How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Whether working in rehabilitation, education, mental health or other fields, there are hundreds of thousands of professionals who’ve found their calling as counselors in the United States. This is unsurprising when considering that counseling is a profession that’s in demand and could be personally gratifying, but many people are unaware of what exactly it is that counselors do, how to become a counselor, and what opportunities await counselors. These subjects, and more, are covered below.

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What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

The American Counseling Association (ACA), the world’s largest professional association exclusively for counselors, describes counseling as a “collaborative effort between the counselor and client” in which the two “identify goals and potential solutions to problems which cause emotional turmoil; seek to improve communication and coping skills; strengthen self-esteem; and promote behavior change and optimal mental health.” Counselors work toward these aims through a variety of methods, but most often by engaging in individual therapy, group discussions, and referrals to other healthcare professionals and social services. The steps to become a counselor may include building foundational skills and expertise in a counseling specialization, typically through graduate degree programs in counseling or similar fields, as well as obtaining state-issued license.

Three Steps to Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

As mentioned above, counselors must typically complete undergraduate and master’s in mental health counseling degree programs, in addition to securing licensure from the state in which they intend to legally practice. Sometimes counselors may also opt for pursuing their doctorate in counseling. Although everyone’s journey is different, here are some typical steps to become a mental health counselor:

  1. Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

    As far as undergraduate education goes, aspiring counselors may choose among several degree fields, as long as they are offered by an accredited school. While some colleges and universities may offer a bachelor’s in counseling, many do not. Thus, most graduate counseling programs—as well as the American Counseling Association1—recommend that a student looking to become a counselor obtain a bachelor’s in a related subject, such as psychology, or any other liberal arts major.

  2. Complete a Graduate Program

    It is recommended that aspiring counselors attend a counseling graduate program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs2 (CACREP). While there are various types of graduate programs for counseling, a master’s in mental health counseling may be the best option for those interested in helping with mental and emotional health issues and relationship problems.

  3. Obtain A Supervised Practice License

    Graduates should follow state-specific steps to obtain their supervised practice license. While mental health counselor licensure requirements will vary by state3, the process typically involves verification of completed coursework, citizenship proof, recommendation letters and examination results. Many states rely on one of two tests offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors4. Visit your state’s counseling licensing board website5 for a full list. Holders of supervised practice licenses will have to complete additional steps to earn independent licensure, which will vary by state and include supervised practice experience.

Types of Counselors

Although the foundational skills of counseling can apply to different populations, some people want to become a counselor to help particular clients. Some types of counselors include mental health, career, school, rehabilitation, and substance abuse counselors. Master’s in Counseling degree programs may offer tracks or electives which allow students to specialize in an area of their choice, such as career, college, school, and mental health counselor. State licensing agencies may similarly offer specialty licensure in these areas through coursework verification and certification, such as that offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Types of Counseling Degrees

Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling

Professional mental health counselors often have requirements stipulating that they hold at least a Master’s in Counseling or a similar degree in a related field, thus a worthwhile Bachelor’s in Counseling program should prepare graduates for their graduate studies. This should include courses in psychology, mental health, therapy, substance abuse, ethics, and, of course, counseling. Bachelors in Counseling programs will also often require a capstone or internship, in which students use their learned clinical skills on-site at social service or healthcare facilities.

Master’s Degree in Counseling

Master’s degree in counseling programs should be accredited by CACREP to best prepare you for your state’s counseling licensure. According to CACREP, a Master’s in Counseling degree program should consist of graduate-level study with a minimum of 60 semester credit hours or 90 quarter credit hours. These hours should cover eight common core areas:

  • professional counseling orientation and ethical practice
  • social and cultural diversity
  • human growth and development
  • career development
  • counseling and helping relationships
  • group counseling and group work
  • assessment and testing
  • research and program evaluation

In addition, the program should incorporate both a practicum of at least 100 clock hours over a full academic term, including at least 40 hours of direct client service, and an internship of at least 600 hours of supervised counseling, with at least 240 hours of direct client service.

Mental Health Counseling

In addition to the common core curriculum described above, CACREP stipulates requirements for specialties, like mental health counseling. These standards cover foundational, contextual, and practical elements that come together to provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary to operate within the mental health setting. They range from coursework in neurobiology and psychopharmacology, to experience in intake interviews and mental health intervention.

Careers in Counseling

The general skills and specialized knowledge provided by counselor education programs to assist students to become counselors actually may equip them to pursue a variety of careers. Although the specific context of each profession differs from the next, they are all united in helping people surmount the obstacles in their lives.

Rehabilitation Counseling

Rehabilitation counselors assist clients with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities to live independent lives. They frequently provide counseling to help clients adjust to their disabilities, connect them with treatment and training, and advocate for their rights in the community and workplace.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data for Rehabilitation Counselors:

2019 Average Pay for Rehabilitation Counselors: $35,950
Entry-Level Education: Master’s in Counseling or a related field
Estimated Job Growth 2018 – 2028: 10 percent

School and Career Counseling

School and career counselors guide students in the development of their academic, social, and professional skills. They may often provide individual evaluation for employment prospects, counsel students through personal issues, and work with them to develop their organizational skills and plans for the future.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data for School and Career Counselors:

2019 Average Pay for School and Career Counselors: $57,040
Entry-Level Education: Master’s in Counseling or a related field
Estimated Job Growth 2018 – 2028: 8 percent

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counseling

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors support clients experiencing alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, mental health disorders, or a wide variety of other behavioral conditions. They typically counsel clients in both individual and group settings, develop treatment plans with them and their families, and provide education on substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and mental health issues.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors:

2019 Average Pay for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder and Mental Health Counselors: $46,240
Entry-Level Education: Bachelors in Counseling or a related field
Estimated Job Growth 2018 -2028: 22 percent

1American Counseling Association

2CACREP Accreditation Website 

3National Counseling Association State Licensure Requirements 

4NBCC examination Information 

5American Counseling Association Licensure and Certification 

Last Updated May 2020