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How to become a mental health counselor

Mental health counselor

If you’re thinking about entering the mental health field, now’s a good time. The projected growth rate for mental health counselors and family therapists is 29 percent between 2012 and 2022 — much faster than average for all occupations, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.

By choosing this field, “you can help people lead more productive, happier lives,” says Christine Karper, PhD, a mental health counselor and area chair of the psychology program at the University of Phoenix® Central Florida Campus.

Here, Karper explains what to do to become a professional mental health counselor:

1

Get the relevant education.

All qualified mental health counselors nationwide hold at least a master’s degree, so you’ll need to get your bachelor’s degree first, Karper points out. Psychology or the social sciences are logical paths, though she says a variety of bachelor’s programs — such as in human services, humanities and English — can translate well to the helping professions.

Check your state’s licensing requirements.

Rules for becoming a licensed counselor vary, so go to the appropriate behavioral health state agency website for specifics, Karper advises.
 
“The two most common titles are licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed mental health counselor (LMHC),” she explains. “They are essentially equivalents, overseen by the same accrediting body, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).”
 
Generally, to obtain licensure, counselors must complete a master’s degree with 60-plus hours of coursework and have supervised, face-to-face contact with mental health clients during the master’s program. They also may have to log additional supervised postgraduate counseling experience and must pass a licensing exam or exams.
 
“The general requirements are 60 credit hours, 1,000 total clinical hours during the master’s degree program and [at least] an additional 1,500 supervised clinical hours after graduation,” Karper explains.

Choose an accredited program.

Karper stresses the importance of earning a master’s from a program certified by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs.
 
“This is the best way to ensure you are getting the right prerequisites for credentialing and you are ready for entry into professional practice,” she says.

Figure out your finances.

Your master’s in counseling will take at least two years to complete — longer if you work full time, Karper emphasizes. She advises developing a financial plan and determining how you’ll handle coursework and clinical hours in addition to your job if you’re employed.

Build counseling hours required for licensure.

Most states demand that you have more than 2,000 hours of supervised clinical counseling experience before you may obtain a license to practice independently, Karper says. She notes that you can accumulate roughly half of those hours while completing your master’s degree.
 
“Your last year of coursework is your clinical year,” she explains. “For example, in a practicum, you’ll be in a class that takes place in a counseling facility, seeing clients who are seeking [free] counseling from students under a licensed counselor’s supervision.”
 
You also may complete a counseling internship, often unpaid, at a social service agency or private counseling practice, she notes — though the latter is rare.
 
After graduation, you may be required to work additional solo counseling hours before taking the licensing exam. “You’ll need to seek a licensed counselor who is willing to supervise you, either at an agency or in a private practice,” Karper emphasizes. “The supervising counselor will sign off on your hours, guiding and mentoring you as needed.” You’ll usually earn a modest salary for your work during this time, she notes.

Take and pass the licensing exam.

In most states, “you must have all your clinical hours accrued before sitting for the exam,” Karper stresses, adding that different states may require one or more of several national exams, such as the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification, or the National Certified Mental Health Counselor Examination.
 
Some states require that you take their exams, too, she adds. If you need help preparing for the tests, the NBCC maintains a list of available fee-based self-study guides.
 

Get to work.

Once you’ve passed the required exams and acquired the appropriate license, you can work as an independent licensed counselor.
 
“You can go be a staff counselor at a social services agency, you can work at a hospital or you can eventually go into private practice, where many clinicians are able to build very large client bases,” Karper says, noting that some private practice counselors also branch out into alternative clinical therapies, such as art or music therapy.