Mental health counselors are in high demand in the United States. With 1 in 25 adults living with mental illness, counselors offer critical services.
Mental health counselors identify the root causes of mental disorders, discuss and recommend treatment options, and help patients with mental health strategies. In this article, you’ll learn how to become a mental health counselor. You’ll also get the details about requirements, education, salary, job outlook, and more.
Steps for How to Become a Mental Health Counselor
Every journey to become a mental health counselor is unique, but we outline a typical path below. Before you move forward down this career path, you should learn more about your state’s licensing requirements.
While it’s true that state requirements vary, consider how your own background and experience. Even with degrees or training in other fields, you may still use that training toward your new path.
You should get a sense of what you’ll still need to do to be eligible for exams and to meet the licensure standards. It’s all part of how to become a mental health counselor.
Step 1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree
Psychology or sociology are two of the popular undergraduate subjects that you could consider. Both of these subject areas will encourage you to explore abnormal psychology. You’ll also gain insight into what it means to be human and how we develop. These are all great ways to gain better insight into the field, so you’ll be more prepared for what to expect.
As we mentioned, you can still become a mental health counselor even if you started out with a bachelor’s in an unrelated field. You can study materials that you may have covered in undergraduate courses. Study and even remediation coursework will prepare you for higher-level coursework. You’ll also need that knowledge for your exams.
Step 2. Earn a Master of Mental Health Counseling (MMHC) Degree
You’ll need a master’s degree in counseling to become a mental health counselor in most states. You should pursue your advanced degree from an accredited college or university. It’s the best way to ensure you’re receiving high-quality training, according to the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).
Step 3. Pass licensing exams
As you explore how to become a mental health counselor, testing is an unavoidable part of the process. All states require that you take these exams:
So, as a potential mental health counselor, you must pass. Depending on your location, you may also need to pass other state-mandated exams.
Step 4. Complete supervised clinical experience
You need to complete 2,000 to 3,000 hours of clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed counselor. The number of required hours vary depending on state requirements.
This hands-on experience will give you a better idea of what to expect in your chosen field. At this point, you may have already had some clinical experience as part of your graduate program. You’ll need to get a temporary license to offer services under the supervision of a licensed counselor.
Step 5. Apply for licensure
You must apply to your state for your mental health license. Essentially, this is an independent practice license. Specific licensing requirements vary depending on the state where you plan to practice. It’s part of how to become a mental health counselor.
Step 6. Seek mental health counseling certifications
You can work to become a National Certified Counselor (NCC) through the NBCC. Of course, that certification may be a prerequisite in states for your license. You should determine what the requirements are for your state.
You can earn NBCC certifications as long as you have a 60-credit graduate degree. You also need to prove that you’ve completed 3,000 hours of clinical work since you graduated with your master’s degree.
Step 7. Maintain your mental health counselor license
You’ll need to take continuing education (CE) hours to maintain your mental health counselor license. Those hours could involve meetings, online courses, or other training opportunities.
While there’s a range of training you could use to fulfill those hours, you should use the time to learn about how mental health is evolving. You can learn about trends in treatment options or find out how technology could better support your work.
Requirements to Become a Mental Health Counselor
By now, you should have a sense of what the steps are for how to become a mental health counselor. You still need a better sense of what the requirements may be now and in the future. So, here’s a quick rundown.
You need a bachelor’s degree. In most scenarios, it’s to your benefit if you get that degree in counseling, psychology, or even social work. Those topics will give you a better knowledge base to draw from as you pursue your career.
Then, you’ll need a master’s degree in counseling to become a mental health counselor in most states. After completing a master’s degree, you’ll need a license to practicemental health counseling.
While you can pursue a doctorate, it’s not usually required by employers. It could still be something that you may pursue as part of maintaining your license and certifications. Since you’re earning continuing education, you can apply that study toward a doctorate.
Of course, you’ll also need to have clinical experience. So you should keep that in mind as part of your education process. It’s all part of how to become a mental health counselor.
Here are a few of the accreditation organizations that focus on assessing and accrediting universities and colleges:
- Distance Education & Training Council (DETC)
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you’ll need to get your licensure in most states. You may also want to get the NCCC mental health counseling certification. You’ll need to compile 10 case studies for the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) credential from the NBCC.
Would continuing education help?
The simple answer is that continuing education should always be of benefit to you both personally and professionally. You’ll need to take continuing education (CE) as part of what you need to do to maintain your license in most states. It’s also a great way to stay on top of your field. You can gravitate toward the topics you enjoy the most or continue to fill those gaps. So you can better benefit your patients.
