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Mental Health Counselor Career Guide

What is a mental health counselor?

If you love working with others and are a great listener, becoming a mental health counselor could be a good career choice. A mental health counselor is a licensed professional who assists patients in overcoming and managing life difficulties such as mental health disorders, relationship problems, and other life challenges.  They will review client information, conduct assessments on a patient’s emotional and physical health, and provide them with the necessary strategies and skills to handle their problems.    

An essential part of this role is to support patients as they try to recover from difficult life circumstances. This includes listening to clients as they express their feelings and experiences while developing treatment plans that will encourage them to grow and overcome some of the problems they’re dealing with. Mental health counselors will use their knowledge of human behavior and patterns to properly assess and treat emotional, behavioral, and cognitive disorders.

Qualifications and eligibility

Every state has similar requirements for becoming a mental health counselor. Here are some of the common requisites for each state: 

  • You must earn a bachelor’s degree in a related subject such as psychology or sociology 
  • You must earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling
  • You must pass one or more National Board for Certified Counselors exams 
  • You must have 2,000 – 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience
  • You must earn your practitioner license through your state’s clinical therapy board
  • You must have a solid understanding of legal guidelines surrounding psychiatric work

A mental health counselor must have good communication skills. They will be working with vulnerable clients who are looking for additional support to carry on, so it is vital for counselors to offer compassion to those that are looking to be seen and understood. Developing these working relationships will help their clients get the assistance they need to make the changes in their lives to better cope with their challenges. 

Work environment

Mental health counselors can specialize in different areas of mental health, so they’re found working in different locations and settings. Some examples include:  

  • Hospitals and mental health centers are constantly hiring these counselors to help patients that are struggling emotionally, physically, or cognitively. 
  • Substance abuse treatment centers need mental health counselors to guide addicts to recovery. 
  • Many schools offer mental health counseling to their students. 
  • You’ll also find these counselors in prisons helping inmates work through their issues to prevent further criminal behavior. 

Some of these professionals run private practices to have the freedom to treat patients on their own terms, try out new therapeutic practices, and lay out their business in a way that supports their lifestyle. Mental health counselors who open their own private practice should be aware of the expenses, paperwork, and legal requirements that come along with starting a business.  

Typical work hours

Many mental health counselors work 40 hours a week during the standard business hours of 8 am to 5 pm. Counselors who work at schools or hospitals may have varying work hours depending on their facility’s hours. 

If you run your own private practice, you will have the flexibility to set your own hours and rates. This means that you can create a schedule that works best for your specific needs. Some individuals choose to work in the evenings or weekends to accommodate clients’ busy schedules, however, they may decide to charge extra for these non-standard work hours. 

Types of mental health counselors

There are many different challenges and mental disorders people face, which is why mental health counselors typically specialize in one area. They may provide services for the following: 

Marriage and Family Counselor

This type of counseling involves working with couples and families to solve a range of clinical problems such as depression, anxiety, marital problems, or child-parent problems.  

Addiction Counselor

An addiction counselor works with recovering addicts to help them overcome substance abuse problems. They may work with these clients to help them process experiences and feelings that may have contributed to their addiction. 

Child Counselor

A child counselor has specialized training in treating children ages 17 and younger for emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders. They are commonly found working in schools to support children through their developing years. 

Trauma Counselor

This type of counselor is certified and experienced to work with patients that have had severe traumatic experiences. Trauma counselors are trained to help patients process traumatic events and come up with strategies to cope with their emotions. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Counselor

A cognitive-behavioral counselor uses a type of psychotherapeutic treatment to help patients learn how to identify and change hurtful thinking patterns. These counselors help people with a variety of psychological problems such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Income potential

A mental health counselor salary can fluctuate based on your experience, education, and the state you work in:  

  • The average annual income for a mental health counselor is $68,615 and can range from $61,458 to $75,700. 
  • A mental health counselor’s salary can vary depending on the state you live in, so it is important to check your state’s data. For example, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Tennessee offer the highest pay at $77,000 – $82,000. Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida give the lowest average salary between $53,000 – $57,000. 

