How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

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A clinical mental health counselor speaks with a client.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in every five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness. This equates to roughly 66 million adults in the U.S. alone who can benefit from the support of a licensed, master’s-prepared clinical mental health counselor.

Students and aspiring professionals eager to make a difference and provide mental health care services may find the counselor role highly rewarding. But getting a counseling job takes years of careful planning and preparation.

If you’re wondering how to become a mental health counselor, read on to learn about the job outlook, required education and licensure, and what skills you’ll need to succeed in the profession.

About the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Career

The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) defines clinical mental health counselors as “highly skilled professionals who provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy. They combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution.”

A clinical mental health counselor takes notes during a client appointment.Certified counselors work with clients struggling with disorders and difficulties including:

  • Addictive behaviors
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Emotional trauma
  • Grief
  • Mental illness
  • Phobias
  • Relationship distress
  • Self-esteem
  • Stress
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal impulses

Clients and counselors may meet through one-on-one clinical settings or group therapy sessions. They can also specialize in working with a specific demographic, such as college students or married couples. In some cases, counselors may conduct interventions or interact with their clients’ families and loved ones who wish to participate in the healing or recovery process.

The primary responsibilities and activities of a clinical mental health counselor include:

  • Assessing and diagnosing negative behaviors and mental health conditions
  • Establishing treatment goals with clients and developing treatment plans based on scientifically validated counseling strategies and therapeutic methods
  • Supporting clients in changing their behaviors and thought patterns, promoting recovery as well as mental and emotional well-being
  • Helping clients identify problematic situations and destructive behaviors and implement coping strategies to counter certain patterns
  • Connecting clients with additional support services to aid them in aspects of their personal and professional lives
  • Leading group therapy sessions, psychoeducational outreach programs and other community-based initiatives

Per the AMHCA’s definition, a counselor’s approach must remain flexible and client-oriented. This means a professional counselor should be knowledgeable about a wide range of evidence-based therapies and counseling strategies and have the ability to implement treatments and referrals that will meet their clients’ mental health needs. For this reason, suitable academic preparation and clinical experience are essential for career success.

For instance, a master’s-prepared clinical mental health counselor is not qualified to prescribe medication; this responsibility is reserved for mental health professionals who hold medical doctorates (MD). However, a counselor should be fluent in common psychopharmacological medications and have the ability to provide a suitable medical referral to clients who could benefit from this type of treatment.

Mental Health Counselor Employment and Salary Expectations

The position of clinical mental health counselor offers the chance to engage in rewarding work in a range of occupational settings. It can also be well-compensated. Additionally, the profession is experiencing a period of growth, which is a positive indication for students considering or actively pursuing a master’s degree in counseling.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job market for mental health counselors is expected to grow 22% between 2018 and 2028. This is significantly faster than the 5% projected average job growth across all occupations. Those curious about how to become a mental health counselor and navigate the job market can rest assured knowing there is a growing demand for qualified professionals.

Based on the available data, a master’s-prepared mental health counselor can expect to earn somewhere between $30,000 and $65,000. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for mental health counselors was $44,630 in May 2018, with the top 10% earning more than $72,990. PayScale reported a lower estimate, pointing to an average salary of $41,461 in January 2020. ZipRecruiter offered a higher estimate, placing the national average at $57,768 in February 2020. Regardless, actual earnings vary based on location, work experience and place of employment.

A licensed mental health counselor may find a job in a variety of employment settings, including:

  • Community and government agencies
  • Corporate employee assistance departments
  • Higher education
  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Private practice
  • Substance abuse rehabilitation centers

In addition to the clinical mental health counselor role, there are a variety of other specialized mental health counselor jobs available, such as marriage and family therapist, college counselor and substance abuse counselor.

Education Requirements for Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

If you are a student wondering how to become a mental health counselor, keep in mind you will first need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as psychology. A liberal arts degree related to counseling or mental health may also be suitable.

Next, you will need to complete a graduate degree program to receive comprehensive counselor education and the appropriate degree, such as a Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) with a focus on clinical mental health counseling.

When searching for graduate schools, look for a CACREP-accredited program. This means the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs vetted the program. An accredited graduate program is sure to be of a high caliber and meets all of the organization’s core standards. These standards outline what aspiring professionals will need to know and how to become a mental health counselor.

