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How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

By Ibrahim Okunade

Published:

Are you passionate about helping others navigate through life’s challenges and achieve emotional well-being? If so, a career as a clinical mental health counselor may be a path worth exploring. In the realm of mental health and well-being, the role of a mental health counselor is of paramount importance. This article aims to provide an informative overview of the path to becoming a mental health counselor, outlining the necessary steps and considerations.

Career Summary

Mental Health Counselor Salary

Mental Health Counselor Salary

The breakdown of the salary of mental health counselors, according to Glassdoor, is as follows:

  • Entry Salary (US$44k)
  • Median Salary (US$55k)
  • Executive Salary (US$69k)

The median salary of mental health counselors isn’t far off from the national average salary, which was US$61,900 in 2022.

What does a Mental Health Counselor do?

A mental health counselor provides support, guidance, and therapy to individuals dealing with emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges. They conduct assessments, develop treatment plans, and facilitate therapeutic interventions to help clients improve their overall well-being. Mental health counselors may work in various settings, such as private practice, schools, hospitals, or community agencies, providing counseling services to diverse populations. Their primary goal is to help clients explore and address their concerns, enhance coping skills, promote self-awareness, and facilitate positive life changes.

Mental Health Counselor Career Progression

  • Entry-Level Counselor: Mental health counselors typically start their careers as entry-level counselors. They may work in a variety of settings, such as community mental health centers, hospitals, or private practices.
  • Licensed Counselor: After gaining experience, mental health counselors can pursue licensure. Licensure requirements vary by state, but most require counselors to complete a master’s degree in counseling or a related field and pass a licensing exam. This stage allows counselors to practice independently and offer a broader range of services.
  • Supervising Counselor: Licensed counselors who have experience and advanced training can become supervising counselors. Supervising counselors can provide supervision to entry-level counselors and other mental health professionals.
  • Leadership Positions: Experienced counselors may move into leadership positions within organizations or mental health agencies. These roles may involve program management, policy development, and strategic planning.
  • Clinical Supervision: With experience and expertise, mental health counselors may also become clinical supervisors. They provide guidance, clinical oversight, and support to other counselors, ensuring quality care and adherence to professional standards.
Mental Health Counselor Career Progression

Pros:

  • Opportunity to make a positive impact on individuals’ lives.
  • Variety of settings to work in, including private practice, schools, and hospitals.
  • Opportunity for collaboration and interdisciplinary work with other healthcare professionals.
  • Flexible work hours and a healthy work-life balance.
  • Continuous opportunities for self-reflection and personal development.
  • Positive job outlook.

Cons:

  • Exposure to challenging and sensitive topics, including trauma and abuse.
  • Handling patients who may be resistant to change or noncompliant with treatment.
  • Navigating complex ethical and legal considerations.
  • Balancing the need for self-care while prioritizing clients’ needs.

Useful Skills to Have as a Mental Health Counselor

  • Communication and Active Listening Skills
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Cultural Competence
  • Boundaries and Self-Care
  • Crisis Intervention
  • Ethical Decision-Making
  • Resilience and Self-Awareness
  • Conflict Resolution

Popular Mental Health Counseling Specialties

  • Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Trauma Counseling
  • Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Child and Adolescent Counseling
  • Career Counseling
  • Grief and Bereavement Counseling
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Rehabilitation Counseling

How to become a Mental Health Counselor

Mental Health Counselor 5 Steps to Career

Complete Your Education

If you’re ready to become a mental health counselor, earning a bachelor’s degree is your first step. Since there isn’t a specific mental health counseling degree at the undergraduate level, a bachelor’s degree in psychology, counseling, social work, or a related field suffices. The bachelor’s degree provides a foundational understanding of human behavior, psychology, counseling theories, and research methods.

After completing your bachelor’s degree in psychology or any other related field, you should pursue a master’s degree in mental health counseling from an accredited institution. A master’s degree in mental health counseling typically includes coursework in counseling theories, ethics, assessment, and intervention.

Some may immediately proceed with their Ph.D. However, you can delay that while pursuing your license and other certifications. A master’s degree is enough to get you the license needed to practice.

Why is it important to have a degree in psychology or other related fields?

Psychology courses delve into various aspects of mental health, including abnormal psychology, psychopathology, and theories of counseling and therapy. This knowledge equips you with an understanding of different mental health conditions, their causes, symptoms, and treatment approaches.

