How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Life isn’t easy, unfortunately, and practically all of us will have to go through some difficulties along the way. Thus, it is very important that people know how to manage those difficulties in a way that is healthy, or they will end up having a mental health problem. Luckily, for those who get to that point, mental health counseling is available. Unsurprisingly, the responsibility that rests on the shoulders of such counselors is quite significant, as they are essentially accountable for the mental well-being of their patients. Determining whether you are right for that type of career is down to a lot more than simply understanding the educational requirements.

The Job of a Mental Health Counselor

As a mental health counselor, you will see people who are going through a variety of problems, ranging from depression to grief, from panic disorders to addiction, and from suicidal thoughts to marital distress. The National Institute of Mental Health has performed some research on the prevalence of mental health problems, and it was found that at least 25% of all adults in this country suffer from some sort of mental disorder. For those who are interested in a career as a mental health counselor, this means that there is plenty of demand out there for your skills and knowledge.

As a mental health counselor, you can find employment in a variety of facilities. These include mental health clinics, psychiatric hospitals, clinical hospitals, home health care centers, and hospice care centers. You may also start your own private practice, which is a preferred option for many. Others work for the military, which is a unique field of work, as it allows you to work with those who have very specific mental health difficulties, such as post traumatic stress. You may also work with the families of deployed personnel, helping them to develop coping mechanisms.

Mental health counselors tend to deal with short term issues. If it is believed that patients have a more serious, clinical, long term mental health condition, they will be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist as appropriate. However, it is generally the mental health counselor who makes this determination and the subsequent referral.

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

If you have decided that you want to become a mental health counselor, you will have to be ready to complete a significant amount of education. In fact, mental health counselors are encouraged to become educated to the doctorate degree level, which means they start with a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree, before completing a doctorate or Ph.D. degree.

There are several reasons as to why you require this much education, one of which is the extent of your responsibilities. These include:

  • Completing questionnaires and interviews to determine the presence of mental illness
  • Diagnosing mental illness
  • Providing psychotherapy or talking therapy to treat the diagnosed mental illness
  • Helping patients to set and achieve goals
  • Providing training in relaxation techniques

To become a mental health counselor, you will first have to complete a bachelor’s degree, which takes four years. The best degree option is the bachelor of science in counseling, but you could also choose any other liberal arts course, such as education, psychology, or sociology. At the master’s degree level, however, you will need to be more specific and opt for counseling. Within this, you can also choose a further specialization. Finally, you will be encouraged to complete your doctorate or Ph.D. degree, which will be based on a research project or thesis. The doctorate degree level is not yet a legal requirement all across the country, although it is likely to become a requirement very soon.

At bachelor’s degree level, it is very important that you take as many courses as possible in the areas of counseling that you are interested in. These include mental health, family therapy, behavioral problems, and so on. Once that has been completed, you will be ready to study towards your master’s degree, for which you must choose a more specific specialization, as well as complete some clinical work. This will allow you to become licensed as a mental health worker. However, if you want to become a counselor, you may need to complete the doctorate degree program as well, depending on where you want to work.

Regardless of which educational path you decide to follow, it is vital that your chosen program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, who currently accredit some 600 different programs. In order for a mental health counseling program to be accredited by CACREP, it must include a practicum experience of:

  • minimum of 100 hours, 40 of which are through direct patient contact
  • individual supervision sessions
  • weekly group supervision sessions
  • evaluation of interactions

Furthermore, the program has to contain an internship in order to be CACREP accredited, which must be:

  • minimum of 600 hours, 240 of which should be in direct client contact
  • individual supervision sessions
  • weekly group supervision sessions
  • evaluation of activities as part of the internship

Licensing and Certification

In the vast majority of states, mental health counselors must be licensed to practice. This means they must hold a master’s degree and that they have completed between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of clinical experience under supervision. They may also need to complete a knowledge examination. Two levels of certification for mental health professionals are offered through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC):

  1. The NCC (National Certified Counselor) certification for entry level positions.
  2. CCMHC (Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor) for NCCs with significant experience. They must sit and pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).

Both the NCC and the CCMHC must be maintained through continuous professional education credits.

Should You Become a Mental Health Counselor?

For many, the idea of many years of rigorous study, as well as the financial cost associated with that, is a major disadvantage of this field of work. That being said, most people who want to become mental health counselors do so because they have a true passion for making the world a better place for individuals with mental health difficulties.

At the same time, it is important to understand that this particular career is hugely rewarding, not just in terms of personal pride, but also in terms of earnings. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for mental health counselors is $43,190, which is at master’s degree level. Exact earnings, however, vary widely depending on geographical location, experience, and sector of employment. As such, top earners can expect to earn $81,960 per year at least.