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What is Counseling?

Are you considering enrollment in a counseling degree program in Montana? There are many colleges and universities offering this and related degrees in the state. An ideal major for those with an interest in helping others overcome various challenges in life, counseling degrees often teach students how to use a variety of techniques to provide social, emotional, and mental support to others. Students can expect to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to address many different conditions and work with many diverse demographics.

According to data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment for community and social service occupations, which includes many counseling positions, is expected to increase by 12% in the United States from 2020 to 2030. This is faster than the average for all occupation and will add about 346,900 jobs to the field nationally. Some professions will see greater growth than others. Genetic counselors, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, and marriage and family therapists will see increases up to 26%, while the projected growth for rehabilitation counselors, school counselors, and social workers is far less.

The majority of this growth will result from an increasing willingness among people in society to seek addiction and mental health counseling services. It’s also becoming more common for mental health and physical health professionals to coordinate patient care, with professionals working together to treat multiple ailments simultaneously. Additionally, many court systems now prefer to sentence drug offenders to treatment rather than jail time, resulting in even more need for qualified professionals in the field.

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Counseling Education in Montana

The educational services, healthcare, and social assistance industry is the second largest in Montana. It accounts for approximately $5.4 billion in revenue each year. As of May 2021, the state employed 9,620 community and social service professionals. The annual mean wage for community and social service occupations in Montana, which includes most types of counselors, was $44,400.

While online learning makes it easy to receive instruction and complete coursework from nearly anywhere in the world with access to the internet, those who intend to find work in Montana should give strong preference to colleges and universities in the state. These institutions will be more familiar with licensing requirements and will better prepare students for professional success in the region. Additionally, many of these schools already have established relationships with behavioral health facilities in the area, making it easier to complete internship and practicum requirements for graduation and licensing purposes.

Counseling is a relatively broad field, with professionals of all types providing behavioral health services and therapy. Professionals in this field can also specify the populations they want to work with such as children, teens, adults, or the elderly. Many counselors specialize in a specific kind of treatment. To facilitate this, most colleges and universities expect students to designate concentrations that differentiate their studies.

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Some of the most common concentrations include:

  • Addiction
  • Bereavement
  • Eating Disorders
  • Family
  • Mental Health
  • Military
  • Trauma

The specialty area chosen will have a significant impact on the daily tasks performed. A general expectation, however, is that these professionals will help patients live healthier, happier lives. These professionals often utilize various knowledge and skills to assist with various social, emotional, and mental health problems. While counselors cannot prescribe medications of any kind, they do often help patients manage physical and psychological difficulties that are related to other health conditions. Counselors also regularly coordinate with other medical and mental health experts when developing and managing treatment plans.

Responsibilities can vary, but some common tasks include evaluating clients, assessing readiness for treatment, supporting skills and behaviors development, encouraging appropriate coping strategies, and managing treatment plans. These professionals may also provide education opportunities for community members and/or serve as advocates for the populations they work with.

There are many different types of counselors offering specialized services, but all are dedicated to assisting patients in creating positive and lasting changes. Working in this field can be rewarding, but also stressful. Counselors often help people lead happier and healthier lives, but the job can be demanding with large workloads, long hours, and on-call requirements. Counselors can manage their own private practices or work for other facilities, such as family services offices, care centers, hospitals, schools, community/vocational rehabilitation facilities, outpatient mental health, substance abuse centers, service centers, hospitals, or residential substance abuse facilities.

In most cases, those seeking counseling and other behavioral health professions in Montana will require some level of higher education. To accommodate prospective professionals, many colleges and universities in the state offer appropriate academic programs. Students can choose from associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The type of profession sought will often dictate the amount of education that is necessary.

Associate Degree in Counseling (AS)

Associate degrees in counseling generally consist of 60 credit hours of coursework that takes full-time students two years to complete. These programs are often offered by community colleges, which set their own curriculums. While graduation expectations vary, most degrees are comprised of general education and subject-specific classes meant to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to be academically and professionally successful, as well as a broad overview of the behavioral health field. Students can expect to learn about various psychological theories and models.

This type of degree can lead to some entry-level employment opportunities as counseling assistants, human service assistants, and caseworkers, but is not sufficient for most licensed counseling positions in the state. Associate degrees do, however, often cost less to earn and serve as a good introduction to the profession. Additionally, the credits earned can be transferred to four-year institutions and applied toward bachelor’s degrees. Many colleges and universities admit associate degree holders as juniors instead of freshmen.

Bachelor's Degree in Counseling (BS)

Bachelor’s degrees in counseling generally consist of 120 credit hours of coursework that takes full-time students approximately four to six years to complete. Programs specifics vary, but the structure is similar to associate degrees in that both general education and major-specific classes are required. The core curriculum typically focuses on important counseling theories and concepts, as well as critical thinking and communication skills development.

This type of degree is a good starting-point for individuals who plan to become professional counselors in Montana. As bachelor’s degrees are not sufficient to meet state licensure requirements, they are often meant to prepare students for study at the graduate level. Graduates can, however, qualify for some entry-level employment in the field.

Master's Degree in Counseling (MS or MA)

Master’s degrees in counseling generally consist of 60 credit hours of coursework that takes full-time students approximately two years to complete. Every program is different, but all classes should relate specifically to behavioral health professions. Most are designed to provide instruction in advanced counseling practices and theories, with professors utilizing a mixture of classroom learning, research, and practical application. Additionally, many colleges and universities require students to complete supervised practicums or clinical internships prior to graduation.

