Mental Health Counseling Degree Requirements & Programs Guide

Associate, Bachelor's & Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling Degrees Options & Salary

A career in mental health counseling is quite demanding. You first need to pass through a rigorous academic degree program. You then need to satisfy your state's licensing board, including a professional exam. You might also seek out a specialty, which involves more coursework, possibly a period of supervised training, and a test. To maintain your credentials, you'll need to continually accrue continuing education units (CEUs) by attending lectures, taking online courses, or writing and publishing original articles.

As for the work itself, you will be faced with people's deepest, darkest problems. Your clients will test your inner reserves. However, when you are able to help them heal, you will find a sense of accomplishment that few professions can match. For this reason, many counselors seek out a patient group that reflects issues that mean the most to them such as addiction, schizophrenia, marriage and family, or adolescents, to name a few.

Psychology & Counseling Career Paths


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Components of A Successful Career in Mental Health Counseling

A successful career in mental health counseling is comprised of many features. You will need to have a degree from a university program that has been accredited by an agency such as CACREP. You'll also need a state license to practice. In fact, your state's licensing body may even require that your education be fully accredited. You will also need to have supportive colleagues and perhaps even a therapist of your own.

Many successful counselors affiliate themselves with mental health institutions to ensure a successful practice. Perhaps you could work full-time for a mental health hospital or drug rehab, or you might build a practice based on referrals from those institutions. Otherwise, you can enter into private practice and work with the clients who seek you out based on your website and other marketing materials.

Counselors are also lifelong learners. You'll need to continue to accrue CEUs to maintain your license, but also to help broaden your view on counseling and the struggles your patients bring to you. If you are a member of a professional association, they will most likely offer seminars or webinars that are recognized by your licensing board as valid for continuing education. You can also take courses from an accredited college of university.

How to Earn a Degree in Mental Health Counseling


To earn your degree in mental health counseling, you'll likely take many courses in general psychology. Human Development and Theories of Personality are two obvious that you might take while still in school. You'll also take courses in counseling in general and for specific populations such as substance abuse victims, children, or the profoundly disturbed. You will also need to complete an internship, which will likely help you fulfill state licensing requirements.

Typical Mental Health Counseling Certifications Needed

mental_health_certifications_neededAfter you have completed your degree and have started a practice with a state license, you could choose to earn a national certification. For instance, the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers several certifications, including the National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential. If you specialize in some other area, such as addictions counseling, you could become a National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC) or a Master Addiction Counselor (MAC.)

Academic Standards

While you're studying away, you'll need to earn the highest grades possible at a fully accredited institution. Look for programs that carry credentials from either CACREP or MPCAC. Keep in mind that the MPCAC credentials only apply when you begin working on your master's degree.

Once you're enrolled in a fully accredited program you need to work as hard as possible to achieve the highest GPA you can. Since your program has worked hard to set a high bar for academic standards, you should do the same for yourself. Your clients will thank you for the rest of their lives.

Exam and Experience Needed

mental_health_exams_experience_neededYou don't need any specific experience, nor do you need top scores for a mental health counseling degree. However, your program may require a certain GRE score before you qualify to enter a graduate program or an SAT/ACT score for an undergraduate program. Your real experience and examination requirements come after you've achieved your counseling degree.

That is, if you want to practice in your state, you'll need to pass an exam and complete a period of supervised practice. Your program's internship requirement may qualify as all or part of the state's licensure requirement.

Important Questions to Ask


How long does it take to earn a Mental Health Counseling degree?


mental_health_bachelor’s_degree_online Like many things in higher education, how long your degree takes depends largely on you and your ability to commit your time to the work required. Most undergraduate programs are designed to take four years. However, the national average time to complete an undergraduate degree is closer to six years. It’s important to make the time to complete your degree as quickly as possible so that you don’t get caught up by any of life’s little surprises and have trouble finishing.

How much does a Mental Health Counseling degree cost?


