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How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

mental health counselor providing therapy

A career as a mental health counselor is richly rewarding for compassionate, empathetic people who want to make a significant difference in the lives of others. A skillful counselor leads a client on a journey of growth and self-discovery that allows him or her to overcome obstacles, reach personal goals, and lead a productive life.

Central duties of mental health counselors are:

  • To assess, diagnose, and treat psychological disorders
  • To support clients through difficult life experiences
  • To teach the skills and attitudes needed to bring about behavior change

By assisting clients with clinical conditions such as depression, substance abuse and anxiety, counselors help people learn to adapt to change and function positively in their day-to-day lives.

Mental health counselors use a variety of approaches to help their clients develop the emotional resilience and interpersonal skills to navigate life’s challenges. One widely used approach involves cognitive behavioral therapy, which replaces problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with more adaptive ones. Other counselors use emotion-focused therapies, which emphasize the impact of deeper emotions in a person’s life. Meanwhile, some counselors are more solution-focused, working with people to develop problem-solving skills. The emphasis a counselor places on one aspect of a person’s thoughts, emotions, or problems depends on a counselor’s personal background, belief systems and training. A counselor in training can expect to do a great deal of self-exploration during his or her degree program in order to align with a certain area of counseling.

Workplace Details

Mental health counselors are employed by not-for-profit agencies, substance abuse treatment facilities, general and specialty hospitals, universities, and private businesses. Many also run their own practices.

Mental health counseling may take many forms. Clients may see the counselor one on one, in couples sessions, or in family therapy. Some also attend group therapy sessions in which several people come together to support one another and work toward a common treatment goal. Many counselors see a wide variety of clients, while others specialize in certain conditions or populations.

Most mental health counselors work full time. Those in private practice have greater flexibility to set their own schedules. Hours often include evenings, weekends and early mornings to accommodate clients who may only be able to meet at those times due to work or family obligations.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$47070
Pennsylvania
$43480
Virginia
$48310
New York
$42070
Massachusetts
$45030

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA

Median Salary: 
$44,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$29,750$45,140$68,000
Huntsville$30,190$43,380$61,460

ALASKA

Median Salary: 
$60,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $36,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $82,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$42,120$64,730$84,720
Fairbanks$34,040$49,510$76,920

ARIZONA

Median Salary: 
$47,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $65,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$33,390$48,490$67,840
Tuscon$18,940$44,080$60,990

ARKANSAS

Median Salary: 
$49,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $67,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$33,720$47,720$68,130
Fort Smith$31,240$46,330$60,120

CALIFORNIA

Median Salary: 
$41,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $81,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 520

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$29,730$45,770$91,800
San Francisco Bay$31,750$43,540$87,690
San Diego$26,850$39,380$72,290
Sacramento$21,090$29,610$74,560

COLORADO

Median Salary: 
$44,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $74,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 35%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 250

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$26,940$42,410$75,800
Colorado Springs$33,080$57,030$75,720

CONNECTICUT

Median Salary: 
$44,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $72,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$28,610$45,290$70,930
Bridgeport$31,510$41,340$72,670
New Haven$25,790$43,460$66,550

DELAWARE

Median Salary: 
$36,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $56,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$25,000$37,010$56,590

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Median Salary: 
$42,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $20,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $70,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$26,440$47,410$75,110

FLORIDA

Median Salary: 
$39,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 210

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$26,430$44,770$68,590
Orlando$17,850$29,610$60,860
Tampa$25,270$35,530$62,500
Jacksonville$28,970$39,110$59,150

GEORGIA

Median Salary: 
$45,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$32,100$50,090$66,970

HAWAII

Median Salary: 
$38,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$25,810$37,060$78,550

IDAHO

Median Salary: 
$51,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $66,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 440

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$31,810$53,860$62,420
Idaho Falls$51,180$57,120$63,110

ILLINOIS

Median Salary: 
$37,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 160

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$25,490$40,330$75,310
Rockford$19,520$43,770$75,100

INDIANA

Median Salary: 
$41,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$24,490$39,600$59,570
Fort Wayne$29,630$48,120$64,660

IOWA

Median Salary: 
$36,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$27,020$39,430$68,970
Cedar Rapids$20,560$26,670$47,180

