How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

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A mental health counselor comforts a teenager during a therapy session.

There are few aspirations as noble as the pursuit of helping others learn to help themselves. As the awareness and importance of mental health continues to expand in the public conscience, and the stigma surrounding mental health topics slowly diminishes, more and more people are seeking new, healthier ways of thinking.

Whether it’s working alongside an agency or in private practice, anybody serious about plumbing the depths of human behavior should consider an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, which can help prepare them to become a mental health counselor.

Job Description and Skills of Mental Health Counselors

The first thing to understand about mental health counselors is that they work with a range of clients, each requiring specific assistance for their personal issues. It is the mental health counselor’s responsibility to assess the client’s behaviors, mental health and habits to best understand what they need in their customized treatment plans. Whether working with families, groups or individuals, mental health counselors must use their skills and knowledge to help each client in a way that reflects the client’s best interest, while monitoring their client’s progress and adjusting each treatment plan accordingly.

Because many work in outpatient services, depending on the nature and severity of any given issue, mental health counselors may need to connect clients with medical professionals who can treat their specific problem, or refer them to inpatient facilities for more focused treatment.

The professional reputation of mental health counselors is often associated with their mastery of soft skills. While the “hard” clinical skills they learn through their formal education obviously should not be underestimated, it’s worth mentioning some of the other competencies expected of successful mental health counselors.

  • Flexibility to both work alone or as a team member
  • Compassion and empathy for not only their clients, but also their clients’ families and loved ones
  • Critical thinking, including identifying nuanced problems and proposing customized solutions
  • Active listening that demonstrates not only that information is heard, but understood
  • Interpersonal skills, including the ability to communicate information simply and effectively while persuading clients to make changes as determined by their treatment plan
  • Knowledge of governmental regulations regarding professional safety and the safety of the client

Steps to Become a Mental Health Counselor

There is no shortcut to becoming a mental health counselor, but that doesn’t mean the path is unclear. Typically, students begin with education, followed by state licensing, advanced certification and continuing education thereafter.

Education

Individuals who are interested in this career path should start by earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, mental health counseling or a related field. A master’s degree should come shortly after, where in addition to coursework, students will participate in clinical training to gain hands-on experience and possibly work under the supervision of a mentor.

When evaluating degree programs, it’s important to make sure they are recognized by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), as individuals with accredited degrees are preferred by employers and perceived as more valuable in the job market.

Licensing

With their master’s degree in hand, the aspiring mental health counselor has one more critical hurdle to overcome: state licensure. To become state licensed, and thus employable, candidates must pass a written examination. In many states, this is the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE), as administered by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). More licensing exams may be required, depending on a state’s criteria. It is important for individuals to do independent research so they completely understand what their state will expect of them.

Once licensure is attained and an individual has become a mental health counselor, continuing education will be required to ensure they stay current with all the latest practices, laws and research to effectively serve clientele.

Certification

Though not necessarily a requirement for employment, some mental health counselors can distinguish themselves with voluntary certification, positioning themselves for increased maneuverability in the job market and increasing their competitive value. The NBCC offers several options, such as the Master Addictions Counselor (MAC), Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC), or Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) among other certifications. These are usually selected based on an individual’s interests and how they want their expertise to be identified within professional circles.

Mental Health Counselor Job Outlook and Salary

As with any career, it’s important to understand earnings expectations when becoming a mental health counselor. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors into one category due to their being similar both in occupation and income.

In 2019, the median annual salary for a mental health counselor was $46,240, though there is some variability. Salaries depend on location and experience, with the highest 10% in the field earning over $76,080.

The job outlook for mental health counselors is expected to grow approximately 25% between 2019 and 2029 as people continue to seek mental health and addiction counseling services. This projected job growth is much faster than the average rate for all occupations.

Develop Skills to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Whether tackling substance-dependency issues, emotional development, or self-destructive ways of thinking, mental health counselors have the drive to change someone’s life for the better. Now it’s just a matter of where to start.

Rider University’s online bachelor’s degree in psychology was built with the goal of positioning students for success. The program features a robust curriculum covering classes that range from Drugs and Human Behavior, to Social Psychology, to Cognitive Development and more. Students graduate with a holistic education and practical experience gained from an internship to start them on the path to becoming a mental health counselor.

Learn how the Rider University Bachelor of Arts in Psychology can start you on the path to becoming a successful mental health counselor and help others achieve their own best lives.

Recommended Readings

Types of Social Influences and Their Effect on Behavior
Careers in Psychology with a Bachelor’s Degree
Anxiety in Teens: Statistics, Hotlines and Resources for Improving Mental Health

Sources:

Balance Careers, “Mental Health Careers — Comparing Your Options”
Balance Careers, “Mental Health Counselor Job Description: Salary, Skills, & More”
CACREP, “Types of Accreditation”
National Board of Certified Counselors, Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC)
National Board of Certified Counselors, “Resources for NCCs”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors