Are you searching for a meaningful career path that would enable you to truly make a difference in the lives of others? Are you an excellent listener with strong interpersonal skills who can get along well with people from a diverse range of backgrounds? If so, you might consider pursuing a career as a mental health counselor.
What’s the process for how to become a mental health counselor? You can explore the answers in this detailed career guide, and then begin charting your own path toward a rewarding career in counseling.
Preparing To Become a Mental Health Counselor
It's time to take a look at the pathway for how to be a mental health counselor. If you’re still in high school, schedule a visit with your guidance counselor to discuss your career ambitions. Your high school may offer relevant courses that you can take, such as an introductory class in psychology or human development.
Other courses will be helpful as well, such as life sciences and mathematics. One of the most important attributes of an effective mental health counselor is solid communication skills. Take any communications-related courses your school may offer, and consider signing up for relevant extracurricular activities, such as the debate club.
You’ll need to earn at least an undergraduate degree after high school; a bachelor’s degree in counseling or psychology may qualify you to pursue an entry-level job in the field. However, in order to become a licensed counselor, you’ll also need a master’s degree.
A master’s in clinical mental health counseling is a necessary qualification to pursue licensure in all 50 states. Other licensing requirements will vary from one state to the next, so be sure to thoroughly research your state’s requirements. You’ll also need to complete a certain number of supervised clinical work experience hours, as well as pass a national certifying exam before you can become a licensed mental health counselor.
Earn an Undergraduate Degree in Mental Health Counseling
After high school, the first step in the process of how to become a mental health counselor is to earn a relevant bachelor’s degree. There is some flexibility regarding the type of undergraduate degree you could earn. You could enroll in a mental health counseling program, for example, or you might instead choose a psychology, social work or behavioral health degree.
If you do choose to enroll in a mental health counseling degree program, you can expect a curriculum that blends together theoretical knowledge with applied skills. You’ll also have some hands-on learning experiences. The specific topics covered will vary from one program to the next, but in general, you may expect to study the following:
- Theoretical models of counseling, including existential, psychodynamic, Gestalt, person-centered and narrative-focused therapies
- The development of treatment plans with an eye toward cultural awareness and cultural competencies
- Factors involved with addiction and substance use disorders, such as biopsychosocial dynamics, stages and impacts of addictions
- Case management competencies, with a look at treatment planning, interviewing techniques, report writing, assessments and crisis intervention
In the counseling field, real-world experiences can be as informative as classroom instruction. You should strongly consider talking to your student services department about internship opportunities during your undergrad years. You’ll get the opportunity to see how professional counselors go about their work and conduct themselves, and you’ll also begin building a professional network.
Earn a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
Although requirements can vary from state to state (and from employer to employer), aspiring mental health counselors are generally expected to have a graduate degree. It’s wise to begin planning for your graduate education during your last couple of years as an undergrad student, as you’ll want to head straight into a master’s degree program following graduation. Before committing to a program, check to make sure it will allow you to meet the academic requirements of your state board, as well as the National Board for Certified Counselors for the National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential and the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) credential.
A master’s in clinical mental health counseling will enable you to take a deep dive into evidence-based counseling theories and their applications. You’ll learn how to uphold professional ethics, work with diverse patient populations and provide preventive, interventional and rehabilitative counseling services. The specific curriculum will vary, but the topics that are typically covered include the following:
- Counseling theories and principles, such as psychoanalytic, Adlerian, existential psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and rational emotive behavioral therapy
- Counseling processes and techniques ranging from establishing the counseling relationship to developing a treatment plan to terminating the counseling relationship
- Group counseling theories, dynamics and ethical standards, with a look at group leadership approaches
- Marital and family intervention and counseling
- Crisis intervention and trauma counseling, spousal abuse intervention and child abuse reporting
It’s customary for graduate counseling students to undertake one or more internship experiences. You’ll be placed with an organization approved by your college, where you’ll work under the direct supervision of a licensed counselor. You’ll need to document a certain number of hours of counseling activities, which will include direct client contact.
How To Be a Mental Health Counselor With Licensure
Earning your master’s in clinical mental health counseling isn’t quite the last step required to officially become a mental health counselor. After graduation, you’ll need to work on obtaining licensure in the state in which you plan to practice. Every state establishes its own licensure requirements for counselors, and yours may require additional supervised field experience hours beyond the internships you completed for your degree.
Note that states may establish different levels of licenses. In Arizona, for example, counselors begin as licensed associate counselors (LACs) who can practice under the supervision of a licensed professional counselor (LPC). Once you meet all of the academic and clinical work experience requirements, you can apply to become an LPC.
You’ll find the requirements spelled out on the licensure application. In general, you can expect to:
- Provide background information about yourself
- Declare whether you are a citizen, qualified alien or nonimmigrant
- Explain whether you have ever been the subject of a professional complaint or disciplinary action
- Explain your criminal background history, if applicable
- Provide your employment history
- Provide documentation to prove your supervised work experience and clinical supervision hours
As an aspiring counselor, you’ll be required to submit your fingerprints and pay for a criminal background check. Before submitting your application, check to ensure you’ve included all of the necessary documentation. This will generally include your official transcripts, copy of your identification and work experience documentation.
This comprehensive application package isn’t the only step toward obtaining licensure. You’ll also need to pass an examination: the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) is taken for both national certification and state licensure. The exam consists of multiple choice questions that cover the following competencies:
- Professional practice and ethics
- Intake, assessment and diagnosis
- Areas of clinical focus
- Treatment planning
- Counseling skills and interventions
- Core counseling attributes
Assuming that your state licensure application is approved, and that you pass the national exam and successfully obtain state licensure, you will then be ready to pursue your first job as a fully licensed mental health counselor.
Essential Skills and Qualities of Effective Counselors
To be an effective mental health counselor, you’ll need to actively work on developing certain skills and characteristics. These include the following:
- Interpersonal skills – It can be challenging for clients to discuss their innermost feelings with someone they’ve just met. Counselors must have strong interpersonal skills in order to establish a therapeutic rapport with their clients.
- Active listening – Aspiring mental health counselors must practice active listening skills.
- Clear communication – Along with active listening, verbal communication skills are a must-have for all counselors.
- Empathy – Mental health counselors must be able to imagine themselves in their clients’ shoes so that they can establish a therapeutic rapport and develop effective treatment plans.
Emotional intelligence, creative problem-solving and cultural awareness are other important skills for counselors, as is the ability to connect with others while reserving personal judgment.
Are Mental Health Counselors in High Demand?
Mental health counselors are in very high demand, and this demand is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates job growth for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors to increase by about 23% from 2020 to 2030, accounting for an estimated increase of 75,100 jobs in the field.1
One reason for this high demand is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken a toll on individuals’ mental health and has increased the demand for counseling services. Mental health counselors are also needed to work with individuals who are sent to counseling programs as an alternative to jail. Finally, there is a continued need for mental health counseling services for military veterans.
You can begin working toward a meaningful career in mental health counseling when you apply for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. In addition to our many undergraduate programs, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling degree program. Graduates will emerge with a firm understanding of evidence-based counseling theories and techniques. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more.
1 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, retrieved on 02/01/2022.
Approved by the Program Chair and Instructor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Sept. 7, 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.