KANSAS

Median Salary: 
$40,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$29,150$43,170$55,810
Kansas City$22,680$39,230$63,650

KENTUCKY

Median Salary: 
$36,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 29%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$26,650$37,240$55,370
Lexington$27,020$38,030$63,730

LOUISIANA

Median Salary: 
$33,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $49,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New Orleans$24,290$34,740$49,980
Baton Rouge$18,940$29,960$47,960
Lafayette$26,030$35,540$47,060

MAINE

Median Salary: 
$50,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$40,400$50,810$61,780

MARYLAND

Median Salary: 
$39,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 33%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 140

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$24,020$41,160$66,700
Frederick$24,520$47,630$63,530

MASSACHUSETTS

Median Salary: 
$38,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 240

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$24,040$36,510$62,520
Worcester$25,570$40,680$69,410
Springfield$27,380$40,970$72,470

MICHIGAN

Median Salary: 
$45,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$26,610$43,230$62,790
Grand Rapids$28,220$47,250$67,020

MINNESOTA

Median Salary: 
$44,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$31,650$45,490$67,030
Rochester$33,620$66,960$78,190

MISSISSIPPI

Median Salary: 
$43,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$27,480$44,960$61,400
Gulfport$31,550$46,850$66,200

MISSOURI

Median Salary: 
$38,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $60,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$27,500$41,570$58,780
Kansas City$22,680$39,230$63,650

MONTANA

Median Salary: 
$33,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $19,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $50,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$25,300$39,610$71,020
Missoula$25,560$33,720$43,380

NEBRASKA

Median Salary: 
$43,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$31,690$46,100$72,520
Lincoln$32,230$43,670$60,540

NEVADA

Median Salary: 
$46,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$32,070$45,670$68,840
Reno$27,070$46,220$72,320

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Median Salary: 
$43,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Manchester$28,900$45,020$93,910
Nashua$33,800$43,520$96,720

NEW JERSEY

Median Salary: 
$48,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $75,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$32,390$50,980$74,710

NEW MEXICO

Median Salary: 
$33,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Albuquerque$20,950$29,180$60,040

NEW YORK

Median Salary: 
$39,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 290

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$29,720$43,720$64,480
Buffalo$26,600$35,110$59,810
Rochester$25,680$41,130$56,960
Albany$26,620$33,440$54,500

NORTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$46,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 180

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$33,290$46,260$70,670
Raleigh$28,550$50,290$71,600
Greensboro$35,330$48,110$61,270
Winston - Salem$34,770$46,540$63,810

NORTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$44,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: Fewer than 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Fargo$35,180$48,950$72,230

OHIO

Median Salary: 
$43,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $65,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 160

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$30,200$40,280$66,490
Columbus$29,810$42,610$75,420
Cincinnati$31,840$41,930$57,480
Dayton$31,470$43,800$63,040

OKLAHOMA

Median Salary: 
$43,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$25,990$40,670$68,730
Tulsa$33,740$47,940$61,930

OREGON

Median Salary: 
$47,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $87,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$32,600$47,690$88,610
Salem$25,870$45,230$79,750

PENNSYLVANIA

Median Salary: 
$41,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 460

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$27,430$42,350$68,500
Pittsburgh$27,150$40,360$60,780
Harrisburg$26,250$41,310$63,610
Allentown$32,920$49,120$73,280

RHODE ISLAND

Median Salary: 
$29,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $50,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$25,780$30,920$55,320

SOUTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$35,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $23,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$25,770$30,380$57,930
Columbia$21,130$28,840$72,840
Charleston$33,170$42,440$93,640

SOUTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$42,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Sioux Falls$28,600$41,730$72,660
Rapid City$27,670$44,440$60,050

TENNESSEE

Median Salary: 
$30,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $50,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 30%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 140

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$26,510$36,410$56,560
Memphis$19,520$27,520$42,290
Knoxville$21,050$26,980$49,990
Chattanooga$23,850$48,070$62,440

TEXAS

Median Salary: 
$42,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $67,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 26%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$31,400$49,000$78,300
Houston$28,570$46,850$70,680
San Antonio$23,850$48,070$62,440
Austin$30,680$38,610$58,160

