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Mental health is critical to one’s well being. One in five Americans suffer from a mental illness (National Institute of Mental Health “Mental Illness” Dec. 2019). Because of chemical imbalances, trauma, or life circumstances, it can become increasingly difficult to self regulate. Fortunately, there are mental health counselors who can help individuals overcome their illness and live a more regulated life.
Mental health counselors work directly with individuals, couples, and groups to diagnose and treat mental health issues. Professionals in this field employ psychotherapy, problem solving, or other techniques to help their clients identify and overcome their struggles. Mental health counselors help treat eating disorders, PTSD, trauma, alcoholism, addiction, and abuse. They often work with diverse populations including the elderly, children, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or other underrepresented populations.
Professionals who work as mental health counselors have earned a master’s degree, completed supervised practice hours, and received state licensure. In order to work as a mental health counselor, individuals must possess exceptional empathy, self reflection skills, listening ability, patience, and tact. Licensing requirements vary by state as do titles, including licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), and licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC).
Mental health counselors earn a median annual salary of $44,630 per year. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS 2019), job openings for mental health counselors (including those specializing in substance abuse and behavioral disorders) are expected to swell 22 percent between 2018 and 2028. This will add 68,500 jobs nationally and represents a growth-rate more than four times the national average for all occupations during the same period (5 percent).
Below is an overview of this thriving career, including education required, steps to enter the field, and common roles and responsibilities.
Mental Health Counselor Specializations & Degree Types
A master’s degree is generally required for a career as a mental health counselor. Typical degrees include a master’s of science in counseling studies, a master’s of science in professional counseling, or a master’s of arts in counseling.
While there are many programs that can be completed online, between 2,000 to 4,000 internship hours are needed to obtain a license. Professionals in this field can specialize in a number of different fields, including substance abuse, marriage and family therapy, developmental disability, art therapy, and trauma.
Admissions Requirements for Mental Health Counselor Programs
Master’s degrees in mental health counseling require that students have completed at least a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution prior to admission. Undergraduate programs that will prepare students for master’s degree studies include those in psychology, sociology, and education. Some schools require students to submit GRE scores. Students will also be required to submit all school transcripts and most programs request letters of recommendation, resumes, and personal statements.
Mental Health Counselor Program Accreditation
Mental health counselor programs have two accrediting bodies. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredits master’s and doctoral degree programs in counseling and related fields in the United States and internationally. They are approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the U.S. Department of Education’s main organization which recognizes accreditation entities.
Programs can also be accredited by the Master’s in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC). MPCAC accredited programs are required to provide science-based education that are culturally responsive. The MPCAC is a member of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA), an organization that ensures a minimum standard for specialized and professional programs.
Attending an accredited institution will give students the confidence that the education they receive will be recognized by employers, testing agencies, licensing bodies, and other institutions.
On-Campus Mental Health Counselor Degree Programs
University of Kansas – School of Education
The University of Kansas master’s of science in counseling psychology aims to train multiculturally competent counselors with a strong background in theory, research, and clinical practice. The School of Education is ranked 18th in the nation by US News & World Report (2019), so students can rest assured they are attending a top-notch program.
Diversity is at the forefront of this program and they are committed to including marginalized populations in all aspects of their program. To graduate, students are required to complete 60 credit-hours of coursework and 600 practicum hours. Additionally, students have the option of choosing one of three ways to demonstrate competency in the program. They can take a comprehensive exam, complete a project, or write a thesis.
Applications for admission are due in January, and students will need to submit GRE scores along with transcripts, recommendations, and a resume.
- Location: Lawrence, KS
- Duration: Two-and-a-half to three years
- Accreditation: Masters in Psychology & Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC)
- Tuition: $1,000.95 per credit hours
Texas A & M University – Commerce College of Education and Human Services
Students wishing to become a licensed professional counselor (LPC) can complete the Texas A & M master’s of science in counseling to meet their education and practicum requirements. This 60-credit-hour program can be completed in ten semesters if attending part time, and seven semesters if attending full time. By taking a few extra courses students can also be eligible to be licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT).
Students are required to take courses in counseling diverse populations, crisis intervention, and group dynamics and processes. Admission is open all year and students can start at the beginning of any semester. GRE scores are required for admission as well as an essay in response to a prompt. Students also need to submit all their undergraduate coursework transcripts and three professional letters of recommendation.
- Location: Commerce, TX
- Duration: Two years
- Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
- Tuition: $2,328.71 per class
Online or Hybrid Mental Health Counselor Degree Programs
Northwestern University – The Family Institute
Northwestern University offers a master’s of arts in council completely online for students who need flexibility of completing their studies on their own schedule. Despite being online, this program is very collaborative and provides interactive experiences between peers, faculty, and professionals in the field.
