How To Become A Mental Health Counselor: Your Guide

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Mental health counselors play a huge role in helping people cope with life’s challenges. In the United States alone, nearly half of the population (46.4%) will experience a mental health illness over the course of their life. About 41% of people struggling with a mental disorder sought expert help in the past year. This is where mental health counselors come into the picture. For those interested in learning how to become a mental health counselor, we’ve created this guide complete with everything you need to know.


Let’s jump right into the details.


Person struggling with mental health illness crying by bed


What is Mental Health Counseling?

Mental health counselors are professionals with academic expertise and experience in psychology. People of all ages may choose to seek professional help to deal with their hurdles. Mental health counselors will offer support, counseling, and guidance to people of all ages who reach out for assistance.


There are many mental health disorders and concerns that mental health counselors can help to remedy and address. Some of these include:

  • Phobias
  • Trauma
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Grief
  • Panic disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • OCD
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction
  • Substance abuse


What is the Role of a Mental Health Counselor?


According to the American Counseling Association, a mental health counselor uses psychotherapy to help people solve their problems. Counselors may get to work with specific populations like those in the military, the elderly or disabled. Or, their clientele can be a range of individuals across cohorts.


Mental health counselors work by first assessing their clients. They may perform verbal interviews or have their client fill out a questionnaire. This could result in a diagnosis of a mental illness. Then, they’ll begin psychotherapy treatments. Most mental health counselors opt for traditional psychotherapy which involves allowing their client to talk to them freely, and the counselor will interject when needed. This exploration of emotions and feelings can open the door to uncovering root problems.


Counselors may ask questions, provide insights and comments, and ultimately, work with clients to set goals. Mental health counselors work best with patients who need a short-term solution to help overcome their challenges.


If it’s a deeper issue or something that could require medication, then a mental health counselor may refer their patient to a psychiatrist or psychologist. This is because a psychiatrist is licensed to prescribe medication (and in some states, a psychologist may be able to as well).


How to Become a Mental Health Counselor


Becoming a mental health counselor requires an immense amount of education, as well as certification. Depending on the state you wish to practice, you may also need to pass a licensing exam.


Here are the steps one must fulfill to become a mental health counselor:


Bachelor’s Degree


At the beginning of the journey to become a mental health counselor, you’ll need to complete a bachelor’s degree in a field like psychology, social science, health science, or behavioral science. This will lay the foundation of the knowledge you’ll need to continue your education in a master’s degree program. Most of the coursework completed during this time will span classes like: introduction to psychology, approaches to therapy, and counseling skills and foundation.


Master’s Degree


To become a licensed professional, you will have to continue your education to earn your master’s degree. The degree will need to be from a CACREP accredited university. CACREP is a specialized accreditation body that checks the standards of professional programs in institutions.


Graduate and Postgraduate Internship and Licensure


One of the differentiators in a CACREP accredited master’s program is the hands-on experience granted. Through the program, you’ll work to complete supervised counseling to gain experience in the field. Upon graduation, you will take part in graduate internships.


Required Exams


There are some states in which it is required to pass an exam to obtain your license. This could be the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Depending on the state you want to practice in, it’s best to look up specific requirements.


Apply for Certification


There’s also the option to obtain national certification from the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). Along with earning a National Certified Counselor (NCC) title, you may earn a certification in one of the three available specialty certifications: addictions, school counseling or clinical mental health. With this Board certification, you can signal to employers and clients that you have met the standards to conduct the duties of the job in a satisfactory manner.


Continue Education


Even once you’ve become licensed and/or obtain national certification, it’s important to continue to stay up-to-date with information in the field. If desired, you can look to earn specializations in various topics like grief or school-based mental health counseling.


How Long Does the Process Take?


The length of the process to become a mental health counselor can vary based on your schedule and enrollment (part time vs. full time vs. expedited). Yet, in general, you can expect to spend the following amount of time on each step:


  • Bachelor’s degree: 4 years
  • Master’s degree program: 1-2 years
  • Internship: 1 year


Mental health counselor talking to a patient


Where Do Mental Health Counselors Work?

A great benefit of becoming a mental health counselor is the diverse work setting opportunities. Mental health counselors can work in their own private offices, alongside doctors in hospitals, or in home health care centers.

Furthermore, mental health counselors can be found in schools, adoption agencies, the military, law enforcement agencies, and detention centers.


Expected Salary

According to Pay-scale, the average mental health counselor salary sits at $42,701. Naturally, as experience grows, so does the average salary.

For example, those who have more than 20 years of experience tend to have an average salary over $51,000 per year.

Furthermore, salary expectations can also depend on place of work, state of work, and your education/specialty certifications.


Final Thoughts

Mental health counselors offer an unparalleled service to those who seek their professional guidance.


The field requires a master’s degree and licensure to practice because the job deals with serious situations. A certificate program in behavioral health can be a potentially helpful option too, that works both as a starting point and as an additional qualification in this field.   


For those who become mental health counselors, they can rest assured knowing that their daily duties aid in making other people’s lives more manageable and enjoyable.