Keep in mind that some counselors work part-time, so their salary is typically based on the number of appointments they make or the amount of hours they work. The average hourly wage for mental health counselors in the United States can range from $21 to $52, depending on their company and geographic location. Some mental health counselors’ wages are determined by the amount of appointments they fulfill, so it is important to see how many sessions your company allows you to take on. 

Since mental health counselors can run their own private practice, they will be able to set their own rates and fees. Each counseling session can cost around $65 and up to $250 in the United States, so they should set a price that is comfortable for them. Counselors should take in the cost of running a business to determine how many hours they should work along with what they should charge their clients.

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the mental health counseling field to grow by 23% over the next ten years. As more people continue to seek out mental health resources, there will be about 41,000 job openings a year for mental health counselors to help patients with various physiological problems. 

Career path

As a mental health counselor, you can then pursue a position in different areas of psychological work such as social work, nursing, or therapy. They can decide to further pursue higher education and become a psychiatrist, who are medical doctors that prescribe medication and recommend behavioral intervention to help patients manage their mental health challenges. 

Below is a list of positions that are great career paths for mental health counselors:

  • Licensed School Psychologist 
  • Peer Support Specialist 
  • Medical Biller
  • Recreation Therapist
  • Psychiatric Technician
  • Support Group Facilitator
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Substance Abuse Nurse
  • Mental Health Case Manager
  • Health Educator
  • Geriatric Therapist
  • Creative Arts Therapist
  • Psychiatrist
  • Clinical Social Worker
  • Counseling Psychologist
  • Psychiatric Nurse

Steps to become a mental health counselor

1. Earn your bachelor’s degree in social science, psychology, or behavioral study

Students begin their journey to becoming mental health counselors with an undergraduate degree in counseling-related subjects such as social science, psychology, or behavioral study. Earning a bachelor’s degree in a related subject will provide students with the knowledge and prerequisites that are needed to enter a master’s degree program.  

Here are some of the courses you’ll take in your undergraduate program:

  • Human Development – This class focuses on the development of humans throughout their lifetime as an infant, child,  and eventual adult. You will study humans’ physical, emotional, and intellectual growth as they develop over time.  
  • Counseling Theory and Practice – This typically serves as an intro class to see if you would be interested in counseling as a profession. You will learn different philosophical theories and physiological techniques that are commonly applied to counselors’ work. 
  • Psychopathology – This class examines psychopathology, which is the study of behaviors and origins of mental disorders. You will learn about different psychiatric disorders and how to diagnose and treat them. 
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling Overview – This is a core introduction to the mental health counseling field as a whole. This class reviews historical and current clinical training perspectives and techniques on issues in mental health counseling. You will also learn about laws and ethics you must follow.

2. Obtain your master’s degree in mental health counseling

Once you obtain your bachelor’s degree, you should start applying for your master’s degree in mental health counseling. Earning your master’s degree in mental health counseling is required to practice as a licensed mental health counselor. Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) offers a list of accredited institutions where you can earn your master’s degree. 

Here are some of the top mental health counseling programs in the United States: 

3. Strengthen your interpersonal skills

While getting a master’s degree in your field will help prepare you to properly diagnose and assess a patient’s mental health, it is vital for mental health counselors to have the proper interpersonal skills to develop trust with their patients. These professionals should have the following characteristics to ensure a safe, warm environment for their clients:  

  • Communication Skills: Your communication skills will play a big role in how much your patient trusts you. You should be able to confidently share ideas, set boundaries, and offer advice to your clients while offering them a safe place to share their experiences and thoughts without feeling judged. 
  • Empathy: It is important for your patients to feel seen and heard while they’re reaching out for help. Try your best to be understanding and show them that you’re dedicated to guiding them through their struggles.
  • Listening Skills: Listening will help you better understand your client and develop the trust that is needed for your patient to share their struggles. The information you get from your patient will help you to better assess and treat a mental disorder. 
  • Patience: You may have patients that struggle with making changes or seem to be making little progress. As a mental health counselor, you must have the patience to work with your patient through their daily struggles and thought patterns to help them lead a healthier life.

