Learn About Being a Mental Health Counselor

Updated January 26, 2023

What does a mental health counselor do?

Mental health counselors help people with mental health conditions such as depression, stress, trauma and addiction. They typically work with clients over time with the goal of seeing them achieve psychological and emotional well-being. Their work often includes:

  • Encouraging patients to talk about their experiences and feelings

  • Diagnosing and treating various mental wellness issues

  • Maintaining an accurate record of the care given to the patient

  • Working with patients to define life goals and plan for the future

  • Helping patients develop coping skills for difficult situations

  • Referring patients to psychologists or social workers when necessary

Average salary

Most mental health counselors work full-time. Sometimes they work during the evenings and over weekends to accommodate the schedules of their patients or respond to crisis situations. Education, location and experience can influence a mental health counselor’s pay.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $17.76 per hour

  • Some salaries range from $7.25 to $50.00 per hour

Mental health counselor requirements

There are educational and certification standards you must fulfill to become a mental health counselor. There are also certain practical and personal skills that help you to do the job well. These qualifications include:


In most cases, you will need a master’s degree in mental health counseling, mental health psychology or a related field of study to work as a mental health counselor. Common undergraduate degrees to earn first are bachelor’s degrees in counseling, social work or psychology. Mental health is a specialized area of study in which you work directly with patients, addressing their healthcare needs, which is why you need an advanced, specialized education to work in the field. Among the subjects you study at this level are cognitive psychology, counseling theory, psychopharmacology and counseling psychology.

If you plan to teach and conduct advanced research through a university or research organization, you will need a Ph.D. in mental health counseling.


Most mental health educational programs include required completion of supervised clinical hours to train you for a career as a mental health counselor. While studying for your master’s degree, you can also take advantage of training seminars and workshops at your university. These will introduce you to new counseling techniques, areas of study that are trending at the moment and other topics of interest.

The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) holds annual conferences on various aspects of mental health counseling. The guest speakers at these conferences address issues such as ethics in counseling or mental health counseling and medical marijuana. They also offer webinars and other continuing education opportunities.


In the U.S., there are both required and optional certifications for mental health counselors. Check your local government to see what certifications you need. Some common certifications are:

  • Regional certification: To practice as a mental health counselor, you will need to be certified by your governing authority. In the U.S., each state has its own standard requirements for certification. These usually include having a master’s degree in counseling and completing a certain number of hours, typically 3,000 hours or two years, of supervised clinical experience. In most states, you must then pass a state-recognized exam and complete continuing education every year.

  • National Certified Counselor (NCC): This U.S. certification is set by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Passing the NCC gives you national recognition as a counselor. It also gives you the right to use the “NCC” mark and access to low-cost liability insurance. Once you earn the NCC, you must keep it current through continuing education, payment of fees and adhering to the NBCC’s ethical policies.

  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC): Once you have passed the NCC and spent the required number of clinical hours with clients, you can take the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor exam. This certification is also set by the NBCC, and it recognizes you nationally as a mental health counselor. Once you have earned the CCMHC, you will need to re-certify every five years to keep it current.


Successful mental health counselors have certain skills. While some people practice them naturally, they are skills that you can learn and develop. They include:

  • Active listening: It is important to give your patients your full attention and let them know you understand them. You can do this by listening carefully to what they say without interrupting. As you listen, try to comprehend and remember what your patient is saying. At appropriate intervals, you might ask your patient if you have understood them correctly and offer your version of what they have said to verify the information.

  • Nonverbal communication: People who are socially perceptive can usually tell from the way a person looks or their body posture how that person feels. Understanding these nonverbal cues is a useful skill in counseling. A patient may not respond to a question with words, but your social perception might help you sense their answer via their physical reaction.

  • Critical thinking: You need to be able to weigh different treatment options to determine the best course for your patient. If a particular treatment does not work, your critical thinking skills will help you develop a secondary plan and discover why the first treatment failed.

  • Flexibility: While patients may present with similar mental health issues, each one comes from a different background and has different experiences. As a mental health counselor, you need to treat each patient according to their individual situation. You also need to recognize when you are not a good match for a patient and refer them to someone better suited.

  • Communication: Good communication skills are important for various areas of mental health counseling. When speaking with a new patient, you will want them to feel comfortable with you. Good communication can also help you to persuade a patient to change their behavior or help you negotiate a conflict.

  • Empathy: To empathize with your patients is to understand and identify with their choices and feelings, even if you do not agree with them. Through empathy, you can help patients put their feelings into words and possibly discover underlying issues they were unaware of. Often this involves imagining yourself in a patient’s situation so you can see things the way they see them. Empathizing like this helps your patient feel understood and can lead to a more productive dialogue.

Mental health counselor work environment

Mental health counselors find employment in many places, including mental health centers, hospitals, schools, prisons, substance abuse treatment centers and youth homes. Some go into private practice and have their own clinics. They usually work full-time hours, though it is not uncommon for mental health counselors to work weekends and evenings. While it is rewarding work, especially for those who enjoy helping people, it can also be very stressful.

Mental health counselors will spend much of the day sitting, listening and talking, and will use computers and other common office equipment to create and maintain patient records.

How to become a mental health counselor

If you want to become a mental health counselor, these are the steps you will need to take:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. Preferred courses for mental health counseling are psychology, behavioral science or something similar. While you are at college, you should also take advantage of seminars and workshops offered to undergraduates wanting to work in counseling. They can give you a solid foundation for your future career.

  2. Complete a master’s degree in mental health counseling. You will need a master’s degree if you want to be a licensed professional mental health counselor. Make sure your university has the appropriate accreditation for your region. In the U.S., look for universities with accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

  3. Fulfill internship requirements. Internship requirements vary depending on where you live. Within the U.S., each state has its own standard practice. For most states, to become a licensed mental health counselor, you need to complete a certain number of hours of supervised clinical experience. The requirement can be as many as 3,000 hours or two years. Check your local authority to find out what the standard is for your area.

  4. Pass any required licensing exams. Your regional authority might require you to take a counseling exam before they will grant you a license to practice. Most governing authorities make this information available online. Research the testing requirements necessary for your area.

  5. Update your resume. Prepare a resume with your highest level of education, related work experience, skills and achievements. Search for open job positions and create a cover letter tailored to each job description.

  6. Continue learning. Keep reading and learning about mental health care and counseling. Continued education helps you to be a better counselor, and your licensing authority might also require it.

Mental health counselor job description example

Holistic Health is looking for a licensed mental health counselor to join our growing clinic. You must have a current state license and at least three years of experience treating mental health patients. Clients come to us with many kinds of emotional and mental health issues, so you need to be able to offer counseling to them, helping each person express their feelings and guiding them to wellness. You will need to keep accurate records in accordance with state and federal regulations and write reports for local schools and law enforcement agencies where cases are referred to you. If you have great communication skills, good critical thinking skills and a warm personality, we want to hear from you.

Related careers

  • Social worker

  • Psychologist

  • Psychiatrist


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