What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?
Mental health counselors work with patients in a variety of ways. They gather information about the patients by watching how they interact and talk with others. You might work with an individual or group to assess and diagnose what’s happening.
Your goal as a mental health counselor is to determine the root cause of emotional and mental challenges. Then you can work through how to cope with the issues that are affecting their lives. You might address self-esteem issues, stress, or even addiction issues.
Types of Mental Health Specializations
As a mental health counselor, you might delve into any number of specialized areas. Your focus might vary depending on the root causes of the issues or the evident emotional and mental challenges your patients face.
Mental Health Nurse
For this specialization, you’ll need to become a Registered Nurse (RN) with a specialization in mental health. You’ll work with patients to diagnose and treat their needs with medication and psychotherapy as needed.
You’ll diagnose mental health disorders as a psychiatrist, but you may also prescribe medication. For this specialization, you’ll need to attend medical school with residency training.
As a psychologist, you may diagnose and treat patients with a range of mental health issues. For this area of mental health, you’ll need a doctoral degree in psychology.
This area may encompass a range of areas in the mental health field. You’ll work with patients as they deal with cognitive, behavioral, and emotional issues. Here’s a quick overview of key areas.
- Behavioral Disorders: You work with patients who are facing behavioral disorders.
- Child & Marital: You work with children and their families to achieve physical and emotional well-being.
- Clinical: Your work may delve into more severe issues.
- Eating Disorder: You may offer psychotherapy, nutrition education, or even medication. Your patients may face various eating-related challenges.
- Exercise: You work with the patient to get back to “normal. You may work on mobility or pain issues.
- Substance Abuse: You work with patients who face alcohol and drug abuse challenges.
Of course, there are many other types of therapy that you may explore as a specialization.
Mental Health Counselor Salary and Job Outlook
As you determine how to become a mental health counselor, you need to know what to expect from your salary and job outlook. The top-paying five locations for mental health counselors are in the following states:
- New Jersey
Of course, your salary and job outlook will also depend on the type of industries you focus on for your career. You can find jobs as a mental health counselor in doctor’s offices, family service clinics, and outpatient centers. You can also consider job opportunities with your city or local government or even in residential facilities.
Average Salary for Mental Health Counselors
How much do licensed mental health counselor jobs pay? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), mental health counselors received an annual salary of $47,660 in May 2020. Of course, the range of salary you can expect will depend on your specialization, industry, and location.
Mental Health Counselor Job Outlook
According to the BLS, the job outlook for mental health counselors will grow 25% by 2029. That outlook exceeds the average for all other jobs.
Mental Health Counselor FAQ
Your interest in mental health counselor careers may mean that you also have lots of questions. Even if you have a sense of what education and background you need, you need to know what the demands will be. Below are a few questions about jobs in mental health counseling.
How long does it take to become a mental health counselor?
You need to have a four-year undergraduate degree to become a mental health counselor. You can focus on areas like counseling, psychology, or a related field as a matter of interest. That core knowledge will also better prepare you for your advanced training and master’s degree.
To complete your master’s degree, you may spend up to four years completing your studies. Of course, the timeline will depend on the program you select and your area of specialization. It could take at least eight years to complete your studies, depending on how you complete your courses and internships. You should also review state guidelines to determine the timelines for clinical hours.
LPC vs LMHC: What is the Difference?
A licensed professional counselor (LPC) is not all that different from a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC). An LPC has a master’s in professional counseling, so you may offer support to those with anxiety or trauma. This counselor is also a general practitioner. They’re licensed to provide.
An LMHC has a master’s degree in counseling. In some states, this license is equal to an LPC. In some states, you may only be able to get an LPC or an LMHC license, because they only offer one or the other. That’s why it’s so important to understand what licensure you need for your location and level of experience.
What is a mental health counselor?
As a mental health counselor, you can offer a range of services to your patients. You could counsel parents and children. You could offer treatment options to patients who are dealing with depression or anxiety.
You could help patients cope with grief or work through the process of making decisions that could change their lives. As you determine how to become a mental health counselor, it’s so important to explore what areas you’re interested in. There are so many opportunities in the mental health field.
What’s the difference between a mental health counselor and a social worker?
As you explore how to become a mental health counselor, you may see overlaps with a social worker’s career. Of course, there are a few distinctions. Both roles work with patients and families with mental health challenges, but their areas of focus often vary. They may also take different approaches in their intervention efforts.
