mental health

Becoming a mental health counselor: Education, licensure, and career opportunities


There is a strong need for mental health counselors. A mental health counselor helps people by listening to their concerns and helping them overcome or learn coping strategies that help them with their mental health issues and disorders. Mental health counselors are trained to be able to recognize and diagnose mental health issues. In some instances, a counselor may refer a patient to another doctor if they see signs that a physical issue may be contributing to mental illness. Mental health counselors also refer patients to treatment centers and support groups as needed, depending on the exact nature of their problems.

How do I become a mental health counselor?

Becoming a mental health counselor has specific educational and licensing requirements. The exact requirements may vary slightly based on the state you live in or wish to practice in. If you want to be qualified as a counselor in multiple states, you need to pass all the required exams and licensure requirements for each state.

Here are the steps to becoming a fully qualified mental health counselor.

Earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree

It takes a lot of education to become a mental health counselor. The reason is that you need to be highly skilled and knowledgeable when dealing with people’s emotional issues. Your actions and advice enormously impact the overall well-being of those you treat, as well as their family and friends.

All states in the US require that you have a master’s degree to be a fully licensed mental health counselor. It means you must first earn a bachelor’s degree.

When starting your educational path with the goal of becoming a counselor, it’s advisable to begin by earning a bachelor’s degree in fields like sociology, social work, psychology, or other related mental health and counseling areas. If you have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, there are programs that can allow you to still earn a master’s in counseling if you decide that it is the career you want to pursue. Of course, programs for those without a degree in a related field may take slightly longer to complete.

St. Bonaventure University offers a Masters in Mental Health Counseling online that accepts applications from people already in the field of counseling and to those new to the field. This program prepares you to counsel and treat people from all backgrounds for a variety of mental illnesses and emotional disorders. All coursework except for field placement can be completed entirely online.

Completing a degree online makes a lot of sense if you want to change your career path but need the flexibility of online courses. It also means you do not have to live close to a college to earn the degree you need to meet your goals.

Licensing exams

You will be required to pass an extensive exam to gain your mental health counseling license in any state. The two most common exams are the National Counseling Exam and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Licensing Exam. Online degree programs like those offered by St. Bonaventure University are designed to prepare you for these exams. The pass rate for graduates is well above the national average.

Provisional or temporary license

At the end of your degree program, you will need to apply for a temporary license to practice mental health counseling. It allows you to legally work under a licensed counselor while gaining your fieldwork experience and the hours required to obtain your full mental health counseling license in the state you choose to practice.

If you ever decide to practice in another state, you will need to meet their licensing requirements before you are allowed to practice, no matter how much experience you have in your current state.

Complete the required hours for licensure

No matter what degree program you graduate from, you have to complete a set number of hours with a provisional license to qualify to practice on your own. While there is no grading system, it is possible to be unsuccessful if you do not take your provisional time seriously. Treating it like a permanent job is essential to success. Being on time and organized is important since you will be seeing many different patients.

The number of hours you must complete, the location of your work placement, and the time period you must dedicate to completing your hours vary by the state you are applying to practice in.

Complete your application for a permanent mental health counselor license

The final step in becoming a mental health counselor is applying for and receiving your permanent license. The total requirements vary by state, so it is best to check well in advance to ensure you can meet all of them. It is a good idea to do this before starting any degree program, so you are completely aware of everything you need to do to have a career as a fully licensed mental health counselor.

After you are licensed, you should consider additional certification programs

As a mental health counselor, you want to be able to offer your patients the highest level of care possible. Earning additional certifications can help you with that and offer the additional advantage of being more attractive to any employer.

Additional certifications can help you specialize in some specific areas of counseling, which can bring you more patients throughout your career. It could include child or adolescent counseling, substance abuse, domestic violence, etc. In some cases, you may need to gain certifications before you can even apply for some jobs working with specific types of people. It is to ensure that you have the specialized skills to offer them the support and counseling they need to overcome their unique challenges.

Continuing education credits are required to maintain your license

Over the years, it has become important that mental health counselors keep their education up-to-date. States require a certain amount of continuing education to maintain your license. License renewal times vary by state. By the time your license is up for renewal, you will need to complete the number of continuing education credits required for your state.

Your CE credits cannot come from just any class you take. All coursework must be approved and endorsed by an approved organization, such as the National Board for Certified Counselors or the American Counseling Association. Always make sure that a class meets these criteria before you enroll.

Online and in-person classes may be used for CE credits as long as they are properly endorsed.

It is a good idea to make a point to get your CE credits over a time period rather than waiting until it is almost time to renew your license.

Career opportunities

Since mental health counselors are in high demand, you can enjoy good job security when you obtain a

position. It also means more flexibility in your choice of where you work. Being willing to relocate can help increase the odds of gaining the position you want the most.