This is an important question which has many answers. That's because education does not come at a fixed price. You could attend a top private university in New York City, for instance, and spend close to $300,000 for your degree, including living expenses. On the other hand, you could complete your first two years at a community college and then finish up at a four-year public university and spend somewhere around $40,000. The average cost of bachelor’s degree tuition alone is about $8,900 for in-state students at public colleges, $22,200 for out-of-state students at public colleges, and $30,000 at non-profit, private colleges. And this is the cost per year, so the total cost can add up quickly.

Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?


This is a chief concern for any student. While you might enroll in a major university because they have a wide range of options for your degree, that does not mean that they will necessarily have the degree you're looking for. Even if a university has a counseling program, it might not be aimed at the specialty area you are passionate about.

Make sure you thoroughly research a school prior to enrolling. Even if you're not certain of what degree you want, you probably have some idea of the general areas that excite you. Then, if you discover that your specific needs aren't being met, you can usually find a way to transfer to a program that has the specific courses and degree you need to succeed.

How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?


These days, fewer and fewer students earn a bachelor's degree within the once-standard four years. Students are typically taking up to six years, if not longer, to graduate. These numbers vary from school to school, however. The more competitive a school is, the more its students tend to graduate within the four-year time frame. Students also tend to finish in four years from more expensive private schools.

What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?


mental_health_accreditationHow your program is accredited can make a huge difference in your career. When you complete a nationally accredited program, you'll find that it is far easier to transfer your license to another state, gain acceptance into graduate school, and your clients are sure to appreciate it when they see that you've graduated from a well-respected institution.

Software, Technology and Skills Needed


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Counselors don't necessarily need any practical skills for their degrees or profession. However, you will want to have a great degree of compassion, an open mind, and a great deal of critical thinking skills and discernment. You need an open mind for people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, including those with a different sexual orientation than your own. You should also be equipped with strong analytical skills and a shrewd intuition that is able to discern when a client might be avoiding certain painful topics or feelings.

These may all seem like soft skills, but they are also the sorts of qualities you can work on for a lifetime.

There are many degrees that you can earn and apply to work as a mental health counselor. Depending on your state's regulations, you might be able to work as an addiction counselor with an associate degree. Other states require a bachelor's degree, and most require a master's degree as a minimum requirement for practitioners who serve a wider client base.

It's important to review your goals for mental health counseling and then learn more about your state's regulations. A good rule of thumb is that you will need a master's degree. However, you may be able to find positions that allow you to work with only an associate or bachelor's degree while you finish your courses and gain experience. Again, your state's regulations combined with your career aspirations will make the difference.

Associate Degree in Mental Health


A two-year degree is a great way to get started in mental health counseling. Many states will qualify you to be an addiction counselor with an associate degree. Your long-term career goals may require a bachelor's or even a master's degree, but your experience in the field will pay off immensely as you develop your career.

Example Courses:


  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Counseling Theory
  • Family Systems
Read More About Associate In Mental Health

Bachelor’s Degree in Mental Health


A four-year bachelor's degree will mark your ability to expand your counseling practice. Your state may not allow you to enter into private practice, but you may be able to achieve a higher status in your organization and work under someone who has a master’s and licensure. Plus, you'll be all the closer to a master's degree.

As you pursue you bachelor's degree, you might be able to find part-time work or internships with local mental health facilities. This experience will pay off in terms of greater job prospects when you graduate. You will also graduate with a professional network, which can pay off for a lifetime.

Example Courses:


  • Theories of Personality
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Theories of Counseling
  • Counseling Internship
Read More About Bachelors In Mental Health

Master’s Degree in Mental Health


When you attain a master's degree, your state regulatory board should qualify you to enter into private practice. Further, at this level you can choose any specialty area you desire. While those with lower degrees are usually only able to work with substance abuse disorders, your master's degree will allow you to work with a wide variety of issues among those young and old.

Example Courses:


  • Marriage and Family Counseling
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Internship
Read More About Masters In Mental Health

Doctoral Degree in Mental Health


A doctoral degree is not required for a private practice. However, your status in the counseling community will rise along with your degree level. With a doctorate, you will be able to take a wider range of positions throughout the mental health community, including owning and managing your own rehab facility.

