How To Become a Mental Health Counselor in 5 Steps

Audrey Eads

Updated November 14, 2022

Published February 4, 2020

Audrey Eads is an editor for Indeed with over eight years of experience writing and editing for media outlets across the country. Based in Austin, Texas, she particularly enjoys helping job seekers learn about the latest job trends.

An illustration of two people sitting across a table from one another in an office. A notepad, pieces of paper and pencils are on the table.

As society becomes more aware and supportive of caring for mental health needs, many people are taking steps to prioritize their psychological well-being. Counseling is one common way people pursue help in achieving and maintaining optimal mental health. If you're interested in helping people overcome challenges and improve their lives, you may find a job as a mental health counselor fulfilling.

In this article, we explain what a mental health counselor does, share the steps you can take to become one and provide answers to frequently asked questions about this career path.

What is a mental health counselor?

A mental health counselor, also known as a therapist, is a licensed professional who uses their training to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. These professionals use a holistic view of the client to help them identify and manage their concerns instead of only treating the symptoms. They typically see clients on a recurring schedule to treat a specific condition.

Approaches mental health counselors may use include:

  • Psychodynamic therapy: This strategy focuses on the relationship between unconscious thoughts and external behaviors.

  • Behavioral therapy: Behavioral therapy focuses on how what the client learned in the past affects how they behave now.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): An extension of behavioral therapy, CBT focuses on identifying the cause of the client's behavior and taking steps to address it so they can change their reactions to it.

  • Humanistic therapy: This approach focuses on how the client's view of the world affects their mental health.

If a client requires more intensive treatments for their mental health concern, a counselor may refer the client to a psychiatrist for specialized care. A psychiatrist is licensed to prescribe medication for diagnosed disorders. 

Related: 18 Types of Therapists To Explore as a Career

What does a mental health counselor do?

Mental health counselors diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders, including:

  • Addiction

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Depression

  • Eating disorders

  • Trauma

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Phobias

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Treatment begins with an assessment, in which the counselor talks with the client, asks questions and listens actively to come to determine a treatment plan. These plans usually involve talk therapy, in which the counselor allows the client to share their thoughts and asks insightful questions to help them understand and manage their concerns. 

Duties and responsibilities that may be listed in a mental health counselor job description include:

  • Assess and diagnose clients experiencing mental illness or psychological distress

  • Provide accurate clinical documentation

  • Facilitate individual, family and group sessions

  • Provide referrals for those who need more other services

  • Remain on-call for emergencies

Related: Psychologist vs. Therapist: How The Professions Differ

5 steps to become a mental health counselor

You can follow these steps to complete the requirements for becoming a mental health counselor:

1. Pursue a bachelor's degree

You’ll first need to earn a bachelor's degree in the fields of psychology, behavioral science or social science. Some of the most common undergraduate degrees held by individuals who later pursue a career as a licensed mental health counselor include:

  • Bachelor’s degree in psychology

  • Bachelor’s degree in sociology

  • Bachelor’s degree in human services

  • Bachelor’s degree in social work

  • Bachelor’s degree in biology

Related: 20 In-Demand Science Degrees Worth Pursuing for 2022

Bachelor's degree programs allow you to choose electives based on the type of counseling you want to provide, but most undergraduate studies typically include courses such as: 

  • Biology

  • Social psychology

  • Abnormal psychology

  • Adolescent psychology

  • Theories of personality

  • Anatomy

  • Biochemistry 

  • Statistics

  • Child development

If you’ve already completed an undergraduate degree unrelated to psychology, you may need complete additional undergraduate prerequisite courses before beginning graduate-level coursework. It’s a good idea to research the admission requirements of your preferred master’s degree program or contact an admissions counselor at the college or university you are considering.

Related: 6 Types of Bachelor's Degrees in Counseling To Consider

2. Earn a graduate degree

After you earn your undergraduate degree, the next step is to earn a master's degree in mental health counseling from an accredited school. One of the most common degrees is a Master of Science in counseling psychology. The curriculum typically includes classroom instruction and clinical counseling experiences in simulated situations. Along with prerequisite and core courses, you can also expect to complete a clinical internship, which prepares you to pass certification and licensure exams. 

While a doctoral degree in psychology may not be necessary to work as a mental health counselor, you may consider pursuing one to expand your expertise and professional advancement opportunities in your mental health career.