UTAH

Median Salary: 
$49,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $98,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 36%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$36,500$51,990$123,690
Ogden$20,020$37,320$92,360

VERMONT

Median Salary: 
$38,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $69,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Burlington$32,380$42,720$64,860

VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$43,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 350

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$30,430$42,400$61,880
Richmond$26,380$41,150$59,450

WASHINGTON

Median Salary: 
$44,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $64,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$27,500$42,660$63,130
Spokane$37,470$47,510$61,440

WEST VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$31,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $20,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $47,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$23,230$35,070$50,280
Charleston$25,640$33,490$53,000

WISCONSIN

Median Salary: 
$42,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $21,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $74,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$25,490$45,610$74,190
Madison$36,310$48,230$76,610

WYOMING

Median Salary: 
$51,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $36,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cheyenne$33,020$44,770$71,970
Casper$42,860$56,860$83,570

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for mental health counselors is $41,880, and most earn between $26,300 and $68,790. Wages vary geographically and by industry, with municipal government and health practitioner offices offering the highest starting salaries. Level of degree will also impact a mental health counselor’s salary; counselors who obtain a doctoral degree often receive a higher salary as they often go on to teach within universities.

Employment of mental health counselors is expected to grow by 20% between 2014 and 2024, according to the BLS. This robust growth is due in part to the fact that more insurance companies are offering reimbursement for mental health counseling services.

Compare Salaries by City

Los Angeles CA Median Pay

$45770 Per Year

$22.000 Per Hour

New York City NY Median Pay

$43720 Per Year

$21.001 Per Hour

Steps to Become a Mental Health Counselor

1

Get your bachelor's degree.

The prospective student must hold a bachelor’s degree from a four-year university. Many students pursue bachelor’s degrees in related fields such as psychology, human development, and social work; however, this is not a requirement to enter into a mental health counseling master’s program afterward.

Show Me Schools »

2

Attend graduate school to earn, at minimum, a master's degree.

Mental health counselors must hold at least a master’s degree in counseling from an accredited institution. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the governing body that overseas the accreditation of mental health counseling programs within the United States. Master’s programs are 60 semester credit or 90 quarter credit programs, with a full-time student being able to finish the degree within 2 years.

3

Undertake supervised work.

Accredited counselor training programs include extensive, supervised field experience in the form of practicums and internships. CACREP requires the practicum experience to consist of the following:

  • A minimum of 100 hours, with 40 of those hours being direct client experiences, in which the student is providing counseling services to clients
  • 1 hour supervision sessions with an appointed supervisor
  • Weekly 1 1/2 hour group supervision sessions facilitated by program faculty
  • Evaluation based on audio/video recordings of the student’s interactions with clients

Upon successful completion of the practicum experience as determined by a passing grade from practicum supervisors and faculty, CACREP requires completion of an internship, which includes the following:

  • A minimum 600 hour internship with 240 of those hours being direct client experiences
  • 1 hour supervision sessions with an appointed supervisor
  • Weekly 1 1/2 hour group supervision sessions facilitated by program faculty
  • Evaluation based on audio/video recordings of the student’s interactions with clients
  • Evaluation based on student’s involvement in activities and development in record keeping, assessment, treatment approaches, clinical judgment, and teamwork relationships

4

Become licensed in your state.

Licensure of mental health counselors is mandatory in most states. This usually requires a master’s degree and 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, but requirements do vary from state to state. In some areas, counselors must pass a knowledge exam prior to practicing. Some states prefer candidates who have earned national certification (link to link anchor of certification section). Counselors maintain licensure throughout their careers by fulfilling continuing education requirements.

5

Become certified.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) awards two levels of certification for mental health professionals.

  • The entry-level national certified counselor (NCC) credential requires completion of required coursework and 3,000 hours of work experience (waived for graduates of CACREP-accredited training programs). Candidates must also pass the National Counselor Exam.
  • Experienced professionals can pursue additional credentialing as a certified clinical mental health counselor (CCMHC). Candidates must be certified as NCCs, meet rigorous education and experience requirements, submit recordings of clinical sessions and pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).

