How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

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For most Americans, 2020 was a challenging year, making the demand for mental health counseling greater than ever.

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

For those considering a career in the field, there are certainly plenty of opportunities.

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If you enjoy helping others and think that diagnosing and treating mental health problems and illnesses is right in your wheelhouse, a degree in mental health counseling can take you there.

What Is Mental Health Counseling?

Patients seeking to achieve emotional wellness often do so with the guidance of regular appointments for mental health counseling.

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In a broad scope, mental health counseling can help those suffering from addiction, grief, trauma, or other challenges, such as divorce, family issues, aging, or stress due to employment (or unemployment).

What Do Clinical Mental Health Counselors Do?

A Marriage and family counselor talking to his clients

While some mental health counselors work with all kinds of patients, others choose to specialize with certain ages, genders, or conditions.

For example, youth counselors may work with children or teens struggling with bullying, self-esteem, academic pressures, troubles in the home environment, or even struggles with gender identity or sexuality. In some cases, counseling is provided in private practice or group setting. School environments or in-patient facilities may provide other youth counseling services.

Addiction specialists may help patients who struggle with a reliance on drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or gambling. This can be done in a private practice, rehabilitation facility, hospital, or in-patient facility, depending on the severity of the issue.

Marriage and family counselors tend to focus on members’ dynamics in one household or with extended family. Therapy sessions may focus on abuse, relationships, power struggles, parenting challenges, behavioral issues, coping with one member’s mental or physical health issues, grief, divorce, or even military deployments.

Is an Online Master’s in Mental Health Counseling a Good Degree?

Mental health counseling can be a gratifying career if you enjoy helping others solve problems, gain confidence, and move to a place of mental wellness.

Financially, it’s not a “get-rich” profession, but the pay and benefits can be more than adequate to provide a decent livable wage in the right environment. By getting your mental health counseling degree online, you’ll have the advantages of flexibility and studying in your pajamas!

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Without a need to go to in-person classes often (or at all), you’ll have the ability to do the bulk of your work on your schedule, which gives you the freedom to work around a job, appointments, volunteer work, or school pick-up and drop-offs. Although you will probably need to gain clinical experience in person for licensure and certifications, you’ll be doing most of your classwork and homework online.

What Degree Do I Need to be a Mental Health Counselor?

A student with a Master of Education (Med) degree

There are few mental health counseling degrees at the bachelor’s level. Most students will need to continue their education to at least a master’s degree.

There are three focal points for students interested in pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling. For those who want to become a licensed mental health practitioner, a Master of Education (Med) program is probably the best path. Expect to get more hands-on experience (as opposed to research) and present a portfolio or thesis to graduate.

If psychological research is your jam, a Master of Science in mental health counseling will expand your psychology knowledge. Online classes will focus on ethics, research skills, and multicultural issues. You’ll likely participate in an internship or practicum to get hands-on experience.

If you’re not sure you eventually want to become a licensed practitioner, or are still considering a career in counseling vs. social work, a Master of Arts program in mental health counseling is a practical option. Classes may focus on diagnosis and clinical practice, but you’ll also learn about social justice and human development.

What Is the Job Outlook for a Mental Health Counselor?

A mental health counselor comforting her patient

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a mental health counselor for someone with a bachelor’s degree was $46,240 in 2019.

Of course, that varies by the type of practice, location, specialty, education, and insurance accepted. For example, a private practice that accepts insurance may generate a higher salary or per-hour rate than a public center that allows sliding-scale payments to low-income patients.

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On the bright side, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a positive job outlook over the next decade, thanks to a faster-than-average growth rate of 25%.

Bachelor’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling

There aren’t many bachelor’s degree programs that will get you into an advanced career in mental health counseling. Instead, a four-year undergraduate degree should be considered a foundation to prepare you for a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

Most undergrads will earn a bachelor’s in psychology, education, or sociology, although a general degree in liberal arts or science will also suffice. The most important thing is that you complete basic electives requiring courses—such as psychology and/or education—to prepare you for graduate school

What Can You Do With a Bachelors in Mental Health Counseling?

Although you can head right to the workforce with a bachelor’s degree in mental health counseling, the positions will most likely include support roles.

You may find a job as an assistant in substance abuse or rehabilitation counseling, marriage and family therapy, life-skills instructor, social work technician, nonprofit worker, or school counseling.

Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling

Students taking Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling

Obtaining a master’s degree in mental health counseling will help you make the jump from “job” to “career.” The two- to a three-year degree will include a mix of course learning and hands-on experience.