This type of degree is required for those seeking counseling licensure in Montana. Candidates should expect to meet grade point average (GPA) and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) minimum requirements.

PhD Degree in Counseling (PhD)

Doctoral degrees in counseling can consist of between 90 and 120 credit hours and often take full-time students five to seven years to complete. Curriculum requirements vary significantly from institution to institution, but most provide students with a comprehensive assessment of the field. Those enrolled should anticipate conducting extensive research that culminates in dissertation defense.

This type of degree is not a standard requirement for employment in the behavioral health field. It is, however, appropriate for professionals seeking careers in research, leadership, academia, or as a psychologist (the position requiring the most education in the field). Graduates qualify for some of the most prestigious career opportunities available.

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Become a Counselor in Montana

If you want to become a counseling professional in Montana, you will first need to determine your preferred area of interest. The state licenses and employs counselors of varying types. Most individuals in the field are required to earn master’s degrees, and knowing your specific goals will ensure you select the most appropriate academic program and concentration. It will also help you determine which type if license is needed after graduation.

The Montana Board of Behavioral Health licenses mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, and addiction counselors. School counselors, however, are licensed by the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

One of the most common credentials sought is that of the Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC). These professionals can provide a variety of counseling services including conducting assessments, making diagnoses, implementing treatment plans, administering improvement and developmental techniques, and referring patients to other specialists. While fully licensed professionals must have master’s degrees in counseling that consist of at least 60 graduate credits, the board will provisionally accept a 45-credit master’s degree as long as all additional coursework is completed afterward.

Candidates start the licensure process by submitting an application for a provisional license as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor Candidate (PCLC). PCLC's are able to earn supervised experience and register for either the National Counselor Exam (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). Fingerprint background checks are also required and can be coordinated through the Montana Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Afterward, candidates must complete at least 3,000 hours of clinical experience, half of which must be done post-degree. Other specifics regarding these hours can be found on the board’s website. Once all experience and exam requirements are met, items must be submitted before the LCPC credential can be awarded.

It’s important to know that there are no licensure reciprocity agreements in Montana. The board will, however, review LCPC applications from professionals licensed in other states on a case-by-case basis, as long as they maintained active status for a minimum of two years.

Additionally, licensed professionals in the state must adhere to continuing education requirements. Expectations vary, but most licensees are required to obtain a specified number of hours of continuing education (CE) annually, prior to licensure renewal. Some excess hours can be forwarded into the next year. Those found in noncompliance with CE requirements may be subject to administrative suspension.

Some other behavioral health careers and licenses available in Montana include:

  • Licensed Addiction Counselor
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
  • Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  • Licensed Master’s Social Worker (non-clinical)
  • Certified Behavioral Health Peer Support Specialist

Careers for Counseling Graduates

Depending on the type of counseling degree you earn in Montana, you will qualify for a wide variety of related employment opportunities. The state employs behavioral health professionals of all kinds. Salaries and daily duties will vary, but some of the most common professions available to graduates include the following.

  • Career Counselor
    Career counselors work with their clients to identify and achieve their ultimate career goals. They utilize various assessment tools to determine possible professions of interest and gauge personality traits, interests, and aptitudes. These professionals also offer advice regarding how to meet the associated education requirements. Depending on the situation, career counselors may conduct mock interviews and background evaluations. According to PayScale, career counselors make an average base salary of $46,450 per year.
  • Social Worker
    Clinical social workers provide mental and emotional support to their assigned clients. They coordinate patient care interactions, negotiate with third party groups, and conduct psychosocial evaluations. They may work in a wide variety of settings including hospitals, mental health clinics, residential nursing facilities, home healthcare companies, or substance abuse treatment centers. According to PayScale, clinical social workers make an average base salary of $57,600 per year.
  • Grief Counselor
    Grief counselors work with people after the loss of loved ones. They often provide guidance and assistance to patients, helping them work through the various stages of grief in healthier and more productive ways. They utilize good listening skills and strive to gain a better understanding of the underlying feelings and emotions involved with each individual loss. According to PayScale, grief counselors make an average base salary of $46,850 per year.
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  • Mental Health Counselor
    Mental health counselors provide assistance to people with various conditions. They provide diagnosis and treatment to help their patients work through and/or resolve existing issues. Depending on the situation, this may require conducting one-on-one or group counseling sessions. These professionals may also choose to specialize in particular kind of patient care, such as young adult therapy or addiction counseling. According to PayScale, mental health counselors make an average base salary of $44,250 per year.
  • School Counselor
    School counselors assist students with a wide variety of behavioral health issues and help them reach personal, academic, and social goals. They offer many types of assistance and support, much of which centers around preparing students for higher education. They also provide counseling for new students who may have difficulty adjusting to the area and may intervene during challenging situations. Additionally, school counselors sometimes refer students to support services and/or consult with parents. According to PayScale, school counselors make an average base salary of $51,350 per year.
  • Substance Abuse/Addiction Counselor
    Substance abuse and addiction counselors work with patients struggling with or recovering from substance use. They develop and oversee treatment plans, provide counseling in individual and group settings, and implementing various therapeutic treatments. They also evaluate patient progress, document observations, and maintain updated health histories. According to PayScale, substance abuse and addiction counselors make an average base salary of $39,950 per year.

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