Earning Potential and Career Salaries for Mental Health Major Graduates


As your degree level increases, so does your earning potential. This is typical of most careers, but in mental health counseling your degree directly correlates to what functions you can serve in your job. This is because your licensure level depends on your degree as well as your ability to maintain your license through continuing education.

For instance, an associate degree in, say, addictions counseling will allow you to work with clients but only within certain parameters. Your work might be restricted to a rehabilitation clinic and certain functions such as addictions education or certain therapeutic group activities.

When you achieve a bachelor's degree, your licensure level and pay will improve, but your state still won't allow you to work as an independent mental health counselor. Regardless, a bachelor's degree is a great place from which to launch a career in the field. Your knowledge and skills will be at a level where supervisors will place more weight on your opinions, and you'll be poised to launch into a master's degree program.

When you achieve your graduate degree in mental health counseling, your career can really take off. Once you complete the requirements for state licensure you can enter into private practice and likely move into a more supervisory role at a rehabilitation clinic, or other mental health institution.

You might even decide to complete your PhD and become a full-fledged psychologist. With this degree, you can command the highest salary in the field. You will also have credentials that are widely respected. Thus, you might decide to teach at the college level or publish books that detail your theories of counseling or which investigate a particularly difficult case from your experience. Psychologists are also sometimes asked to testify in court or otherwise provide expert opinions on difficult matters.

Mental Health Counseling Salaries and Occupation


Though you can become licensed to work as a mental health counselor with as little as an associate degree, your salary will benefit from greater levels of education. Your overall career will benefit, too. Your license will be restricted if you only have an associate or bachelor's degree, and so will your salary. However, once you attain a master's degree you can enter into private practice and enjoy more overall status and autonomy as a counselor. Your pay and long-term career prospects also improve.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker:
Social workers who hold an MSW can work to attain licenses and then conduct psychotherapy with clients. Some venture into private practice while others work in a clinical, hospital setting. In fact, your career as a social worker can take many different forms if you like.

Psychologist:
You'll need to complete your PhD to become a full-fledged psychologist. Psychologists often work in private practice or might even form a practice group with several others who are full psychologists or who are practicing under a master's degree. Though you won't be able to prescribe medications, you'll enjoy high status and high pay as a psychologist or psychotherapist.

Substance Abuse Counselor:
The opioid epidemic has increased the demand for substance abuse counseling. Some states will license you to practice in this specific field with only an associate degree. You'll still need to fulfill specific state guidelines and maintain your license with continuing education credit no matter what degree you have.

Marriage and Family Therapist:
Couples and families are under a lot of stress and strain these days. Your work as a therapist can help maintain families through their rough patches and come out the other side with hope and happiness for the future.

Adolescent Counseling:
Being a teenager has never been easy. In this position, you can help teens overcome the obstacles that are blocking them from becoming their best selves. Along the way you may need to conduct sessions with their parents and perhaps the entire family. Each case will be unique, which is why so many pursue this line of work – for the continuing challenges it offers.

Geriatric Counseling:
Each developmental phase presents its own set of problems. Older people are facing the inevitable end as well as looking back on their lives. Counselors can help us make sense of the lives we've led. As a counselor who specializes in geriatric patients, you will help people find peace and perhaps heal old wounds.

Child Counselor:
Even very young children are plagued with psychological problems. Some have been abused while others may suffer from genetic illness’. Other children are simply suffering from neuroses of that are similar to those that plague adults. To succeed in this field, you may have to develop other skills such as art, music, or movement therapy to help your little clients express their true feelings.

OccupationEntry-Level Salary RangeMid-Career Salary RangeLate-Career Salary Range
Licensed Clinical Social Worker$47,000$63,200$64,400
Psychologist$62,200$81,200$89,600
Substance Abuse Counselor$35,400$42,000$44,800
Marriage and Family Therapist$44,400$52,200$59,000
Adolescent Counseling$38,700$45,000$50,000
Geriatric Counseling$41,000$46,400$64,000

Mental Health and Counseling Scholarships


  • Ohio School Counselor Association
    Amount: $500 (1 Award), $1,000 (2 Awards)
    Deadline: April 30

    Future school counselors are encouraged to apply to this scholarship program. If you live in Ohio and are enrolled in a master's degree program for school counseling, you are encouraged to apply. Your application should include an essay, transcripts, and a letter of recommendation from your academic adviser.

