How to Become a Mental Health Counselor: Five Critical Steps
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This article was updated on Jan. 18, 2024 with additional contributions by Ashleigh Worley.
Mental health counselors help clients navigate difficult life experiences, help them set goals and provide critical emotional support. They enjoy rich, rewarding careers where they make a difference by using their listening, problem-solving and interpersonal skills.
Around 57.8 million adults in the U.S. experienced mental illness issues in 2021, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). As people continue to seek treatment for addiction and mental health issues, the demand for counselors is expected to grow 18% through 2032, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).*
Dr. Kristi B. Cannon, LPC, a director of counseling programs at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), said that although the process of becoming a mental health counselor can be lengthy and challenging, it's also rewarding.
"Being able to empower clients to make change and improve their lives and mental health is extremely important and valuable work, particularly in the world we live in today," she said.
The Path to Becoming a Mental Health Counselor
Those interested in becoming a licensed mental health counselor, which will require credentials beyond those offered at SNHU, should follow these five important steps to ensure the right mix of education, work experience and supervision needed to become licensed in a state.
Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree
Although students aren’t required to earn a human services degree, sociology degree or psychology degree to obtain a graduate degree in counseling, many instructors agree that it’s beneficial to get a good foundation in these subjects if you plan to become a licensed mental health counselor.
Cannon said courses in human growth and development help students understand the continuum of human growth, giving them a better understanding of the transitions that take place during childhood, adolescence, adulthood and older adulthood.
Taking classes that focus on cultural diversity is also important, as mental health counselors work with people from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, she said.
Find Your Program
Assess Your Strengths and Suitability for the Role
Although you may have a passion for topics related to counseling in your academic classes, it’s important that you enjoy working with people before you commit to licensure in mental health counseling, said Dr. Metoka Welch, a director of counseling programs at SNHU. Getting good grades is only part of the equation. Patience and flexibility are two traits all good counselors should exhibit.
“It’s a nice mix of different traits that make someone a good counselor. And it’s not always a 4.0 (grade point average)," Welch said. "There’s the academic component, soft skills and being willing to trust the process and be comfortable being uncomfortable."
While it’s not required that students have on-the-job experience when they apply to a graduate program, it can be helpful to work in a mental health setting to gain a better understanding of how well-suited you are for a counseling role.
Complete a Master’s Degree Program that Aligns with National Standards
To become licensed in most states, prospective mental health counselors must complete 60 credit hours of graduate-level coursework in counseling. (SNHU is not currently enrolling new students in the graduate counseling program.)
According to Cannon, it's important to look for a program that aligns with the standards outlined by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Specific course requirements may vary from state to state.
Some courses might cover topics such as:
- Diagnosis of emotional and mental disorders
- Group counseling
- Research methods and program evaluation
- Substance use disorders and addictions
Students should be prepared to work individually, with partners and in small groups throughout their coursework.
Welch said it’s important for graduate students to demonstrate that they can multitask, prioritize and assimilate information.
A good program will help you to build your knowledge as a counselor but also allow you to examine yourself. “(Therapists) have to be inter-personally relatable and have the courage to be honest with themselves and their clients,” Welch said.
Develop Your Interpersonal Skills
Some schools offer in-person residencies that help students put their skills into practice.
According to Meg Straughn, an assistant director of counseling programs at SNHU, participating in an on-site residency can be an impactful experience. It can help you spend time practicing skills that are at the foundation of any counseling relationship.
"Residency ensures that students are not only receiving adequate training, but are also people who are going to be ethical, competent counselors," said Straughn.
Residencies may include practice sessions and experiential activities that are intended to help students build their clinical muscles.
According to Straughn, these activities may include:
- 1:1 mock counseling sessions
- Group counseling mock sessions
- Live counseling demonstrations
Getting real-world experience is also an important part of a student's education. In a practicum, students work with actual clients under the supervision of a licensed counselor. These types of experiences require that students spend time working at approved sites under supervision for a required number of hours that may vary by state.
Dr. Rodney E. Pennamon, a director of counseling programs at SNHU, said that students may work with a career field advisor to find a suitable site and obtain approval for it from their school.
"This search teaches them transferable skills that can be utilized in their pursuit of employment after graduation," Pennamon said.
According to Welch, students usually choose sites that interest them, and ideally, they will stay at the same site for the entirety of their training. “When at a site, supervisors spend time training you on their protocols and procedures, and you build a caseload," she said.
Understand and Fulfill State Licensure Requirements
Students must understand the specific requirements of the state in which they intend to apply for licensure and be apprised of any changes to those requirements. If they move to another state, licensing requirements could be different from the state where they currently reside, for example. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) provides a directory of all state professional counselor licensure boards.
In some states, before students sit for an exam and apply for their licenses, they must demonstrate hours of supervised post-graduate work. In Virginia, for example, graduates must acquire 3,000 hours of post-degree counseling work before they can take the licensing exam, Welch said. States require somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 documented hours for licensure, according to the American Counseling Association (ACA), within a certain time period. (To check state requirements, visit the National Board of Certified Counselors.)
"State laws are constantly changing so it’s important to be aware of what the rules and laws are in your state," said Pennamon.
State licensure application processes also vary. States may specifically require the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Some states require both examinations or allow you to choose which examination you will take, said Welch.
"The timing of when students can take the licensure exam depends on the rules of their state," said Welch. "Some states require that the exam is taken after graduation but before students begin supervised clinical experience."
A Comprehensive Process for a Vital Career
Completion of post-graduate work with supervision can take up to three years to complete. At that point, graduates are working in a paid position but with a supervisor approved by their state board who is documenting their hours, Welch said. Once a state issues a license to a counselor, that counselor may work without supervision.
"The counseling profession is built upon a foundation of ethical and culturally sound practice that ensures a readiness for work with vulnerable populations," Cannon said. "It is a process that takes time and true investment by those seeking licensure."
There are many reasons to become professionally licensed as a counselor, according to the ACA. Some of the benefits the ACA cited include:
- You can practice independently
- Your clients and employers will know that you have met the requirements necessary to practice
- Your clients' health insurance will be more likely to cover your services
What Makes a Good Mental Health Counselor?
Now that you know how to become a mental health counselor, you might be wondering what qualities help one to succeed.
The first is a genuine interest in their field.
"A good mental health counselor should be passionate about the work they do and have a desire to work on improving the quality of life for their clients," said Pennamon.
According to Cannon and Pennamon, counselors who make a positive difference also are:
- Able to empower their clients using ethical practices
- Aware of their own biases
- Continuously educating themselves on new developments and research
- In touch with their own emotions
- Open to feedback and self-growth
"A good mental health counselor is someone who has courage, someone who can hold space and someone who listens," said Welch. "A good mental health counselor is not afraid to become a client themselves."
*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ’11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
Ashleigh Worley '22 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at SNHU. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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