The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that millions of Americans are affected by mental illness every year. Increasingly, mental health matters have entered the public dialogue as our society tears down old stereotypes and stigmas surrounding this critical area of medicine.
Mental health professionals are in high demand as more and more people recognize the value of their services and how they can improve one’s quality of life immensely. There’s never been a better time to become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), so let’s dive into the process of launching into this vital career field!
Table of contents
- What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?
- Mental Health Counselor Salary and Career Outlook
- How to Know if You Would Enjoy Being a Mental Health Counselor
- Steps to Becoming a Mental Health Counselor
- How Long Does it Take to Become a Mental Health Counselor?
- Best Degrees to Become a Mental Health Counselor
- Where Can I Learn More About Becoming a Mental Health Counselor?
What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers a concise overview of the role of Licensed Mental Health Counselors, also known as Licensed Professional Counselors. A few daily duties include:
- Plan customized, goal-oriented courses of treatment for clients based on their assessments of physical and mental conditions and relevant medical history
- Evaluate and modify the effectiveness of approaches and treatment plans as needed
- Monitor the effectiveness of prescribed medications
- Work with family members to train them on ways to work with patients at home, helping to ensure proper skills development and behavior modifications
- Collaborate with other treatment team members
- Treat struggling families, couples, and at-risk populations (children, university students, or older patients)
- Work with larger groups facing shared issues and problems
- Assess and treat a wide range of mental health disorders and problems, including:
- Anxiety-related issues such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Phobias, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Mood disorders, including Depression and Bipolar Disorder
- Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Behavioral and emotional disorders; eating disorders, and many more
- Assist patients suffering from grief, stress, and co-occurring substance abuse issues
- Screen for signs of suicidal inclinations
- Complete and protect confidential paperwork including reports and state and federal forms
- Maintain currency on the latest developments in the field
- Train or mentor assistants or associated staff
- Determine community needs
- Teach courses or workshops
- Create and manage local mental wellness programs
Mental Health Counselor Salary and Career Outlook
Mental Health Counselor salaries can vary depending on many factors. BLS cites the median annual salary as $47,660 (as of May 2020), noting that the highest earners make over $78,700 a year. The lowest-earning 10% make under $30,590.3
A few variables that impact salary include one’s educational level, the number of years they’ve worked, their employer, and the geographic location of the job.
BLS projects a strong job outlook over the coming decade, with licensed mental health counselor jobs expected to increase by 25% compared to the average growth of all other careers, at only 4%.4
In particular, Mental Health Counselors will be in high demand in underserved areas, including rural communities. Of course, projections cannot predict the future and aren’t a guarantee of job growth, but the data looks promising!
How to Know if You Would Enjoy Being a Mental Health Counselor
Being a licensed mental health counselor or licensed professional counselor can be a challenge! If you enjoy working very closely with people, discussing their problems, and trying to discern the underlying causes of them, then you might have the right personality for the work.
Other traits needed include problem sensitivity, inductive reasoning, information ordering, selective attention, and sound judgment. You should be resilient when listening to the problems of others all day and must be able to maintain composure while dealing with complex issues. There’s a delicate balance between displaying compassion and being persuasive, as you sometimes must negotiate with patients during treatment.
Steps to Becoming a Mental Health Counselor
Becoming a mental health counselor or licensed professional counselor takes effort, but it might be easier than you think! There are basic educational requirements to complete, starting with a bachelor’s degree. Some students go on to complete a master’s plus an internship period followed by passing a state licensing exam. Counselors must also complete continuing education courses.
Let’s dig into the details so you can get on the road to becoming a licensed mental health counselor!
Step One: Earn a Degree
A bachelor’s degree is the starting point of educational requirements to become a professional mental health counselor. Most undergraduates major in psychology, sociology, education, or a related subject.
Coursework includes general, clinical, and abnormal psychology, as well as the classes on the systems used in the field, applicable statistical reasoning, measurement principles, biological factors, personality theories, and more.
Step Two: Earn Additional Experience
Depending on the employer and the position, some licensed mental health counselors or licensed professional counselors may perform lower levels of work with only a bachelor’s degree.