To maintain certification, as with licensure, all counselors must engage in continuing education throughout their careers. Credits may be earned by taking courses in person or completing trainings online. Counselors who hold NBCC credentials are subject to additional continuing education requirements.

Exploring Degree Paths

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years

With the goal of obtaining their master’s degrees in counseling, undergraduate students must obtain a bachelor’s degree first. But there is no mandated major.

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Despite this freedom to major in a multitude of areas, students ought to fulfill coursework in psychology, human behavior and cognitive development should. Consequently, many students find it easiest to earn their bachelor’s degree in a related area such as the majors below, for example, which naturally incorporate those subjects:

Psychology

Colleges and universities typically offer both a BS (Bachelor Science) and a BA (Bachelor of Arts) in psychology. Aspiring mental health counselors would be advised to opt for a BA, as the BS aims more to prepare students for clinical or experimental psychology tracks. The BA degree in psychology suits a counselor quite well. Common coursework includes introductory psychology, statistics, research methods, mental health, social sciences, and human behavior.

Human development

A bachelor’s degree in human development includes the study of fascinating subjects such as sociology, language development, family studies, adolescence, human sexuality and research methods.

MASTER'S DEGREE

2 years

Prospective students may confront several options. Broadly, they may face a choice between a Master of Science (MS) or Master of Arts (MA) degree, and sometimes may see a “Master of Counseling” option (MCoun). These paths typically require 2 years to complete, but students are often understandably confused by the differences. The best way to decide on the right path is to consider the experience you’ve gained thus far and also your specific career goals.

  • If you have earned a bachelor’s degree in a psychology-centered major, you’re well positioned for the MS in counseling or the MCoun. These paths provide the ability to specialize in a particular concentration while earning a master’s degree – and one common concentration is mental health counseling. Coursework for these degrees with a mental health concentration often includes classes in psychopathology, psychopharmacology, mental health counseling, group counseling, crisis intervention, substance abuse, and counseling techniques and theory. Additionally, the MS or MCoun degrees prepare a budding counselor to become licensed and provide therapy and other patient services.
  • Students who have earned a less related bachelor’s degree – for instance, comparative literature – are more likely to find the best fit with the Master of Arts degree. This degree is also more generalized in nature, eschewing specializations in favor of a broader counseling education, which students often find to be a great springboard into research and educational careers.

Keys to Success

People person

Counselors should enjoy working with people of many different personalities and backgrounds, including those of different ages, races, socioeconomic levels, gender and sexual orientations. The three key characteristics counselors must exhibit are empathy, authenticity, and a non-judgmental presence. Counseling research cites these three characteristics as being the most vital component to developing therapeutic trust with a client.

Communication

Counseling requires a great deal of intense and focused human interaction. The ability to listen attentively and to express thoughts and ideas clearly is essential. Mental health counselors spend much of the workday with clients, consultants, and members of the treatment team. In a typical day, a counselor can expect to see on average 5 to 8 clients, while also leading treatment planning meetings and consulting with family members or community resources.

Counselors often operate as part of a multidisciplinary care team that includes psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, case managers and others invested in the client’s welfare. They make referrals to community agencies, treatment programs, and other medical professionals in order to connect the client with resources that will best support his or her needs. Many also participate in community and professional organizations to advocate for their profession and improve mental health care within their communities.

Organizational skills

From day to day, counselors must document client progress notes and complete insurance-related forms. While almost all counseling is still provided face to face, telephone and online counseling are growing in popularity.

Entrepreneurial skills

Mental health counselors in private practice need to be good business people. They spend a significant amount of time on marketing, bookkeeping, and collecting payments from insurance companies and clients.

Lee Kehoe, MS, LMHC, NCC

Lee Kehoe is a licensed mental health counselor in the state of New York. Lee has a private practice and works with a diverse set of clients, providing individual, couples, and family counseling as well as conducting mental health evaluations. She consults with an agency that provides mental health counseling to residents within a wide range of skilled nursing, assisted living, and rehabilitative facilities. Along with counseling, she also trains facility staff on mental health conditions and behavioral management approaches. Lee earned a B.S. degree in brain and cognitive science, a B.A. degree in psychology, and a master’€™s degree in mental health counseling.

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