Core courses will likely include:

  • Foundations of Counseling
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Human Growth and Development
  • Theory and Process
  • Individual Counseling I and II
  • Ethical Issues in Counseling for Mental Health & Wellness
  • Cross-cultural Counseling
  • Research and Evaluation in Behavioral Sciences
  • Group Dynamics: Theory and Practice
  • Special Population Course
  • Dynamics of Vocational Development

You’ll also choose from a wide variety of electives, such as:

  • Counseling Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Adolescents
  • Introduction to Art Therapy
  • Substance Abuse Counseling• Grief and Bereavement Counseling
  • Counseling People with Disabilities
  • Bilingual Education: Theory and Practice

Expect to complete lab work and about 600 hours of a clinical internship under a licensed mental health professional’s supervision. Depending on your program and state requirements, you may also need to take a written exam.

What Can You Do With a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling?

Once you’re licensed to practice, you can put your master’s in mental health counseling to good use in a wide variety of fields.

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There’s no shortage of opportunities from substance abuse, rehabilitation counseling, and general mental health counseling to marriage and family therapy and counseling military personnel and veterans.

Doctorate Degree in Mental Health Counseling

As you search for doctorate degrees in mental health counseling, you’ll likely see that the Ph.D. programs have more specific focuses.

The American Psychological Association arranges doctoral programs into three categories: clinical (compiling and analyzing research on individuals), counseling (treating mental and emotional health), and school psychology (child and adolescent mental development).

Majors in doctorate programs range from clinical, behavioral, and educational psychology to forensic mental health counseling, organizational psychology, and child and adolescent psychology.

What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Mental Health Counseling?

A Ph.D. program in mental health counseling will prepare you for a multitude of careers. If you’re interested in opening a private practice, research, advocacy, forensic or community mental health, policymaking, or teaching at a university, your doctorate can help you gain knowledge and experience.

Mental Health Counseling as a Career

School Counselor speaking to a students

Mental health counseling can be a fulfilling career accompanied by a solid income, which will likely increase with each degree you obtain.

  • Mental Health Counselor – This career option is perfect for those who enjoy working with patients on a one-on-one basis to help patients achieve well-being.
  • School Counselor – If you enjoy working with children and adolescents in a school environment, a school counselor’s career can be both rewarding and financially satisfying.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor – Drawn to help those suffering from addiction? A career as a substance abuse counselor will likely put your calling to good work.
  • Marriage and Family Therapist – With a focus on communication, empathy, and family dynamics, a career as a marriage and family therapy will allow you to work with those seeking to strengthen and solidify relationships.
  • Geriatric Counselor – Because aging tends to bring its own unique issues—such as retirement transition, health concerns, and death—to the table, you’ll be working with the elderly to provide solutions, communication, and mental wellness.

Mental Health Counseling Program Accreditation

University offering Mental Health Counseling Program

What is accreditation, and why is it important?

More than ever, mental health degree programs seek Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accreditation to ensure that a degree program’s content and quality meets the standards necessary to meet what’s required of the profession.

  1. CACREP Accreditation – There are currently more than 870 specialty areas and programs providing CACREP accreditation for master’s and doctoral degree programs in counseling and its specialties
  2. MPCAC Accreditation – Formed in 2011 to provide standards and curricular guidelines for master’s degree programs in psychology and counseling, the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) provided an added value to your degree. The accreditation provides a peer-review process, feedback, and consultation to improve employability and portability for licensure in other states.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

With a four-year bachelor’s degree, you’ll likely serve in a support role to someone with more experience and education. But with a two- to three-year master’s degree, you’ll be able to serve in more advanced and higher-paying positions.

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Most doctorate degrees in psychology take four to seven years and provide the broadest spectrum of career pursuits in the mental health field.

What Skills Do You Need to Work in Mental Health?

Working in the mental health field will require good communication and listening skills, empathy, knowledge of support resources, understanding of human psychology, ethics, organization, and good record keeping.

Is an Online Master of Mental Health Counseling Degree Right for You?

Student taking Master of Mental Health Counseling online

If you’re self-motivated, good with time-management, and have basic knowledge of technology, an online master’s program could be a great option to obtain your degree.

By taking classes online, you’ll be afforded more flexibility than what is typically offered by all-in-person classes, and you’ll typically save money.

How to Thrive in an Online Program in Mental Health Counseling?

Programs offering online counseling degrees can be rigorous, but there are some benefits and resources that can help you thrive:

  • Online Student Support Services: These include academic advising, admissions support, career services and technology-related support for students with disabilities
  • Clinical Experience Placement Assistance: This benefit will help you find on-the-job work experience
  • Small Class Sizes: You’ll have better opportunities to ask questions thanks to the professor’s less diluted attention.
  • Live Discussions – Unlike watching prerecorded videos, live discussions provide synchronous learning to provide real-time access to the professor and fellow students.
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Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.