4. Complete internship experience for certification requirements

During your master’s degree, you will have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience under the supervision of a licensed professional. CACREP requires at least 100 hours of internship experience during the full academic term along with 40 hours of direct client contact. Once you earn your master’s degree, you will need to look for a postgraduate internship to reach certification requirements. This includes 600 clock hours and 240 hours of direct client contact in the area you want to specialize in.

5. Study and pass licensing exams

Most states will require mental health counselors to pass a recognized counseling exam in order to apply for licensure in their state. 

Most aspiring individuals will need to take the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE), which are both provided by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). These examinations consist of three components: 

  • Scenario: provides information about client and setting
  • Information Gathering (IG): gather relevant information for diagnosis and treatment for client
  • Decision Making (DM): make your best judgment regarding clinical decisions

6. Apply for your counseling licensure

After you pass your licensing exams and pass a background check, you will have the opportunity to apply for your mental health counseling license. Every mental health counselor will need to apply for licensure through their state. Every state has varying requirements for licensure, so it is important to look up your state’s regulations before you apply. 

7. Earn additional certifications specific to mental health counseling

Some specialties require mental health counselors to earn additional certifications. Before you are able to earn your specialty certification, you must hold a general National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification. After that is completed, you are ready to start earning the certification you need to work in the specialty you want. Here are some of the most common specialty certifications earned from the National Board for Certified Counselors: 

  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC): If you want to be a mental health counselor, you should receive this certification. It requires 60 semester hours. You’ll take courses in family counseling, substance abuse counseling, counseling for trauma, and more.
  • National Certified School Counselor (NCSC): To be eligible for this certification, you’ll need at least 100 hours of school counseling after graduating with your degree. 
  • Master Addictions Counselor (MAC): For this certification, you’ll need a minimum of 12 semester hours of graduate coursework in addiction counseling, including drug terminology, theories of addictions, and addiction treatment methods. Up to six semester hours of coursework in group counseling (limit three semester hours) and/or family counseling.

Other mental health certifications that are popular include:

  • Mental Health First Aid: For those who are interested in mental health, but not sure which steps to take, taking this first aid course is a great start. You’ll learn crisis management and other skills needed to help those with mental health crises.
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor: If you want to work with those who have an addiction, this is the certification for you. You’ll learn more about addiction and how to best help this population.

8. Stay on top of continuing education requirements

Continuing education is usually needed to maintain your license as well as staying on top of changes made in the field. Each state has different continuing education requirements, so it is important to check your state’s standards to keep your license active. American Counseling Association offers affordable continuing education courses that are easy to take online at your own convenience.

Tips for becoming a mental health counselor

If you are interested in becoming a mental health counselor, there are a few things you can do to become successful in your position: 

  • Research what your licensure requirements are in your state. Research what the notary requirements are in your state. You can find this at your state’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing department online. 
  • Search for postgraduate internships before you complete your master’s degree to find the right fit for you.
  • Find associations so you have resources and advocates readily available to you:
  • Connect with other mental health counselors. It can be challenging starting a new job, so finding people that are likely feeling the same way can make you feel less alone in this new adjustment.
  • Develop strong relationships with your patients. Make sure they feel comfortable with sharing their experiences with you by building trust and offering empathy.
  • Listening to other people’s life challenges can be wearisome. It is important for you to take care of yourself. Make sure your needs are being met, so you can be your most healthy self for your patients. 
  • Stay up-to-date on new discoveries and techniques in the field. This will create more ways to diagnose and help treat your patients. 

Mental health counselor FAQs