following your undergraduate education, you’ll typically need to earn a relevant master’s degree. These degrees help you build high-level skills that empower you to provide a better standard of care for the people you serve in your career. Your master’s degree also may give you the opportunity to specialize your education in the area of your choice, such as mental health counseling, so you can get an education relevant to your career goals and interests.

At the University of North Dakota, students can pursue a community mental health counselor degree specialization through the Master of Arts in Counseling program. This comprehensive program covers a wide range of topics including counseling theories, assessment techniques, group counseling and multicultural issues in counseling.

3. Complete post-graduate supervised clinical internship/practicum in a clinical setting, including direct client contact hours

The number of required clinical hours needed to become a licensed mental health counselor can vary, but it often ranges from around 600 to 900 hours, with a significant portion dedicated to direct client contact. Direct client contact hours refer to the time spent providing counseling services directly to clients under supervision.

Some universities, such as the University of North Dakota, offer resources, support, guidance and networking opportunities to help students find viable internship and practicum placements that are convenient and local to them. Acceptable settings include mental health agencies, hospitals, schools or counseling centers.

During your internship or practicum, you’ll have the opportunity to apply what you’ve learned in the classroom in a practical, real-world counseling setting. You’ll get the benefit of hands-on practice with the supervision and feedback of an experienced licensed mental health professional.

These experiences crucially offer the opportunity for students to engage in direct client contact, conducting intake assessments, developing treatment plans, facilitating counseling sessions, and implementing therapeutic interventions.

The specific experiences during internships and practicums can vary depending on the setting, client population, and goals of the counseling program.

4. Pass licensure exams

Master’s-level education is typically designed around preparing you for practical counseling work, but some programs may also help you build the knowledge and skills you need specifically to pursue licensure.

Licensing requirements differ by state, but here are the primary options provided for becoming a National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the requirements for each option.

National Certified Counselor (NCC) requirements:

  • Completion of a master’s degree or higher in counseling from a regionally accredited institution
  • Completion of 3,000 hours of post-master’s counseling experience (2,400 hours must be direct client services)
  • Passing score on the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE)
  • Agreement to adhere to the NBCC Code of Ethics

Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) requirements:

  • All requirements listed above for the NCC
  • Additional 2,000 hours of supervised clinical experience in mental health counseling
  • Completion of additional coursework in clinical mental health counseling

Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) requirements:

  • All requirements listed above for the NCC
  • Additional 3,000 hours of supervised experience specifically in addiction counseling
  • Completion of additional coursework in addiction counseling

National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) requirements:

  • All requirements listed above for the NCC
  • Completion of a master’s degree or higher in school counseling from a regionally accredited institution
  • Completion of specific coursework in school counseling
  • Completion of 600 hours of supervised internship experience in a school setting

National Certified Gerontological Counselor (NCGC) requirements:

  • All requirements listed above for the NCC
  • Completion of additional coursework in gerontological counseling
  • Completion of supervised experience in gerontological counseling

These are the main certifications offered by the NBCC, each tailored to specific areas of counseling practice. The requirements ensure that counselors meet high standards of education, training and experience in their respective specialties.

5. Earn continuing education credits

To uphold certification or licensure, mental health counselors frequently engage in continuing education courses.

These courses, often measured in continuing education units (CEUs), must be completed periodically in accordance with state regulations. Online options are available through esteemed counseling associations like the American Counseling Association (ACA).

What skills does a licensed mental health counselor need?

Becoming a successful mental health counselor requires a diverse set of skills and qualities. Some essential skills include:

  • Empathy and compassion: Understanding and empathizing with clients’ experiences is crucial for building trust and rapport.
  • Active listening: Effective counselors listen attentively to their clients, showing genuine interest and understanding.
  • Communication skills: Clear and concise communication is essential for conveying information, providing feedback, and facilitating therapeutic discussions.
  • Problem-solving: Counselors help clients identify challenges and develop practical strategies for overcoming them.
  • Cultural competence: Awareness of cultural differences and the impact of diversity on clients’ experiences is vital for providing culturally sensitive care.
  • Ethical practice: Upholding ethical standards and maintaining professional boundaries is paramount in counseling.

Where do most mental health counselors work?

As a licensed mental health counselor, you can pursue work across a wide array of settings in areas like healthcare, government, nonprofits and schools. Some of the settings in which you may build your practice include the following.

  • Private practice
  • Mental health clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Schools and universities
  • Community agencies
  • Substance abuse treatment centers

Is being a mental health counselor worth it?

There are many benefits of pursuing a career as a mental health counselor, and if you’re hoping to find a career that is financially and emotionally rewarding, this path may be well worth it for you.

Pursuing a career as a mental health counselor can be incredibly rewarding for those passionate about helping others improve their well-being and lead fulfilling lives. U.S. News & World Report lists mental health counselor as the No. 14 best job in social services, and the career also owns a spot on the top 100 best jobs across the board. That ranking is based on tangible factors like salary, employment rate, and outlook, as well as the fulfillment and satisfaction professionals in this career report.

The field also is a solid choice for practical reasons. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for mental health counselors is projected to grow significantly in the coming years. This increase is driven by increased awareness of mental health issues and the growing need for counseling services. Specifically, employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors is projected to grow 18% between 2022 and 2032 — significantly higher than the average projected growth of 3% for all careers.

The median annual wage for mental health counselors in 2023 was $53,710, with the highest-paid counselors earning significantly more depending on location and experience. The state of California reportedly pays mental health counselors the highest median salary, according to BLS data.

By obtaining the necessary education, developing essential skills, and gaining valuable experience, you can make a meaningful difference in the lives of individuals and communities.

Earn your master’s in counseling online and discover your path toward a career as a mental health counselor

If you’re hoping to pursue a career as a mental health counselor, it starts with proper planning and preparation, especially where education and training are concerned.

To recap, the five steps to becoming a mental health counselor include:

  1. Reviewing the information provided regarding workplaces and the skillsets needed to determine if counseling is a career you want to pursue
  2. Earning a relevant bachelor’s degree (e.g., psychology or social work)
  3. Earning a Master of Arts in Counseling
  4. Completing supervised clinical experience
  5. Obtaining licensure in your state

The demand for mental health counselors is growing rapidly, with opportunities for career advancement and competitive salaries available.

For additional career advancement opportunities, you can consider specializing in a particular area of mental health counseling such as addiction counseling or rehabilitation counseling.

If you are ready to embark on your journey to become a mental health counselor, explore the educational programs and resources available at the University of North Dakota and take the first step toward a potentially rewarding career in counseling.

Visit our admissions page for more information regarding the application requirements by program or to contact an advisor.

Sources:
National Board for Certified Counselors, “National Certification”
National Institute of Health, “Any Anxiety Disorder”
National Institute of Health, “Mental Illness”
Pew Research Center, “Who do Americans feel comfortable talking to about their mental health?”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “21-1018 Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Strong growth projected in mental health-related employment”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors”
U.S. News & World Report, “Mental Health Counselor Overview”