Mental Health Therapist Career Info and Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a mental health therapist. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

Mental health therapists help their clients with overcoming mental and emotional challenges to improve their lives. They must earn a bachelor's degree and master's degree in counseling. State-mandated licensure is also required, and certification is available.

Essential Information

Mental health therapists provide a variety of services depending on their sub-specialty. They work with individuals who have mental disorders, addictions and barriers to employment. Formal education, including a graduate degree, is required, as is licensure in almost all cases.

Required Education Bachelor's degree; master's degree in counseling
Other Requirements Licensure required in most states; certification required for licensure in some states; certification available through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 20% for mental health counselors*
Median Salary (2015) $41,880 for mental health counselors*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Educational Requirements for a Mental Health Therapist

Mental health therapists often begin a career by earning a bachelor's degree in psychology, although other fields of study are also acceptable. Coursework in a 4-year baccalaureate psychology degree program may focus on introductory psychology, developmental psychology, applied psychology, research methods, statistics and intervention methods. Graduates may then go on to earn a relevant master's degree.

Master's Degree in Counseling

A master's degree is required to sit for the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) certification exam. Coursework at this level may cover human development, group counseling, research methods, life planning, career development, psychodiagnostics, marriage counseling, family counseling and addiction disorders. Clinical experience is typically built into the curriculum, which may take 2-3 years to complete. Specialties may include behavioral development, school counseling, community mental health or family therapy. Programs must be accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Career Information

Employment opportunities for mental health counselors are expected to increase by 20% during the decade 2014-2024. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), growth will be driven by increased knowledge of addictions and mental illnesses (BLS, www.bls.gov). The median annual salary for mental health counselors was reported as $41,880 by the BLS in May 2015. Counselors working for management, scientific and technical counseling services made the most money, averaging $69,900 a year.

Certification and Licensure

Although certification may not be required in some states, earning this voluntary award proves skills and development in counseling and may enhance employability. Certification may also be a requirement for licensure in some states, according to the NBCC. Therapists working in a public school are required to have a state school counseling certificate according to the BLS.

Licensure requirements vary by state, but generally require earning a graduate-level degree, completing a fixed amount of training hours and then pursuing continued education. A license is required of therapists working in a non-school clinical setting in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Licensure is required by all 50 states and the District of Columbia for marriage counselors and family therapists.

Mental health therapists diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders to assist their clients with living better lives. They encourage their clients to discuss their emotions and guide them through strategies to change their behavior. To work in this rapidly-growing field, mental health therapists are required to obtain a bachelor's degree, master's degree in counseling, licensing, and possibly certification.

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