Mental health counselors provide counseling services to individuals, families and entire communities to alleviate anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. A master's degree is the minimum required credential along with appropriate licensure. To obtain a license, most states require at least two years of supervised counseling experience in addition to the degree.
Mental health counselors must be professional and objective; physical and emotional strength is needed to effectively discuss, diagnose and treat the mental health concerns of patients. It's important for mental health counselors to know and adhere to strict ethical guidelines in counseling, which protect the safety, confidentiality and health of patients.
Some of the fields in which mental health counselors can obtain their training and degrees are counseling, psychology, social work, human services or a related field. While not every employer may require a master's degree, it is necessary for licensure and certification. More advanced counseling careers require a Ph.D.
Master of Science (M.S.)
Students learn advanced counseling techniques, including how to work with individuals and families from various cultures and backgrounds. Most programs require students to complete a thesis. Courses include:
- Community health and counseling
- Mental health counseling practices
- Family therapy
- Substance abuse counseling.
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Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
A Ph.D. in mental health counseling is ideal for counselors pursuing advanced teaching and research-based positions with universities, counseling agencies or psychological research organizations. Additionally, Ph.D. programs allow students to conduct independent research with the aid of professors and advanced statistical courses, like quantitative statistics in counseling studies. Most programs focus on the doctoral dissertation, which is the culmination of a student's counseling research. A doctoral dissertation demonstrates a student's knowledge of counseling by examining past case studies and developing a thesis through student-directed studies. Courses in the program include:
- Advanced counseling and psychopathology
- Human services research methods
- Group mental health counseling
- Counseling consultation procedures
Employers prefer to hire mental health counselors with at least 1-3 years of clinical counseling experience. Mental health counselors who are licensed meet these requirements, as licensure typically requires at least two years of post-master's degree experience. Employers who do not require licensure or a graduate degree may hire entry-level counselors with one year of experience. Most employers require mental health counselors to be licensed or obtain licensure within the first several months of employment.
Professional counselors must be licensed in all states except California. The American Counseling Association (www.counseling.org) and the National Board for Certified Counselors (www.nbcc.org) each maintain licensure and contact information for each state's licensure board. With state licensure, a mental health counselor gains credentials as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). However, some states have a 2-level licensure system that awards professional and associate licensure. With an associate license, counselors become Licensed Associate Counselors (LACs) or Licensed Associate Counselors in Mental Health (LACMH).
Licensure requirements vary by state, though most states require counselors to have a master's degree in counseling or psychology and pass a state-administered counseling exam. Counselors must also have post-master's degree supervised counseling experience and should be able to adhere to strict ethical and safety regulations. Continuing education courses and workshops are typically required in order to remain licensed. The requirements for associate licensure are similar but not as extensive. In general, mental health counselors with professional licensure earn greater salaries than those with associate licensure.
National Board For Certified Counselor Certification
The NBCC offers voluntary general certification as a National Certified Counselor (NCC). To become an NCC, counselors must be enrolled in a graduate counseling program or have a master's degree. Counselors must have prior counseling experience and pass the National Counselor Examination.
Mental health counselors also can obtain voluntary specialty credentialing as Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors (CCMHCs) from the NBCC. To obtain this certification, NCCs must complete at least 60 hours of graduate coursework and at least two years and 3,000 hours of supervised clinical counseling experience. They also must pass the Examination of Clinical Counseling Practice and submit audio or video evidence of a counseling session for evaluation.
Workshops and Seminars
Graduate programs in counseling and psychology often hold workshops and training seminars for counselors, social workers, human services workers and psychology students. Workshops are typically organized and presented by senior faculty members and last several hours. Workshops may introduce new topics in mental health counseling, such as counseling techniques for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) patients, or focus on mental health counseling in general. Some college workshops may fulfill academic credit requirements.
The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) holds conferences and continuing education opportunities each year. Conferences focus on mental health counseling practices and adapting to changing health care systems and economic trends. Conferences include guest speakers on a variety of subjects, including ethics in counseling and the importance of intervention and prevention processes with mental health patients.
Additional Professional Development
With experience, mental health counselors can seek advanced management positions with counseling agencies. Counselors can become program directors or supervisors and acquire high-level financial and operational responsibilities. For additional development opportunities, counselors can join the AMHCA, which provides a journal and news publication for mental health counselors. The AMHCA provides networking and career opportunities to more than 6,000 mental health counselors.
Students who want to pursue a career as a mental health counselor must earn a graduate level degree, and complete a residency and practicum clinical hours. In addition, upon graduation, they must become licensed in their state and keep up with licensure requirements.