7 Steps to Become a
Mental Health Counselor
7 Steps to Become a Mental Health Counselor
A step-by-step guide to becoming a therapist
Many people are drawn to the field of counseling, just like you are.
Therapy may have helped you in the past, or you may like the idea of understanding and helping others. It is a meaningful field that can make a difference in many lives.
For those interested in this career choice, there are a few different routes to consider in becoming a mental health counselor.
In most states, a specific degree and licensure is required to legally provide mental health therapy. We’ll review the steps involved here.
- Research the mental health tracks: Some people may think simply of “psychology” or a “psychologist” when it comes to mental health counseling.This is an important profession within the field, but it is one of several routes available. Psychologists can be counselors, as can master’s level social workers, and those with a master’s in another counseling-related field.Each area requires an undergraduate and master’s level degree.
Each profession takes a slightly different approach when it comes to working with clients, so you can explore and decide on the one that appeals most to you.
- Complete an undergraduate, master’s or PhD program: Once you decide which area of study best fits you, you can pursue this degree plan.In most cases, you would complete a 4-year undergraduate degree in a related area, and then a 1 to 2-year master’s degree. Sometimes schools offer a fast-track program, where you can take less time to complete a master’s degree if you have a related undergraduate degree.These options are worth researching in your area. In some cases, people pursue a PhD which takes additional years. The most common master’s or doctorate-level degrees for counselors include:
- A master’s degree in counseling, clinical psychology or school psychology (to later become an LPC or obtain a similar licensure)
- A master’s degree in clinical social work (to later become an LCSW)
- PhD or PsyD in psychology
Those at the master’s level most often practice one-on-one or group therapy.
Those with a PhD or PsyD may also provide higher level testing and diagnostics services, and tend to make a higher income than other types of counselors, but this level requires years of additional schooling and training.
To ensure a specific degree program will lead to qualified licensure, research the rules within each field at your state’s licensing board website.
They will typically spell out the type of degree and other requirements involved. In most cases, an accredited school will be required.
Within most counseling-related master’s programs, special internships, called practicums or contact hours, are involved as part of the schooling.
Requirements will vary by program, school and professional area.
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- Complete provisional licensing requirements: In each counseling field, there are requirements for contact hours, or direct experience hours of working with clients, following earning a degree.This is around 3,000 hours.As these hours are completed, the clinician-in-training reports regularly to a licensed supervisor who ensures they are providing appropriate services, and helps to train them further in any needed areas.Sometimes this is completed within a community setting, but may often be done within agencies or inpatient programs as well.
Depending on the field, the clinician may have what’s considered a provisional license until these contact hours are completed and signed off by a supervisor.
- Complete any required licensing exams: Each field also requires its own types of licensing exams.These can vary depending on the state and type of license.Resources and assistance are typically offered to help clinicians prepare for these exams.
- Consider choosing a specialty: Many find it helpful to focus on a specialty area of practice.This helps you hone your craft, and can make you marketable in a community setting. Options for specialties vary widely.Examples include play therapy, family counseling, working with teens, trauma therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and many more. The area of specialty can take into account your own interests and experience, the needs in your region, and the jobs or pay available for those specialities.
The area of specialty can take into account your own interests and experience, the needs in your region, and the jobs or pay available for those specialties.
- Once you decide on a specialty, you can seek out additional training and certifications in that area.This may require more supervisory hours, where you check in with a supervisor to ensure you understand and are applying the counseling method effectively.You can focus on this specialty either during your provisional license training, after you become independently licensed, or both.
- Become an independently licensed counselor: Once you have completed your schooling, experience hours, supervision and testing, you are now free to practice mental health counseling on your own, in a variety of areas, within your state.You may work for a community agency, a non-profit, a government agency, group practice, or open your own practice.
You may contract as an individual with organizations looking for counselors or related services.
- Continue growing through experience and training: Once you have completed the initial process of becoming a counselor, you may find much freedom in practicing therapy. You will also likely find that you are just beginning. As you build up experience, work with different types of people, and participate in additional training (which is required of licensed counselors), you will improve your skills and may find new areas of interest.It may sound like a lot of work, time, and cost that go into becoming a mental health counselor.
Each person can weigh those requirements against what they feel driven to do.
For many, counseling is a rewarding field that’s well worth the effort.