Online students receive the same education that on campus students receive. Northwestern aims to train students to become highly self-reflective counselors through in-person experiences that challenge students to reflect on their own identity and how it may influence their approach counseling.
This program has four start-dates a year and offers a standard program, for those who already have an education in psychology, or a bridge to counseling program, for those who have no education or experience in the field.
Applicants need to submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, a resume, a statement of purpose, and recent photo to be considered for admission. As part of the admissions process students will participate in a group interview with other prospective students and a faculty member to gauge empathy, self reflection, and listening skills.
- Location: Evanston, IL
- Duration: 18 months to three years
- Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
- Tuition: $18,689 per quarter
NYU – Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
The online master’s of arts in counseling for mental health and wellness from NYU prepares students for licensure and employment as mental health counselors. Graduates of this program have gone on to work in private practices, government agencies, and treatment facilities as licensed professional counselors (LPC).
This intense program requires students to complete 60 credit-hours, 100 practicum hours, and a 600-hour internship in order to graduate. This flexible program allows students to complete coursework at their own pace while still offering a collaborative environment utilizing online tools.
Students learn to assess individuals and groups and then apply a variety of counseling skills based on the evaluation. Students gain real-world skills during their internship at an NYU-approved site in communities across the country.
Admission is granted on a rolling basis and students can choose from four different start-dates each year. GRE scores are not required for admission but transcripts, a resume, references, a statement of purpose, and an application fee are.
- Location: New York, NY
- Duration: 21 months
- Accreditation: Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC)
- Tuition: $1,795 per credit-hour
How Long Does it Take to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor?
On average, it takes at least ten years of education, including high school, to become a mental health counselor. Supervised practicum requirements vary by state and can greatly affect how many years it takes to become licensed in this profession. Typically it takes two to four years after completing a master’s to be able to sit for a licensing exam.
How To Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor – Step-by-Step Guide
Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)
Earning a high school diploma or obtaining a GED demonstrates dedication and ability to complete a program. Undergraduate institutions expect students to have complete this minimum requirement before admission. Students who wish to have an advantage when applying for colleges or universities should take advanced or AP courses and obtain college credit while still in high school.
Step 2: Complete a Bachelors’ Degree (Four Years)
Students pursuing a career as a mental health counselor typically complete either a bachelor of science or bachelor of arts in sociology, psychology, education, or a related field. Maintaining at least a 3.0 GPA as this will make students more competitive for graduate admission. Students should ensure that the program they attend has a regional or national accreditation.
Step 3: Obtain an Advanced Degree (Two to Eight Years)
All states require mental health counselors to have a master’s degree. The length of study varies by program but can take anywhere from 18 months to three years. Some students opt to complete a PhD. In order to become a national certified counselor (NCC) through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), the program a student completes must meet minimum standards including length, content, and practicum requirements.
Step 4: Complete Supervised Practice (Two to Four Years)
Requirements vary by state, but to be eligible to become an NCC, graduates must complete 3,000 hours of postgraduate work experience and 100 hours of counseling supervision. While completing supervised practice, graduates will perform all the duties of a counselor under the supervision of a licensed counselor. It is imperative to check the regulations for each state to ensure that hours are recorded appropriately as the requirements vary.
Step 5: Pass State Licensing Exam (Timeline Varies)
Each state has its own requirements for licensing exams for mental health counselors. Some states require the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Other states let you choose which test you take or have their own exam. The NBCC has created a directory that details the requirements for each state.
Step 6: Apply for a State License (Timeline Varies)
Once all the state requirements have been met, including supervised practice hours and passing test scores, prospective counselors can apply for state licensure through their state authority.
What Do Mental Health Counselors Do?
Mental health counselors work in mental health clinics, schools, private practices, hospitals, government agencies, correctional facilities, and businesses. Their primary duties include:
- Assessing and diagnosing mental health issues in clients
- Talking to clients about their experiences, feelings, and worries
- Providing a variety of mental health therapies to a client based on the client’s needs
- Setting mental health goals and help clients reach them
- Helping clients identify barriers to their recovery and developing strategies to overcome them
- Maintaining client records
- Collaborating with other medical professionals to coordinate services for the client
- Conducting group therapy sessions
- Working with clients to develop problem solving skills for when future issues arise
Mental Health Counselor Certifications & Licensure
Licensing for mental health counselor varies by state. The most common titles issued by states are licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), and licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC). The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) has created a directory that details the requirements for each state. Mental health counselors are required to be licensed in all 50 states. The NBCC offers specialized certification in school counseling, addiction, and clinical mental health.
How Much Do Mental Health Counselors Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2019), professionals in mental health counseling, behavior disorders, and substance abuse earn an average of $46,050 per year. The lower 10 percent earns $26,950 (or less) per year while the top 90 percent makes $70,100 (or more) per year.
Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.