Mental health counselors promote wellness by evaluating mental health conditions and providing strategies for their clients to improve their mental health and quality of life.
Good mental health is essential to our psychological, emotional and physical well-being. According to the CDC, people who struggle with mental health challenges may be at increased risk for chronic health conditions. If you would like to know how to become a mental health counselor, below are the steps to reach your goal.
Mental Health Counselor Job Outlook
The employment outlook for mental health counselor jobs is promising. Tea U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects jobs for licensed mental health counselors to increase by 23% from 2020 to 2030. This rate is much faster than the average projected growth rate for all US occupations in that time frame (8%).
Given this strong projected increase in demand, mental health counseling offers an excellent option for those aspiring to work in the mental health field.
What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?
Licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs) work with people to assess their mental health, develop treatment plans and provide treatment and coping strategies. These professionals can treat anxiety, depression, grief and other mental health conditions.
Mental health counselors may work with children, adults, people with disabilities or veterans, depending on their place of employment. Counseling may take place in group settings or individually.
Mental Health Counselor Salary
Licensed mental health counselors earn a median annual salary of $48,520, though earnings vary significantly by industry. For example, those who work in government organizations earn a median of $60,450 per year, while those working in residential treatment facilities earn $42,900.
Steps to Becoming a Mental Health Counselor
LMHCs must complete several steps before they can gain employment. One of the most crucial steps is meeting a state’s requirements for licensing. Each state sets its licensing requirements for mental health counselors, and you don’t want to get too far along in the process before realizing you’re not meeting your state’s standards.
The steps below explain how to become a licensed mental health counselor.
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
The first step to becoming a mental health counselor is earning a bachelor’s degree. Psychology, social services, social science and other related areas of study are common degree paths for those who want to build careers in the mental health field.
If you study relevant coursework, your bachelor’s degree can give you the foundation to start working toward your goal of being a mental health counselor.
Complete a Master’s Program
Many mental health careers only require a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field, but if you want to work as a mental health counselor, you will also need a master’s degree.
Every state in the US requires mental health counselors to gain licensure before they can legally practice. If you want to be licensed, you’ll need a master’s degree. Licensed mental health counselors may also hold doctoral degrees.
Some states require licensed mental health counselors to earn their master’s degrees at universities that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. This accreditation ensures that the master’s degree program meets specific quality standards and covers the appropriate content to train students to become LMHCs.
Complete Supervised Clinical Experience
LMHCs must complete supervised clinical experience. Requirements for this experience vary by state, but you should expect to spend between 2,000 and 3,000 hours working under the supervision of a licensed counselor. Your supervisor will evaluate your performance in a clinical setting.
Take Your Examination
Each state licensing board determines exam requirements for LMHCs. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers two examinations. Some states require the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination. Others require the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification.
Certain states require both of the above exams, so make sure to learn the testing requirements in the state where you plan to become licensed.
In some states, you may also need to take a jurisprudence examination, which covers state laws and ethical standards that apply to counseling professions.
After you have completed all other requirements, you can apply for licensure through the appropriate licensing board in your state. This guide includes links to government organizations and professional licensing boards that handle mental health counselor licensing for each state.
Earn an Optional Certification
Depending on the job you want, pursuing additional certification may give you an edge in your career. These certifications are optional in most cases, but they can help you stand out as a mental health counselor. The NBCC offers certifications focused on specific issues and settings, such as addiction counseling and school-based counseling.
Frequently Asked Questions About Mental Health Counselors
What is the role of a mental health counselor?
Mental health counselors help people who are living with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and grief. They assess clients’ mental health and provide coping strategies and assistance to help improve their quality of life.
Is a mental health counselor the same as a therapist?
A mental health counselor is not the same as a therapist, though both professionals work to help improve people’s mental health. Mental health counselors provide practical strategies and steps for people to manage their mental health challenges. Therapists also work with patients to get to the root of mental health concerns or conditions.
What skills do you need to be a mental health counselor?
Mental health counselors must be compassionate and patient when working with their clients. They need excellent interpersonal, listening, speaking and problem-solving skills.
How long does it take to become a mental health counselor?
It typically takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, after which you can expect to spend three to five years becoming an LMHC. This education and licensure adds up to seven to nine years of study and supervised work experience.
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