  • Violet and Cyril Franks Scholarship
    Amount: $5,000
    Deadline: May 15

    This scholarship is designed to reward students for outstanding scholarly work that seeks to reduce stigmas surrounding mental illness. In particular, your work should look at how social stigmas present a barrier to treatment and recovery. The award is $5,000, which will help the lucky graduate student quite a lot.

  • Ronald D. Lunceford Scholarship
    Amount: Up to $2,500
    Deadline: November 6

    The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists Educational Foundation awards up to $2,500 to students seeking to work as family therapists. To qualify, you must be an ethnic minority and be enrolled in an accredited program that leads to state licensure. You may also apply if you are licensed but are adding to your education above and beyond your qualifying degree. Please check the URL for more scholarship opportunities.

  • National Association of Junior Auxiliaries, Inc.
    Deadline: February 1

    This scholarship seeks to address problems faced by children and youth by means of psychological counseling. This scholarship is available to graduate students who are working to address the needs of those youngsters. To qualify, you must be planning to attend a college or university in the United States.

Professional Organizations


  • ACA
  • AACP
  • NAAP
  • IAAOC
ACA_logo

ACA

American Counseling Association

This esteemed association has been in existence since 1952. Its purpose is to promote and advocate for the mental health counseling profession. Members benefit from continuing education opportunities, publications, advocacy, annual conferences, and more.

AACP_logo

AACP

American Academy of Clinical Psychology

Members of the AACP enjoy many benefits including continuing education opportunities, discounted professional liability insurance, access to exclusive members-only content, and opportunities to publish in the Academy's exclusive journal. Student memberships are available at a steep discount.

NAAP_logo

NAAP

National Association for Addiction Professionals

Addictions professionals should all consider a membership in NAADAC. Your rehabilitation facility might already be a member, which enables you to take advantage of the benefits. They provide free online continuing education hours, reduced rates on conferences, and even reduced rates on malpractice and professional liability insurance. There are a variety of membership levels available, including special rates for students.

IAAOC_logo

IAAOC

International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors

Since so many addicted people end up on the wrong side of the law, this association seeks to create a wide umbrella for addictions counselors in the criminal justice system and elsewhere. They are allied with the American Counseling Association as well as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Choosing an Accredited College


It is vital to attend the best college you possibly can. To help make that decision, it's important to check every school's accreditation. Accreditation is a credential bestowed by an independent agency. In the case of mental health counseling, you should be looking for accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the APA's Commission on Accreditation.

Online vs On-Campus vs Hybrid


This is an increasingly common decision students must make, no matter what field you pursue. While many in academia still snub the idea of online education, studies show that outcomes are practically identical for students who study online versus those in traditional classrooms. Online education may seem to require more discipline from students, but students in traditional classrooms frequently have the exact same difficulties with time management and attention to details, not to mention the distraction of a nearby, active social scene.

If you choose an online or hybrid environment for your mental health counseling degree, it's vital that you make sure to establish communication with every instructor. When you reach out and ask questions your experience is sure to come to life.

Does the College Have Post Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?

When you are seeking out a school for mental health counseling, make sure to look and see what sorts of supports the schools offer their graduates. You will also want to determine what resources they have regarding internships and other licensure supports. Their alumni network might be of great use in this regard, as past students may be eager to supervise fresh graduates through their licensure process.

Why You Need to Consider How Rating/Accreditation Can Affect Your Salary

Your school's rating and accreditation is a measure of the quality of education they offer. The main way this will impact your long-term earnings and career is through your state licensure. State licensure boards often have specific accreditation requirements for the degrees they require. Thus, you should not only investigate your school's accreditation, but you should also determine what specific credentials the licensure board requires and decide if your chosen school will provide everything you are going to require.