During your bachelor’s degree, you will typically take courses in areas such as general psychology, abnormal psychology, human development, counseling techniques, and research methods. These courses will provide you with a broad understanding of mental health concepts and theories.

Additionally, some programs may offer opportunities for hands-on experience through internships or practicums. Taking advantage of these opportunities can give you valuable practical experience and exposure to the field of mental health counseling.

Courses in counseling and psychotherapy provide you with practical skills and techniques for working with individuals, couples, families, and groups. You learn about different therapeutic modalities, intervention strategies, and ethical considerations in counseling practice.

Many jurisdictions require mental health counselors to have a specific educational background to qualify for licensure. By obtaining a degree in psychology or a related field, you meet the educational requirements necessary to pursue licensure and practice as a professional mental health counselor.

How long does it take to earn a degree in psychology?

The duration to earn a degree in psychology can vary depending on the level of degree pursued and whether you study full-time or part-time.

Here are some common timeframes:

  • Bachelor’s Degree: A bachelor’s degree in psychology typically takes around four years of full-time study to complete. This duration may vary based on factors such as program structure, credit requirements, and any additional courses or concentrations you choose to pursue.
  • Master’s Degree: If you decide to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, it usually takes an additional two to three years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Some programs offer accelerated or part-time options, which can affect the overall duration.
  • Doctoral Degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.): Doctoral programs in psychology, such as a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology), generally require a more substantial time commitment. A Ph.D. program can take around four to six years to complete, including coursework, research, and the completion of a doctoral dissertation. Psy.D. programs typically take around five to seven years, including clinical training and a doctoral project.

It’s important to note that these timeframes are general estimates, and the actual duration can vary depending on various factors, such as the specific program structure, and any additional requirements or opportunities you pursue during your studies.

How much does it cost to get a degree in psychology?

The cost of your degree in psychology will depend on the degree level, the type of institution (public or private), and the location. According to College Tuition Compare, undergraduate tuition and fee range between US$9,901 and US$30,126. The tuition and fee for graduate programs range between US$11,381 and US$24,645.

Can I become a mental health counselor through online education?

Yes, it is possible to pursue a career as a mental health counselor through online education. With the increasing popularity of online learning, it is unsurprising that many prospective health counselors are going this route. The flexibility of online learning is one of its main selling points, and it’s the same with online mental health counseling courses.

One important aspect of becoming a mental health counselor is gaining supervised clinical experience. Some online programs may offer opportunities for students to fulfill these requirements through partnerships with local clinics or by arranging practicum experiences in the student’s local area. It is essential to research how the online program supports and facilitates the clinical experience component of training.

Usually, online and traditional mental health counseling courses require the accreditation of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs (CACREP). Therefore, ensure that your online program has this accreditation.

What are some web resources to learn skills to become a mental health counselor?

The internet can prove to be a useful tool for budding mental health counselors. It provides access to a wealth of educational resources, research articles, professional organizations, and online communities where they can enhance their knowledge and connect with experts and peers in the field.

Here are some:

  • American Counseling Association (ACA): The ACA is a professional organization for counselors that provides resources, webinars, articles, and publications on various topics related to mental health counseling. Their website offers access to research journals, best practices, ethical guidelines, and professional development opportunities.
  • National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC): The NBCC website offers resources and information for aspiring and practicing counselors. They provide study materials for licensure exams, webinars, continuing education opportunities, and publications on counseling practices and topics.
  • Psychology Today: Psychology Today is a popular online publication that covers a wide range of mental health topics. They have a directory of mental health professionals, informative articles, and blog posts that can enhance your understanding of counseling techniques, mental health issues, and therapeutic approaches.
  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): The NIMH website is a valuable resource for evidence-based information on mental health disorders, treatment options, research updates, and educational materials. It can help you stay informed about the latest advancements and practices in the field of mental health counseling.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA is a government agency focused on improving behavioral health services. Their website offers resources, treatment guidelines, and educational materials on substance abuse, mental health disorders, and trauma-informed care.
  • Open Path Collective: Open Path is an online platform that connects individuals with affordable mental health services. While primarily a resource for clients, it can also provide valuable insights into counseling practices and approaches.

Complete Supervised Clinical Experience

Supervised clinical experience allows individuals to gain practical skills, build therapeutic relationships, and develop their counseling competencies under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional. It bridges the gap between academic learning and professional practice, helping counselors refine their clinical skills and enhance their understanding of the counseling process.