Certified mental health counselors have many career opportunities open to them in a variety of specialties.

School or university counselor

Public and private schools and universities employ counselors to offer support and guidance for their students and sometimes even their faculty and staff, depending on the size of the school or university. It is a great career choice for those who enjoy talking to and helping younger people become healthy and productive adults. If you have always been comfortable and good at working with people in a specific age group, you should consider school counseling after you are licensed and certified.

Substance abuse counselor

Addiction is a potential problem for anyone. The strong rise in substance abuse means that there are a lot of people in need of counseling services to help them combat their problems. Counseling allows addicted people to discuss their challenges and find solutions more likely to lead to success. Having someone to talk to who is non-judgmental can make a big difference in the recovery process for an addict.

Substance abuse counselors work at hospitals, clinics, and treatment centers.

It is an area of mental health counseling that is likely to see some of the greatest demand over the next decade.

Private practice

There are plenty of counselors who practice on their own or work at a private practice. At a private practice, you can choose to specialize in a specific area of counseling or take on patients with a variety of problems. You may also work at a private psychiatric clinic or provider.

Private practice offers the advantage of working at a smaller clinic with fewer co-workers.

Starting your own private practice is something that you may want to consider after you gain significant experience and are comfortable managing other employees or outsourcing some of the work required to run your own business.

Social work

Being a certified mental health counselor can make it easier for you to get top social service jobs. Perhaps you already have a job as a social worker but want to specialize in a specific area or work in a different position at your current employer.

There is a lot of demand for mental health counselors within social service agencies and nonprofits. You could work for a government agency or a special interest group dedicated to a specific cause.

Clinic director or management positions

When you gain significant experience, you may be interested in moving up to a management level at your clinic or medical facility. Management positions offer substantial salary increases. The downside to management positions is that you will spend more time in the office performing administrative tasks and less time counseling patients. In some cases, you may not be doing much counseling at all.

Clinical directors help manage other counselors and staff and make executive decisions in conjunction with other management and board members at a medical facility.

Career counselor

Sometimes, people have a hard time deciding where to take their career and if they should attempt to embark on a totally different career path. A career counselor can help adults make good choices and create realistic plans and timelines to achieve their career goals.

It is a great position for those who enjoy motivating and encouraging others but, at the same time, are not afraid to be blunt and provide realistic feedback.

Career counselors must take the time to gain a lot of background about clients’ work, credentials, and personal lives in order to help them make the best decision for their long-term career outlook.

Guidance counselor

If you like to work with younger people, then a school guidance counselor position is something to consider. It is valuable and rewarding work because you are helping the youth of today make good choices that have a major impact on their adult lives. Guidance counselors help students achieve their academic and personal goals.

If a student is struggling academically, then a guidance counselor can help them address the problems and offer solutions to get them back on track.

At the high school level, guidance counselors help students evaluate their options after graduation. It can include assisting with college applications and essays and finding internships or apprenticeships.

Guidance counselors also help students apply for and find financial aid that can give them the resources to attend the college of their choice if they are accepted.

Salary outlook

The average salary for a mental health counselor in the United States is around $72,000 per year. The salary range varies greatly depending on what state or city you are practicing in, your level of experience, and if you are engaged in a specialty.

Of course, you can expect to have a decent benefits package, including health insurance, at most jobs as well, but the exact benefits will vary greatly by employer.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a mental health counselor?

Psychologists and psychotherapists often provide long-term care for mental health patients who have persistent problems or problems that have to do with chemical imbalances or physical issues. Schizophrenia is a good example of a condition that needs continuous treatment.

Mental health counselors most often deal with temporary issues and mental health issues that do not require a lot of medical treatment. Substance abuse counseling and dealing with issues like depression or past traumas are good examples of where a counselor can help. Sometimes, psychologists and mental health counselors work together to help patients overcome their issues.

Where do mental health counselors work?

Mental health counselors work in many different types of facilities. Hospitals, non-profit agencies, private practices, and more are all in need of highly qualified mental health counselors. Schools and colleges typically always have one or more mental health counselors available. Social service agencies and the judicial system also employ counselors.

What type of work schedule can I expect?

Mental health counselors often have a fairly standard work schedule, especially if they work in a private practice. Sometimes, counselors are on call or may be called in at odd hours if there is a crisis that needs immediate attention.

Some counselors may decide to take on clients at irregular times if that is what works best for the client or if they are having a particularly hard time with something.


Mental health counseling is a rewarding and in-demand career that you should consider if you enjoy helping others lead a better life. Many job opportunities and specialties can allow you to pursue an area of counseling you are most passionate about.

Now is a great time to get started in this career by pursuing a degree online while maintaining your current job. No matter what your current education level might be, some programs can allow you to achieve your career goals.

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