A social worker may take a more hands-on approach to solve issues of housing or housing considerations for a child or family, for example. They might connect the family with government agencies or offer other resources from the organization or clinic.
A mental health counselor (MHC) might focus more on issues related to anxiety, ADHD, grief, or even behavioral concerns. As a counselor, you’d offer direct counseling and support to help your patients cope with what’s going on. Your goal is to help them achieve mental and physical well-being. As an MHC, you might refer your patient to a different resource for housing or a court representative.
Resources for Mental Health Counselors
Here are some key resources that should offer insight into how to become a mental health counselor.
- Counseling for Social Justice, Third Edition
- Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People
- Active Interventions for Kids and Teens: Adding Adventure and Fun to Counseling!
- Reality Therapy and Self-Evaluation
Continuing Education Sessions
- Creative Approaches in Counseling and Psychotherapy, Sixth edition
- Efficacy of Dialectical Behavior Therapy Among Adolescents in a Partial Hospitalization Program
- Meta-Analysis of Counseling Outcomes for Youth With Conduct Disorders
- Check-In/Check-Out Intervention With Peer-Monitoring for a Student With Emotional-Behavioral Difficulties
Accet, 22 Sept. 2022, https://accet.org/.
Accsc. “Accreditation Alerts.” Welcome | Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, https://www.accsc.org/.
Affirmative Counseling with LGBTQI+ People, https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78133.
Atlas, College. “Distance Education and Training Council (DETC).” CollegeAtlas, 26 Oct. 2020, https://www.collegeatlas.org/detc.html.
“Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor.” NBCC, https://www.nbcc.org/certification/ccmhc.
Check-in/Check-out Intervention with Peer-Monitoring, https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=PEJCD15004.
Council on Occupational Education, https://council.org/.
Counseling for Social Justice, Third Edition, https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78148.
Creative Approaches in Counseling and Psychotherapy, https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=PEBK16008.
“Credentialing, Licensing, and Education.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/credentialing-licensing-and-education.
Detc. “Welcome to Deac.” DEAC, https://www.deac.org/.
“Effective Vendor Oversight Strategies.” Effective Vendor Oversight Strategies, https://rise.digitellinc.com/rise/sessions/7445/view.
Efficacy of Dialectical Behavior Therapy among Adolescents, https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=PEJCD18002.
“Home.” CACREP, 18 Oct. 2022, https://www.cacrep.org/.
“Master of Science in Mental Health and Wellness.” GCU, https://www.gcu.edu/degree-programs/master-science-mental-health-wellness.
“Master of Science in Mental Health and Wellness.” GCU, https://www.gcu.edu/degree-programs/master-science-mental-health-wellness.
“Master’s in Counseling.” Counseling Degree Guide, 6 Oct. 2022, https://www.counselingdegreeguide.org/degrees/masters/.
“Mental Health Counselor Licensing Information.” Washington State Department of Health, https://doh.wa.gov/licenses-permits-and-certificates/professions-new-renew-or-update/mental-health-counselor/licensing-information.
“Mental Health Counselor Salaries.” Psychology.org | Psychology’s Comprehensive Online Resource, 16 Aug. 2022, https://www.psychology.org/careers/mental-health-counselor/salary/.
“Mental Health Licensure, Certification & Degree Requirements.” Public Health, 8 Nov. 2022, https://www.publichealthonline.org/mental-health/
Meta-Analysis of Counseling Outcomes for Youth with Conduct, https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=PEJCD16005.
“National Certified Counselor (NCC).” NBCC, https://nbcc.org/certification/ncc.
“National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination.” NBCC, https://nbcc.org/exams/ncmhce.
“National Counselor Examination.” NBCC, https://www.nbcc.org/exams/nce.
“Psychology (BA) with an Emphasis in Mental Health.” Webster University, https://www.webster.edu/catalog/current/undergraduate-catalog/majors/psychology-ba-mental-health.html
Reality Therapy and Self-Evaluation, https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78138.
“State Licensing of Professional Counselors.” ACA(WEBusage), https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/licensure-requirements/overview-of-state-licensing-of-professional-counselors.
Stobierski, Tim. “How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC).” Northeastern University Graduate Programs, 20 July 2021, https://www.northeastern.edu/graduate/blog/how-to-become-a-licensed-mental-health-counselor/
“Will I Need a License or Certification for My Job? : Career Outlook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2016/article/will-i-need-a-license-or-certification.htm