How to Become a Mental Health Counselor, According to 7 People Who Did It

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Understanding the significance of our mental well-being is crucial.

Nowadays, more and more people recognize that sometimes they might need the help of a professional to cope with various difficulties in life. Mental health counseling can be used to help people overcome various psychological distress that they might be going through.

If you’re thinking about entering this profession, there are a few important things you need to know and be prepared for, as discussed by experts.

Rob Magill, MA, ICAADC, CCPG, DOT-SAP, LPC

Rob Magill

Founder, Magill Counseling Associates

There are probably as many routes to becoming a mental health counselor as there are people. There are some basic steps that everyone has to go through, though. They include:

  • Undergraduate degree. An undergrad degree in psychology can be particularly helpful to a counselor
  • Masters or Doctorate Degree. An additional 2-5 years of education specializing in counseling theory and skills. Programs will include a practicum and internship to provide practical experience.
  • Supervised hours. Most states require about 3,000 hours of supervised experience as a counselor. Some states require obtaining a temporary license prior to obtaining supervised hours.
  • Take an exam. Every state requires the successful completion on a comprehensive exam covering the basic knowledge every counselor should know.
  • Apply for licensure as a professional counselor.

I know some excellent counselors who completed this process straight from high school. However, that is not what I would recommend.

Counseling is a second career for me. Having work experience in other fields has helped me understand people and situations in ways an academic education couldn’t have prepared me for.

I would recommend at least working part-time while in school to gain some “real-world” experience

As a second career, I went back to college as an “adult learner”. If you are considering returning to school, do it! You can provide valuable perspectives to your classmates. Teachers were excellent working around schedule conflicts, etc. as the result of being an adult learner. Just make sure you find a program that will fit your needs.

Ann Russo LCSW, MA.TH

Ann Russo

Licensed Clinical Social Worker, AMR Therapy

I suggest learning about each type of health counselor and see what is a good fit for you

Dedication and passion for a population of people are some of the most important commodities in becoming a mental health counselor. There are various types of mental health counselors.

Through education, internships, exams, and licensing one must be really committed to the field of counseling. This is more than just being able to listen well to the concerns of peers. One must understand various components of health and well being, therapy practices, interventions, crisis interventions, medication, and a host of other important factoids.

As a counselor, you must learn to balance your client’s overall health, self-determination, and your own self-care

Counseling is also about leaving your own values and culture out the door and being able to adapt your clients for that time being. The goal isn’t to help your client do what is best for you – but what is best for your client. This takes a lot of self-reflection and insight.

If you find yourself specifically pulled to a population of people become specialized and really know that population and continue to educate yourself. Being a counselor is more like a verb than a noun – continuous learning, questioning, and exploring. The personal rewards are endless if you are truly passionate about others.

Abigale Johnson, LCSW

Abigale Johnson

Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Psychotherapist

So you want to help people? *High five* We need more of you in the world. There are two pieces of advice I’d offer for someone looking to become a professional in the mental health world:

Ask questions to experts already in the field

The world of mental health is enormous. A counselor can be in a variety of settings. If you don’t know what you are interested in, ask experts who are already in the field.

There are mental health counselors in community agencies, hospitals, jails/prisons, corporate firms, law offices, nursing homes, private practices, the list goes on and on. LinkedIn can become your best friend for finding professionals and messaging them to learn more.

I’ve had people take me out for coffee and pick my over-caffeinated brain. Especially in the world of mental health, professionals are more willing to mentor and share experiences.

Apply to a school

Almost all types of mental health counselors require education beyond a Bachelor’s degree. As a social worker, I received a Masters in Social Work in the most common format – a 2-year program that entailed classes plus 2 internships for immediate hands-on experience. You have to get that application before you can do anything else.

Related: How to Become a Psychotherapist

Katie Bailey, MA, LPC

Katie Bailey

PTSD & Trauma Treatment, Anxiety Therapy & Marriage Counselor | Owner, Lime Tree Counseling

You must attend graduate school to become a Mental Health Counselor

Choose a CACREP accredited school and make sure your program will fulfill the license requirements in your state.

Go to your own therapy

In order to be an excellent Mental Health Counselor, you need to go to your own therapy. We all have our own stuff to work through, and you can’t be effective for other people if you haven’t faced your own challenges. Do the work to get yourself emotionally healthy so you will be more effective for your future clients.

Emily Pfannenstiel, LPC

Emily Pfannenstiel

Licensed Professional Counselor, Emily Love Therapy

Gain enough experience and clinical training in the field

Before even being accepted to graduate school, I found that it was important to gain experience in the field. I worked for a crisis hotline, on research teams, and as a behavioral therapist for children on the Autism Spectrum.

To be able to practice with a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology usually requires obtaining 60 credits from an accredited college or university, which is approximately two years of full-time study.

Where I studied (Teachers College, Columbia University), you must also complete extensive clinical training through a practicum and 600-hour internship. There is a comprehensive exam that students are required to pass to graduate and to be able to practice under provisional status.

Then, the counselor must complete 3,000 more hours of clinical work and 100 hours of clinical supervision to be eligible for licensure. They must complete another exam, and then apply through the state’s licensure board. Once the applicant’s license is approved, they are finally eligible to practice independently.

As you can see, licensed mental health counselors are highly trained and educated professionals. This is why the cost of therapy is often so high (my standard rate is $150 per 50-minute session, though it is not unheard of for therapists charge as much as $300 per session).

Additionally, therapists must renew their licenses each year, and are required to attend a number of professional developments each year to maintain their active license status. It is a lot of hard work, but ultimately, so worth it to be able to engage in this wonderful and necessary work.

Robyn Flint

Robyn Flint

Youth Counselor | Life Insurance Expert, Effortless Insurance

The process of becoming a mental health professional begins the moment you decide that is the career path you want to follow

It’s important to know what it takes to be in the field of mental health because at times you will think you are crazy for choosing it. A day in the life of a counselor involves 8-12 hours (or more) of listening to the problems of others, witnessing all kinds of troubling situations that you have no control over, and trying not to take all of the negative crap home with you.

The technical way to become a counselor is with an education

There are so many different types of mental health professionals, some with Md. behind their names and some without. There are specialty fields in mental health requiring special degrees. So know the path you want to take in advance and talk to an admissions counselor to determine the best major.

Regardless of what type of counselor you want to be, you will need a minimum of a 4-year degree in the broad field of human services, psychology, or mental health. If you aspire to be an outpatient counselor, check the requirements for your state regarding licensure and residency. A graduate degree would then be your likely next stop.

Once you have your graduate degree you can decide if you want to continue with a PhD., become a licensed counselor, or simply be unlicensed mental health professional. The difference is in the money. That and one prescribed psychotropic meds and one doesn’t.

Either way, plan on using good self-care and participate in supervision every chance you get to process your feelings about what you are hearing and seeing. There is so much that you will witness that will break your heart but you can’t let it.

Dr. Wyatt Fisher

Dr. Wyatt Fisher

Licensed Clinical Psychologist | Marriage Counselor, Couples Retreats

Education and supervised hours

To become a therapist, you must first complete a Bachelor’s degree with at least 18 hours of psychology courses. Next, you must complete your Master’s and/or Doctorate in any mental health branch.

Once you graduate, you must accumulate roughly 1500 hours under licensed supervision before taking the license exam that qualifies you to practice independently.