The specific duration and requirements for supervised clinical experience can vary depending on the licensing board and jurisdiction. Typically, aspiring counselors are required to complete a certain number of supervised hours. These hours are typically spread across a specified timeframe and may involve part-time or full-time commitments.

During the supervised clinical experience, aspiring counselors work closely with a qualified supervisor who oversees their clinical practice. The supervisor provides guidance, feedback, and support, helping the counselor navigate challenging cases, ethical dilemmas, and professional development. The supervisor also ensures adherence to ethical guidelines, best practices, and legal requirements.

What are internship opportunities for mental health counselors?

Internship opportunities for mental health counselors provide valuable hands-on experience and an opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge in real-world settings.

Here are some common types of internship opportunities for mental health counselors:

  • Counseling Centers: Many universities, colleges, and educational institutions have counseling centers where students can receive counseling services. These centers often offer internship positions for graduate students in mental health counseling programs, allowing them to work with diverse populations under the supervision of licensed professionals.
  • Community Mental Health Agencies: Community mental health agencies provide counseling and support services to individuals, families, and communities. These agencies often offer internships for aspiring mental health counselors to gain experience working with clients from various backgrounds and with different mental health needs.
  • Hospitals and Healthcare Settings: Hospitals and healthcare facilities may have mental health departments or outpatient clinics where mental health counselors can intern. These opportunities allow counselors to work with individuals experiencing mental health challenges within a medical context, collaborating with interdisciplinary teams.
  • Substance Abuse Treatment Centers: Interning at substance abuse treatment centers provides experience in working with individuals dealing with addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. These internships focus on assessment, counseling, and treatment planning specific to substance use disorders.
  • Private Practice or Counseling Clinics: Some mental health counselors offer internships or apprenticeships within their private practices or counseling clinics. These opportunities provide a more individualized and specialized experience, allowing interns to observe and assist experienced professionals in their clinical practice.
  • Schools: Schools often have counseling departments that offer internships for mental health counseling students. Interns can gain experience in school-based counseling, conducting assessments, providing individual and group counseling, and collaborating with teachers and administrators.

What skills will I learn as a mental health counselor?

As a mental health counselor, you will develop a wide range of skills that are essential for effectively supporting individuals and facilitating their mental well-being.

Here are some key skills you can expect to learn:

  • Active Listening: Effective listening skills are fundamental for mental health counselors. You will learn to actively listen, empathize, and validate clients’ experiences, demonstrating understanding and creating a safe space for open communication.
  • Empathy and Compassion: Cultivating empathy and compassion allows you to understand clients’ emotions, experiences, and struggles without judgment. These qualities help establish a therapeutic alliance and foster a sense of trust and safety.
  • Assessment and Diagnosis: You will learn how to conduct comprehensive assessments, gather relevant information, and identify symptoms or patterns to formulate accurate diagnoses. This involves using diagnostic tools, conducting interviews, and analyzing client information.
  • Therapeutic Techniques: Mental health counseling programs provide training in a variety of therapeutic techniques and approaches. You will learn evidence-based interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), psychodynamic therapy, and mindfulness-based approaches.
  • Counseling and Communication Skills: Effective communication skills are crucial in counseling. You will develop skills in verbal and nonverbal communication, paraphrasing, reflecting, and summarizing to facilitate client self-reflection and insight.
  • Group Counseling: Group counseling is also a common approach in mental health settings. You will develop skills in facilitating therapeutic groups, managing group dynamics, fostering collaboration, and creating a supportive group environment.
  • Crisis Intervention: Mental health counselors often encounter clients in crisis situations. You will learn techniques for managing and intervening in crises, assessing risk, and ensuring the safety and well-being of clients.
  • Cultural Competence: Cultural competence involves understanding and appreciating the impact of culture, diversity, and social identities on clients’ lives and mental health. You will learn to provide culturally sensitive and inclusive counseling, adapting your approach to meet clients’ unique needs.
  • Ethical Practice: Ethical considerations are crucial in mental health counseling. You will learn about professional ethics, legal obligations, confidentiality, and boundaries to ensure ethical and responsible practice.

These skills are developed through coursework, supervised clinical experiences, and ongoing professional development. As you progress in your career, you will continue to refine and expand these skills through practice and additional training opportunities.