This can help them gain practical work experience as they prepare to pursue a master’s and to complete an internship that allows them to put theory into real-world practice at an advanced level.
Some undergrads may opt to complete an internship while doing their bachelor’s. Psychology.org notes while this is not always required, “students can benefit from gaining supervised experience before beginning their careers.”
Step Three: Complete a Graduate Degree
A Master’s in Mental Health Counseling is a common degree to obtain to enter this field. According to O*Net Online, 62% of Mental Health Counselors possess a master’s degree, while just 34% work with only a bachelor’s.6 A doctorate is not required, but an internship is typically necessary to perform unsupervised one-on-one counseling with patients in crisis.
Internships may last a year and be completed during the final year of study in settings such as medical clinics or hospitals, private practices, community mental health centers, nonprofits, human service agencies, educational institutions, rehabilitation clinics, correctional centers, residential treatment facilities, and more.
Step Four: Become Certified/Licensed
As the job titles suggest, states require licensed mental health counselors and licensed professional counselors to be licensed in accordance with their specific state’s regulations. Qualification for licensure requires passing a state board exam and completing a minimum number of supervised clinical work hours. Each state may have its own minimum requirements for the number of supervised hours that must be finished.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Mental Health Counselor?
Full-time students typically take four years to complete their bachelor’s degree, plus an additional two or three years for their master’s (including the internship). Part-time students may take twice as long, or more, depending on course load.
Most programs place a limit on how long a student can take to complete a program part-time. Online mental health counseling programs may facilitate faster completion because the distance learning format eliminates the need for commuting and allows for flexible attendance times. Flexible attendance removes barriers to access for working students, allowing them to expedite their graduation by taking more classes.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Being a Mental Health Counselor?
Perhaps the biggest “con” to being a mental health counselor is also the main “pro” that attracts people to the field—the ability to truly help patients and families struggling with often highly complex mental health crises.
The work can take a significant emotional toll on even the most seasoned counselors, especially when treating patients who have suffered abuse, neglect, or traumatic experiences. However, it is that ability to push through the shared pain and strive towards a better future that makes the job so meaningful as patients advance towards wellness and recovery.
Best Degrees to Become a Mental Health Counselor
For their bachelor’s degree, mental health counselors usually major in psychology, sociology, education, or a related subject. A psychology degree isn’t mandatory, but it is ideal for laying the foundation for challenging graduate-level coursework.
For those with non-psychology degrees, there’s always a benefit to having a multidisciplinary educational background. That being said, there should be at least a minor or a concentration in mental health. Otherwise, you might have to take prerequisite courses to qualify for a graduate program. Students generally pursue a Master’s in Counseling or Mental Health Counseling before seeking state licensure.
Universities.com’s Top Schools for Mental Health Counselors
The country is filled with great colleges offering exciting degree programs that apply to the field of Mental Health Counseling. To save you some legwork, we’ve put together a comprehensive Best Mental Health Counseling/Counselor colleges in the U.S. for 2021. Here are our top ten picks:
- Lesley University (Cambridge, MA) – Lesley is a private university accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Established in 1909, this small but friendly school has three campuses located in or near historic Cambridge. It offers online and in-person undergraduate programs in Psychology and four master’s degrees related to clinical mental health counseling.
- Grand Canyon University (Phoenix, AZ) – Arizona’s sunny Grand Canyon University is the world’s biggest Christian-based university. Founded in 1949, the school revitalized itself in 2004 when it transformed into a for-profit school. Grand Canyon offers bachelor’s and master’s programs in Psychology and Counseling, with flexible online and evening options available.
- Walden University (Minneapolis, MN) – Though Walden has been around since 1970, today, it’s primarily an online school focused on creating opportunities for busy working professionals. It features online undergraduate and graduate psychology programs and an “Accelerated Into Master’s” program that allows for earning “up to 25 master’s-level credit hours” while completing a bachelor’s.
- Capella University (Minneapolis, MN) – Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, Capella is a well-established private school boasting nearly 2,000 online courses and over 38,000 enrolled students across the country and abroad. It offers online bachelor’s and master’s programs in psychology, plus a unique FlexPath system that allows students to knock out classes fast and affordably.
