How to Become a Mental Health Counselor
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 to overcome obstacles, reach personal goals and lead a productive life. These professionals diagnose and treat psychological disorders, support clients through difficult life experiences and teach the skills and attitudes needed to bring about behavior change. By assisting clients with clinical conditions such as depression, substance abuse and anxiety, they help people to avoid the serious complications associated with untreated mental illness, which can include poverty, isolation, health problems and harm to self or others.
Mental health counselors use a variety of techniques to help their clients. Talk therapy, which replaces problematic thoughts, feelings and behaviors with more adaptive ones, is one common approach. Counselors also teach people new ways to solve problems and react to stressors. These behaviors are first practiced in a safe setting through role play, then gradually applied to real-life situations.
Mental health counseling may take many forms. Clients may see the counselor one on one or with their loved ones. 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.
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, other medical professionals and any other resources needed. Many also participate in community and professional organizations to advocate for their profession and improve mental health care within their communities. Mental health counselors have the unique opportunity to help people develop the emotional resilience to navigate life's challenges with calm, confidence and optimism.
Mental health counselors are employed by counseling centers, substance abuse treatment facilities, general and specialty hospitals, universities and private businesses. Many also run their own practices.
Counseling requires a great deal of intense and focused human interaction. These professionals spend much of the workday with clients, consultants and members of the treatment team. While almost all mental health counseling is still provided face to face, telephone and online counseling are growing in popularity.
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 with work or family obligations who may only be able to meet at those times.
At minimum, mental health counselors must hold a master’s degree in counseling from an accredited institution. This requires approximately 6-7 years of study beyond the high school level. While graduate programs in counseling generally accept students from all academic backgrounds, undergraduate coursework in psychology, human development and social work is desirable.
Accredited counselor training programs include extensive, supervised field experience in the form of practicums and internships.
Licensing and Certification
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. In some areas, counselors must pass a knowledge exam prior to practicing.
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 licensure and certification, 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.
Needed Skills and Qualities
Counselors should enjoy working with diverse people of many different personalities and backgrounds, including those of different age, race, socioeconomic level, gender and sexual orientation. Because they often deal with emotional individuals who are under stress, these professionals must be able to show compassion and empathy toward their clients. The ability to listen attentively and to express thoughts and ideas clearly is essential.
Mental health counselors in private practice also need to be good business people. They spend a significant amount of time on marketing, bookkeeping and collecting payments from insurance companies and clients.
Opportunities for Advancement
Experienced counselors often hold administrative or supervisory positions at agencies and treatment facilities. Some return to school to pursue doctorates in counseling, which opens up new career opportunities in teaching and research.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for mental health counselors was $38,150 in May 2010, and most earned between $24,180 and $63,630. Wages varied by industry, with municipal government and hospitals offering the highest starting salaries.
Employment of mental health counselors is expected to grow by 36% between 2010 and 2020, according to the BLS. This is due in part to the fact that more insurance companies are offering reimbursement for mental health counseling services.