Obtain Licensure

Having gained the needed clinical experience, it’s time to get your license to practice. It legally authorizes individuals to practice independently and provide professional counseling services.

Licensing requirements vary by state or country. You should research and comply with the specific regulations governing your area.

Licensing boards often require mental health counselors to pass one or more standardized examinations. These exams are designed to assess your knowledge, skills, and competence in the field of mental health counseling. Examples of such exams include the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), both offered by the National Board of Certified Counselors.

Once you complete and submit the licensure application to the appropriate licensing board or regulatory agency, some jurisdictions may require background checks or additional steps such as fingerprinting or verification of ethical conduct.

While working on your license and other educational requirements, be sure to network with peers and senior professionals in the field. Attend seminars and workshops that bring together experienced professionals in mental health counseling. This opens the door for future collaboration when you’re job hunting or changing jobs.

Earn Additional Certifications

With your licensure, you can start practicing as a mental health counselor. But you shouldn’t rest on your oars. You should devote time to earning additional certifications.

Some additional mental health counselor certifications you can earn include:

  • The National Certified School Counselor: Offered by the National Board of Certified Counselors, this mental health counselor certification certifies that a counselor offers the highest standards of practice for schools and students.
  • ASCA-Certified School Counselor: The ASCA-Certified School Counselor certification demonstrates a school counselor’s knowledge in designing, implementing, and assessing a school counseling program.
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC): The CRC certification is designed for counselors who specialize in working with individuals with disabilities. It is offered by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC). CRC certification requires a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, completion of a supervised internship, and passing a certification examination.
  • Play Therapy Certification: Mental health counselors who work with children may pursue certifications in play therapy. Organizations such as the Association for Play Therapy (APT) offer various levels of play therapy certification, including Registered Play Therapist (RPT) and Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor (RPT-S). These certifications require completing specialized training in play therapy techniques and meeting clinical experience requirements.
  • Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor: This certification is specific to substance abuse counseling and is offered by various state or national boards or organizations. It typically requires completion of specific coursework, supervised experience, and passing a certification exam.

These additional certifications can enhance a mental health counselor’s professional profile, demonstrate specialized expertise, and open up opportunities for career advancement or working with specific populations. It’s important to note that the availability of the specific certification may vary by location and professional interests. In addition, some of these certifications may require periodic renewal as well.

What’s the Career Outlook for Mental Health Counselors?

The mental health counseling profession is expected to experience tremendous growth in the decade between 2021 and 2031. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is projected to grow 22 percent within that period. This growth rate is much faster than the average for all occupations in the United States.

The impressive growth rate can be attributed to the greater recognition and acceptance of mental health issues and the importance of seeking professional help. Schools, workplaces, and other community settings are placing greater emphasis on mental health support and prevention. This has led to the integration of mental health counselors in these settings, creating additional job opportunities.

There is also an increasing need for specialized counseling services to address specific populations or issues, such as substance abuse, trauma, and child and adolescent mental health. Mental health counselors with expertise in these areas are in high demand to meet the specific needs of these populations.

Mental Health Counselor Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Mental Health Counselor?

As mental health counselors gain expertise in specific specialties, various job opportunities become available to them.

Here are some of the top job opportunities available to mental health counselors:

  • Substance Abuse Counselor: Mental health counselors with expertise in substance abuse and addiction counseling can work in rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics, or community agencies that focus on helping individuals recover from substance use disorders.
  • Trauma Counselor: Trauma counselors may find opportunities in organizations that provide services to individuals who have experienced trauma, such as victims of violence, accidents, or natural disasters.
  • Child and Adolescent Counselor: Job opportunities for counselors specializing in child and adolescent counseling are abundant in schools, youth centers, and community mental health agencies. Working with young populations can be fulfilling, but it may require unique skills to engage and communicate effectively with children and teenagers.
  • Geriatric Counselor: Mental health counselors specializing in geriatrics can work in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, or senior centers, providing counseling services to the elderly population.
  • Crisis Counselor: Job opportunities for crisis counselors may be available in crisis hotlines, mental health emergency services, or organizations responding to disasters or emergencies.
  • Career Counselor: Mental health counselors focusing on career counseling may work in colleges, universities, or private career counseling centers, assisting individuals with career exploration, job search strategies, and career transitions.
  • Military or Veteran Counselor: Mental health counselors with expertise in working with military personnel and veterans may find job opportunities in VA hospitals, military bases, or organizations that focus on serving the military community.