- University of Florida (Gainesville, FL) – Considered one of the state’s preeminent universities, UF is part of the more extensive State University System of Florida and classified as an R1 “very high research activity” school. Home to the Florida Gators, UF ranks consistently high from multiple sites across numerous categories, including Money’s Best Colleges in America ranked by Value.
- Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) – For over 145 years, Johns Hopkins has been a renowned leader in research and development, with a $6.75 billion endowment (as of 2020). Based in Baltimore, JHU features campuses in Washington D.C. as well as Italy and China. It’s a founding member of the esteemed American Association of Universities.
- Lewis & Clark College (Portland, OR) – Oregon’s lively Lewis & Clark is a private liberal arts school featuring transformative programs grounded in social justice and promoting diversity and inclusion. Its Master of Arts in Professional Mental Health Counseling is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) standards for Clinical Mental Health Counseling programs.
- Alfred University (Alfred, NY) – Founded in 1836, Alfred is a unique 232-acre campus nestled away in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. Home to just 600 undergraduates and 240 full- and part-time grad students (plus more at their metro campus), Alfred employs highly educated, experienced faculty able to engage students and provide opportunities for hands-on learning.
- Carlow University (Pittsburgh, PA) – For nearly 100 years, Pittsburgh’s Carlow University has been a learning center focused on preparing students for their careers while imparting core values rooted in the Catholic faith of its Sisters of Mercy founders. Carlow offers a clinical mental health counseling master’s degree and an accelerated dual-degree option for undergrad psychology majors.
- Antioch University New England (Keene, NH) – AUNE is part of the larger Antioch University system that sprawls from Seattle to Los Angeles, Ohio, and New Hampshire. Its program offerings are mainly related to psychology, counseling, and therapy (along with leadership and management) with online, low-residency, or on-campus options available.
Where Can I Learn More About Becoming a Mental Health Counselor?
The following professional organizations provide a wide range of resources and services for mental health counselors to explore!
- American Psychological Association – APA is a long-time leader in the psychology field, with over 122,000 members. Its stated mission is to “promote the advancement, communication, and application of psychological science and knowledge to benefit society and improve lives.”
- American Counseling Association – ACA is a not-for-profit devoted exclusively to the growth and education of professional counselors via a tremendous range of resource offerings, including continuing education, conferences, and a vast knowledge center.
- American Mental Health Counselors Association – AMHCA is another vital organization dedicated to helping clinical mental health counselors serve clients to the best of their ability while achieving professional success.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness – Partnered with 600 affiliates and state-level organizations, NAMI is the “nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization” promoting mental wellness through advocacy, awareness campaigns, empowerment, and educational resources.
Not exactly, though there are similarities in certain duties, both help patients work towards better mental health. However, counselors are not doctors. Psychologists usually hold a Ph.D.
One is not better than the other, but psychologists hold doctoral degrees, undergo different training, and have different career paths. Like psychologists, mental health counselors hold state licensure, work directly with clients, and take insurance.
College counselors offer a broad range of services to students, such as stress management, emotional issues, and career guidance, while mental health counselors focus on mental health issues.
Mental health counselors help individuals, families, and groups with a wide range of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional issues in order to boost mental wellness.
The stresses and rigors of modern everyday life have given rise to mental health matters requiring the services of professional Mental Health Counselors. Jobs are projected to grow 25% over the coming decade.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, mental health counselors earn an annual median salary of $47,660 annually in 2020, with the highest 10% making over $78,700
Mental Health Counselors work standard 40-hour workweeks, though some offer flexible night or weekend hours to accommodate clients’ schedules.
It takes up to six or seven years to be a Mental Health Counselor by the time you finish the required bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, including a one-year internship. Part-time students may expect to double the time needed.
Online counseling uses telemedicine appointments to deliver virtual therapy sessions via video conferencing. This modern approach makes counseling more accessible, though patients need to have access to a computer, camera, microphone, good internet connection, and a private place where they can feel relaxed and have a confidential session.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Psychological Disorders found that telemedicine appointments are an effective alternative to in-person counseling. However, patients with severe issues or who don’t have access to private spaces may be better served in person.
Mental Health Counseling can be challenging and often emotionally demanding, but most workers find it rewarding to provide critical assistance to those in need.