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What is a Mental Health Counselor?

Mental health counselors work with their clients to help them get through difficult circumstances. After getting to know the client, they discuss what kinds of progress they want to make and help them decide on goals they want to achieve.

The mental health counselor may begin working with an adult suffering with a disorder, such as schizophrenia or agoraphobia. Before you begin working in this field, you’ll need both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. The first could be in psychology or another useful field, but the second degree will need to be in counseling.

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Steps to Become a Mental Health Counselor:

A mental health counselor is a licensed professional who provides counseling, a listening ear and emotional support as their clients struggle to understand their issues and situation. They work closely with clients who are suffering from mental illnesses. They may do this in a facility, such as a hospital, or in private practice. Some mental health counselors prefer to work with specific demographics, such as women or those within the LGBTQ community, or the military. These specialists do not usually work with those who have behavioral issues such as eating habits, addictions, or other similar problems. Instead they work solely with those who have psychological issues or deal with an upsetting psychological state.

  • Step 1: Enroll in a Bachelor’s Psychology Program

  • Step 2: Enroll into a Master’s Mental Health Counseling Program

  • Step 3: Complete Your Internship/Practicum

  • Step 4: Earn Your Licensure


Step 1: Enroll in a Bachelor’s Psychology Program

If you’re looking to get into mental health counseling, you’ll first need to understand the time and commitment involved. The first step is a bachelor’s, but it won’t be the last education you receive. For this reason, you don’t need to worry too much about getting a bachelor’s degree in mental health counseling. Instead, you may earn your bachelor’s in something like general counseling or psychology. This is closely related and gives you the skills and knowledge you need to transition more easily into a mental health counseling master’s degree program.

By getting started in a related degree program, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your interpersonal skills, something you’ll rely on every day as a mental health professional. These types of undergraduate programs help you to increase your awareness of mental health issues in the broader community. You’ll learn about case management, multicultural awareness, and understanding human behavior.

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Anywhere you live, you should look for a degree program that allows you to learn more about diversity and human relations. After all, you may work with clients from vastly different cultures.

Step 2: Enroll into a Master’s Mental Health Counseling Program

Next, you’ll complete a graduate mental health counseling program. These 18 months to two years in school will equip you to pass the national licensing exam. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers the exam so that, when you earn your license, you will have met rigorous quality standards for counselors. NBCC also offers state licensure information, giving you access to the contact information you need, the types of licenses available, and the exams your state requires you to take.

A graduate degree program itself will offer you the understanding and materials you need to work under the supervision of a licensed professional counselor in order to earn full licensure; once you have the supervised experience you need, you’ll be able to move out on your own.

When you are ready for a graduate degree, look for a program that offers direct client contact in a practicum or a clinical internship. This is required for licensure in most states, though the number of hours required may shift from state to state.

Step 3: Complete Your Internship/Practicum

You can start looking for an internship or practicum facility when you are taking a class related to either a counseling lab or a pre-practicum counseling lab. The sites in your community may prefer that you complete both internship and practicum at the same site but ask about this before you make your decisions.

You should look for facilities that serve the population with which you want to work. Before you make your selection, have a few conversations with the site supervisor—it’s vital to develop a good rapport with this person before you begin your practicum and internship. Among your discussions, you should pin down where you’ll be working; the location and schedule will have to fit in with your schedule of classes. And you should also discuss how you will be assigned clients and check in on what your expected caseload will be. You may have the opportunity to choose from a list of sites that have a good working relationship with your university or you may need to find your own options from suggestions your professors can provide. It all depends on what type of school you attend and how much effort has been put into the counseling department.

Step 4: Earn Your Licensure

Once you’ve completed your internship and practicum, you should have the required hours for licensure and/or certification. It’s time to begin studying for your certification or licensure exam.

Though counseling licensure requirements vary from state to state, the typical requirements include graduating from a counseling master’s degree program, accredited university, completing 3,000 to 5,000 hours of postgraduate clinical experience under supervision from a qualified counselor, and passing your licensing exam; this should be offered through a state-recognized licensing agency. You’ll also be required to take part in continuing education from year to year to maintain your license.

Certification may not be mandatory; it depends on your state. But you can earn this through the NBCC, and it will give you one more credential that backs up your education, experience, and the level of your counseling skills.

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

Your responsibilities will be different from day to day, depending on your specific counseling role. Overall, you’ll help clients who are having suicidal thoughts, anger management issues, and help some patients create coping tools that they can use in their everyday life. Some of your patients may suffer from depression, have relationship difficulties with family or other loved ones, or have emotional responses to their struggles with parenting and/or aging. You can help some clients learn how to handle stress in a healthy way and help others with self-image issues. It’s a broad scope.

Depending on your career specialization, you may provide psychotherapy, crisis management, and offer assessment and diagnosis of potential mental health disorders. Overall, a mental health counselor has a responsibility to offer ongoing psychological care to clients dealing with psychological or mental issues. These counselors know that mental health problems are complex and they offer holistic treatment; all parts of the mind are interconnected and can often only be explained by looking at the whole.

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In your daily work, you’ll have a high degree of freedom in your role. For this reason, you need strong decision-making skills and must be skilled at critical thinking. You’ll have to figure out how to approach each client individually; one may need a direct approach while another needs to have their treatment handled more gently.