Types of Organizations that Hire Mental Health Counselors

Mental health counselors can find employment in various types of organizations, as the need for their services extends across different sectors.

The list below outlines some of the organizations that hire mental health counselors:

  • Mental Health Clinics and Centers: Whether privately or publicly funded, mental health clinics and centers employ mental health counselors to provide counseling services to individuals seeking support for mental health concerns. These settings often offer a multidisciplinary approach, with counselors working alongside psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals.
  • Hospitals and Medical Centers: Hospitals and medical centers often have mental health departments or outpatient clinics where mental health counselors are employed. They collaborate with medical professionals to provide comprehensive care to individuals with mental health needs, such as those with psychiatric disorders, substance use disorders, or individuals seeking support during medical crises or chronic illnesses.
  • Schools and Educational Institutions: Schools, colleges, and universities have counseling departments that employ mental health counselors to provide counseling services to students. These counselors address various issues, such as academic stress, career guidance, social-emotional challenges, and mental health concerns. They may also collaborate with teachers, administrators, and parents to support student well-being.
  • Community Mental Health Agencies: Community mental health agencies are nonprofit organizations that provide counseling and support services to individuals and families in the community. Mental health counselors in these agencies offer counseling, therapy, crisis intervention, and case management services. They often work with underserved populations and provide accessible mental health care.
  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): EAPs are workplace-based programs that support employees with personal or work-related challenges. EAPs often hire mental health counselors to provide confidential counseling services, mental health assessments, and referrals to employees seeking assistance for personal or job-related stressors.
  • Government Agencies: Government organizations at the federal, state, and local levels may hire mental health counselors to work in various departments and programs related to mental health and social services. Examples include the Department of Health, the Department of Social Services, Corrections, and Veterans Affairs.

In addition to these organizations, many mental health counselors choose to establish their own private practices. In private practice, counselors provide clients with individual, couples, or family counseling services. They may work independently or as part of a group practice, offering clients a wide range of therapeutic services.

What is the Work-Life Balance of Mental Health Counselors?

The work-life balance of mental health counselors is an interesting one. While mental health counselors are skilled at providing support and guidance to others, maintaining a balanced personal life can present its challenges. Like anyone else, mental health counselors must actively work on achieving and maintaining work-life balance to ensure their own well-being. They understand the importance of self-care and setting boundaries to avoid burnout and maintain their own mental and emotional health.

Mental health counselors often recognize the significance of practicing what they preach by implementing the coping strategies and self-care techniques they recommend to their clients. They may engage in activities such as exercise, hobbies, mindfulness practices, seeking support from their own therapists or supervisors, and maintaining healthy relationships. These actions are crucial for recharging, managing stress, and preventing emotional exhaustion.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that achieving work-life balance is an ongoing process, and they may encounter periods when the demands of their work can be emotionally and mentally draining. The nature of the profession, which often involves empathetically listening to others’ challenges and supporting them through difficult experiences, can contribute to potential emotional strain.

To mitigate the impact of work demands on personal life, mental health counselors must prioritize self-care and establish boundaries. This can include setting limits on working hours, creating dedicated time for personal activities and relationships, and seeking supervision or consultation to process their own experiences and emotions related to their work.

With all these measures in place, mental health counselors can enjoy a healthy work-life balance where the rigors and stress of work do not spill into their personal life.

Should I become a Mental Health Counselor?

Well, that’s a question only you can answer! Becoming a mental health counselor is a personal and career decision that requires careful consideration. After going through the information in this article, it’s important to take a step back and assess how it aligns with your interests, strengths, and goals.

Think about your passion for helping others and your ability to listen empathetically. Consider if you feel drawn to the field of mental health and if you possess the qualities needed to support individuals dealing with emotional and psychological challenges. Reflect on your experiences and values and how they might contribute to your effectiveness as a counselor.

Remember to weigh the educational requirements, including the time and financial commitment involved in obtaining a degree in psychology and pursuing licensure. Consider the potential growth in the field and the diverse career opportunities available, from private practice to working in schools or community organizations.

Ultimately, the decision to become a mental health counselor should be based on a holistic assessment of the information provided, as well as your own passions, strengths, and values.

Careers Related to Mental Health Counselor


Ibrahim Okunade

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