Related: 13 Careers To Pursue With a Master's Degree in Counseling

3. Complete post-graduate supervised clinical internship

After receiving their education or as a part of their degree programs, counseling students must gain supervised experience to prepare them for their roles as licensed professional mental health counselors. You can get experience through an internship program, which allows you to practice while learning from experienced counselors. Most states require between 2,000 to 3,000 clinical hours before you can apply to take licensure exams.

Clinical internships can help you develop and expand your knowledge and skills so you can provide optimal treatment to your clients. You may find internship opportunities through your graduate degree program or by joining professional organizations, such as the American Counseling Association (ACA).

Related: A Guide to Psychology Internships

4. Pass licensure exams 

Once you've completed your education, you can apply to take licensure examinations. Each state has its own requirements, but they all require mental health counselors to pass a nationally recognized exam to become an LMHC or LPC. 

The mandated exam is usually either the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), both of which the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers. Other requirements include a master's degree, clinical practice hours and a background check.

Related: Careers for Mental Health Counselors

5. Earn continuing education units and additional certifications

Continuing education courses are often necessary to maintain certification or licensure. Mental health counselors often need to complete a number of continuing education units (CEUs) every few years, according to each state’s standards. Online courses are offered through professional counseling organizations such as the ACA.

As an LMHC or LPC, you can pursue NBCC specialty certifications in counseling topics such as grief, addiction or school counseling. Some independent organizations, such as the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists (NACBT), also offer certifications in counseling techniques like CBT. While these aren't necessary, they provide valuable opportunities to develop your skills and enhance your resume.

Related: 10 Behavioral Health Certifications To Consider

Mental health counselor salary and job outlook

Many factors can affect your salary as a mental health counselor, including your specific certifications, level of education and experience, employer and geographic location. The national average salary for a licensed professional counselor is $71,458 per year. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.

One in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). With growing awareness of the importance of mental health as well as the prevalence of issues such as depression, anxiety and addiction driving the demand for licensed counselors, the need for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors is expected to grow 22% between now and 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is much faster than the average expected growth rate for all occupations, which is 5%.

Read more: How Much Do Counselors Make? (Plus FAQs)

Frequently asked questions

What’s the difference between LMHCs and LPCs?

There is no difference between a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)–the difference is only in their geographic location. Counselors with these titles typically have the same level of education, examination requirements and scope of practice. Most states license mental health counselors as either LMHCs or LPCs, but there are some exceptions. 

For example, Delaware grants Licensed Professional Counselor of Mental Health (LPCMH) or Licensed Associate Counselor of Mental Health (LACMH) licenses instead of LMHC or LPC. You can find information on the licenses your state offers through your state licensing board.

Related: LMHC vs. LCSW: What They Are and How They Compare

How long does it take to become a mental health counselor?

Becoming a licensed mental health counselor requires extensive education and some experience in the field, so it typically takes several years to complete.

  • Complete bachelor’s degree: 4 years on average

  • Complete master’s degree: 2-3 years on average

  • Complete post-clincial work: 1-2 years on average

If you consider the time it may take to achieve licensure after meeting the requirements, you can expect to become an LMHC or LPC in about seven to nine years.

Related: How To Become a Therapist (With Requirements and Degrees)

Where do mental health counselors work?

Mental health counselors often open private practices or join practices with other LMHCs or LPCs. They can also work in many other settings, including:

  • Adoption agencies

  • Military agencies

  • Detention centers

  • Hospice facilities

  • Law enforcement agencies

  • Mental health clinics

  • Hospitals

  • Schools

Related: Learn About Being a Mental Health Counselor

What skills can help a mental health counselor succeed in their role?

Mental health counselors build essential skills through their education and training that allow them to practice effectively, ethically and safely. Some of these skills may include:

  • Communication skills: Mental health professionals use their communication skills to collaborate with and teach patients about treatment.

  • Critical thinking skills: Counselors analyze and diagnose a patient's circumstances to design effective treatment plans.

  • Interpersonal skills: Counselors build and manage relationships with their clients to provide personalized care.

  • Listening skills: Mental health counselors understand that the first step to helping their clients is to listen actively to what the client says so the counselor can determine how to help them.

  • Research skills: LMHCs and LPCs often use their research skills to solve problems and advance their knowledge and understanding of the field.

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