How to Become a Therapist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a therapist. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career as a therapist.

Should I Become a Therapist

Therapists may be referred to as mental health counselors or mental health therapists. These types of therapists help people understand and cope with mental and emotional afflictions. They may work with individuals or groups who suffer from stress, addiction, depression, anxiety disorders or other conditions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov), mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists usually work in office settings within mental health centers, substance abuse treatment centers, hospitals, and colleges. Many choose to operate private practices. Therapists may work full- or part-time; those employed by an organization or business will generally do so full-time while private practice therapists have more control over their schedules. Some therapists choose to offer evening or weekend sessions to clients.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's degree (required)
Degree Fields Psychology or Counseling
Licensure Licensure is required; includes clinical experience, state-approved exam and continuing education
Experience Between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience (required)
Key Skills Strong listening, written and verbal communication, organizational and people skills, basic computer skills and familiarity with medical software and ability to use blood pressure cuff kits, flatbed scanners and electronic medical thermometers
Salary $40,850 (Median annual wage for mental health counselors, 2014)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); O*Net Online.

Step 1: Complete Undergraduate Studies

Having an undergraduate degree won't qualify students for careers as a mental health therapist; however, a bachelor's degree is necessary to be admitted into a graduate degree program. While generally no specific major is required at the undergraduate level, prospective mental health professionals may benefit from majoring in related areas, such as psychology or human services.

Step 2: Earn a Graduate Degree

Mental health counselors are typically required to have a master's degree in counseling. Students have a variety of counseling program options, such as the Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling or Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, which can prepare them for clinical practice in the mental health profession. Courses in these graduate programs may include family and group therapy, treatment techniques, research, evaluation and substance abuse and legal issues. Master's degree programs in mental health counseling usually require students to gain practical experience through internship programs and clinical practicums.

Step 3: Gain Clinical Experience

Before becoming licensed practitioners, prospective therapists are required to obtain at least two years of professional, clinical experience. This experience must be at the postgraduate level and supervised by a licensed mental health counselor. Specific conditions to the clinical experience requirement vary by state. For example, to be eligible for licensure in Florida mental health counselors must fulfill 1,500 hours of experience spread over at least 100 weeks in which they provide clients with one-on-one psychotherapy.

Step 4: Become Licensed

Licensure requirements for mental health counselors vary significantly by state. Aside from a master's degree and clinical experience, most states require candidates to pass a licensing exam. Many states use the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification, which is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors. This examination evaluates comprehension of and skills in general counseling.

Success Tip:

  • Take continuing education courses. Mental health counselors will need to maintain licensure annually by earning continuing education credits. Professional organizations or academic institutions may offer these continuing education opportunities.

Step 5: Begin Working in a Practice

Mental health counselors may find employment in private practices, community health centers and other healthcare facilities. According to the BLS, an increasing number of counselors work in private or group practices as self-employed practitioners. This is due in part to legislation that permits individual counselors to collect payment from insurance groups, as well as increasing respect for counselors as skilled mental health professionals.

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