Mental Health Counselor Skills to Acquire

  • Self-Reflection:
    You should be able to look within yourself. As a mental health counselor or family therapist, you’ll use a self-check as a way of learning how to observe others. Think of your “Self as an Instrument”. In learning this skill, you may be better able to relate to your clients and help them to make positive change as well.
  • Genuine Interest in Others:
    You need to have the desire to get to work and sit with your clients every day, working with them on their best days and worst days. Can you be interested in their stories five or ten years later?
  • Ability to Listen:
    Not just “hear”. You hear what’s being said. Now, do you hear how it’s being said or why? What does it mean in the moment for that client? It’s all about content, context, and delivery. You need to be able to listen between the lines for what isn’t being verbalized.
  • Understanding:
    Your goal is to deepen your relationships with your clients. To get to this point, you need to be able to show your understanding of their needs. This requires your attentiveness to both nonverbal and verbal cues.
  • Exploring Problems:
    As you learn more about a newer client, you’ll learn about their reasons for seeking you out. As you do this, you are now able to move them toward some personal growth. You’ll begin understanding their thoughts and feelings about some of the biggest issues they are facing.

Alternative Paths

There’s a good reason that you’ll find a university education listed under “job requirements” for a mental health counselor. You are working with a client’s mind, mental disorders, and, in effect, their entire lives. Along with the graduate degree in mental health counseling (or psychology), you need to accumulate between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience; this is true in every state. These are the licensing requirements you see listed for job openings in this field. As a student, you may quail at the thought of accomplishing this much before you join other certified counselors to begin your career, but they all did it and so can you.

Mental health counseling is often very effective; the graduate degree you earn signifies to potential clients that you have the knowledge and skills to help them with what is holding them back.

Mental Health Counselor Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


You’ll have the chance to work in a variety of professional settings. These include government agencies, mental health clinics, social services agencies, private practices, colleges or universities (student counseling centers), hospitals, businesses, community health centers, correctional facilities, and more. You’ll find people in each of these settings who need your specialized knowledge and expertise.

People who are suffering from self-esteem issues, grief, emotional problems, marital issues, phobias, depression, or anxiety may turn to you to get a handle on their problem. Or you may decide you would rather work with a specific population: children, the elderly, or college students struggling with mental health or emotional issues.

You may also choose to work in a residential or outpatient mental health center, helping your clients to address the issues that brought them to the point where they decided it was time to seek help. Or you may work in an employee assistance program. Here, you’ll work with your organization, offering counseling to employees who are facing life changes, such as a major move, divorce, or mental health issues.

Career Outlook

Mental health counselors, substance abuse counselors, and behavioral disorder counselors are all expected to see their employment grow, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This growth of 25% is projected for the decade between 2019 and 2029.

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The demand for both mental health counseling and addiction counseling services fuels this projected growth. Another factor in this increase comes as individual states look for treatment and counseling services for drug offenders. Rather than sending these lower-level offenders to jail or prison, states have decided it’s more economically feasible to send them to treatment.

Another population that may need mental health services is members of the military as they return to the U.S. from their deployments; many of these service members or veterans suffer from mental health conditions such as PTSD or substance abuse; again, they are going to need mental health or substance abuse counseling in greater numbers.

When the percentages are converted into numbers, this shows the increase: In 2012, there were 128,400 jobs open; in 2021, this number will go up by 36,700, reaching 165,100. The BLS projected that, between 2014 and 2024, the growth rate for mental health counselors with master’s degrees was 19%. Narrowing this growth down to mental health counselors, the percentage was 20%.


Now that you’ve completed your degree program, earned your degree in counseling, and earned your licensure, you are ready to begin your career. You may work in private practice, substance abuse facilities, counseling centers, adoption services, or family care centers. Your title may range from staff therapist to psychotherapist (requires a specialized degree) or a career counselor. You may also choose to work in an HR department as a human resources manager, where your counseling knowledge will be valued but you’ll need business knowledge.

Marriage and Family Therapists: Earn a master’s degree and your license to practice. Your role means you’ll help families and couples address relationship problems. The median annual salary for this position is $50,000.

  • Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists:
    You can earn your bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, or criminal justice to hold this position. As either a probation officer or correctional treatment specialist, you help to rehabilitate offenders who are in custody or who have been placed on probation or parole. The median annual salary for this position is $54,000.
  • Psychologists:
    You’ll need to earn your master’s degree in psychology to hold this position. You’ll work by studying the social, cognitive, and emotional processes of humans and observe and interpret how they interact with each other and their environments. The median annual salary for this position is $80,000.
  • Rehabilitation Counselors:
    A master’s degree is required for this position. You may also help people suffering from several disabilities (emotional, mental, developmental, or physical) so they can live on their own. The median annual salary for this position is $36,000.
  • Social and Community Service Managers:
    A bachelor’s degree is required for this position. You’ll coordinate and supervise various programs and community organizations that help to support the well-being of the public. The median annual salary for this position is $67,000.
  • School and Career Counselors:
    You’ll need to earn a master’s degree for this position. Here, you’ll work with students to help them develop the social and academic skills they need to go to college and succeed. As a career counselor, you help people choose a career they want to work in so they can find a job. The median annual salary for this position is $57,000.
  • Social Workers:
    For this position, you can earn either a bachelor’s degree (in any field) or a master’s degree in social work (MSW). In your daily work life, you’ll work with clients to help them cope with and solve problems they have been experiencing (somewhat like a mental health counselor). The median annual salary for this position is $50,000.

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Advancing from Here

If you’re looking to advance, you can consider administrative or supervisory roles in consulting or possibly going into private practice. Consulting or group practice are other areas to consider. If you are a school counselor with a PhD, you may want to move up into a college position or administration.

Another way to advance would be to earn a Master of Science in Nursing and move into a position as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). Or you could get into a role as either a psychologist or psychiatrist in mental health. This requires a doctoral degree while a psychiatrist must hold a doctoral degree from medical school (MD).

Another way is to become a licensed professional counselor, school counselor, or a board-certified behavior analyst. Each requires a master’s degree and you’ll be able to branch out.

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