A CACREP-accredited mental health counseling program will cover the following five foundations:

  1. History and growth of the profession
  2. Theoretical models for clinical mental health counseling
  3. Principles for case identification and treatment planning
  4. Medical and neurobiological foundation for addiction and other disorders
  5. Psychological assessments

The 13 contextual dimensions an accredited graduate program will address are:

  1. Roles of clinical mental health counselors
  2. Nomenclature, etiology, treatment and prevention of emotional and mental health disorders
  3. Mental health service delivery within the care continuum
  4. Diagnostic processes and classification systems
  5. Possible connections between substance abuse and other mental health disorders
  6. Effects of trauma on people with mental health diagnoses
  7. Relationship between mental health and biological and neurological mechanisms
  8. Knowledge about common psychopharmacological medications and medical referrals
  9. Legislation related to the counseling profession
  10. Cultural factors related to mental health and counseling
  11. Professional organizations and industry standards
  12. Ethical and legal matters related to counseling
  13. Practice and management matters

Finally, a CACREP-accredited counseling program will include the following five practice-related matters:

  1. Client intake process, including mental health history, evaluation and assessment
  2. Treatments, interventions and prevention techniques for a wide range of mental health issues
  3. Interacting with court-referred clients and the legal system
  4. Working with professionals who specialize in integrated behavioral health care
  5. Mental health advocacy

One such example of a CACREP-accredited program is the online Master of Arts in Counseling at Bradley University. Core courses at Bradley, like Theories and Techniques of Counseling, Clinical Supervision, Psychopharmacology in Counseling and Neurocounseling: Bridging Brain and Behavior prepare students with the foundational, contextual and practical aspects of the clinical mental health counseling profession.

Bradley’s MAC program also includes a supervised practicum experience as well as a post-practicum internship component. Here, students have the ability to apply their education and work in the field in an environment or role related to their professional objectives.

Licensure Requirements for Mental Health Counselors

Students who have begun learning about how to become a mental health counselor may be aware there is also a licensure component to preparing for clinical practice.

To be eligible for a state license, the BLS noted all U.S. states require a master’s degree, like an MAC, as well as 2,000 to 4,000 hours of clinical experience. This experience will be completed under the supervision of a licensed counselor, physician, psychologist, clinical social worker, registered nurse or any other licensed professional with mental health expertise who meets your state’s requirements. It will be your opportunity to demonstrate what you know in a real-world environment and gain some work experience in your desired health care setting or area of specialization.

After earning your master’s degree and completing the sufficient number of hours of supervised clinical experience, you will be required to pass a state-issued mental health counseling examination administered by a reputable licensing board. One such organization is the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). This group has developed two common exams: the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Keep in mind the specific exam you will be required to take may vary across states and counseling specializations.

Once you hold state licensure, you will need to participate in continuing education activities each year to keep your certifications active. This is possible through professional membership organizations like the AMHCA and the American Counseling Association (ACA). These groups offer programs, conferences and courses that help you meet your continuing education requirements while developing your professional skill set and remaining connected with the field at large.

Essential Qualities and Skills for Success in a Counseling Career

Mental health professionals approach the career with a variety of personalities and perspectives as diverse as those of the clients they work with. However, there are certain soft skills and personal qualities that can help aspiring counselors thrive on the job.

The BLS identified five key qualities that are essential in meeting the demands of clinical mental health counseling:

  • Compassion
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Listening skills
  • Patience
  • Speaking skills

Communication is a common thread here, and for good reason. Counselors spend a great deal of time speaking with and listening to their clients. During consultations, they must give their full attention to their clients and listen for clues pointing toward a possible diagnosis or treatment plan. They must also engage their clients in a way that gently uncovers topics, values, experiences and feelings that may be very difficult to discuss or even think about. The ability to exhibit patience and empathy will make such interactions more successful.

These discussions can lead to very close interpersonal relationships between a client and counselor. As such, practitioners must uphold a strict degree of professionalism and act in accordance with ethical standards. The ACA code of ethics is an extensive document addressing the following overarching topics:

  • The counseling relationship
  • Privacy and confidentiality
  • Professional responsibility
  • Relationships with other practitioners
  • Assessment and interpretation
  • Teaching and supervision
  • Research and publication
  • Technology, social media and distance counseling
  • Ethical issue resolution

Within each topic, the code of ethics discusses best practices and expected behaviors related to consent, cultural sensitivity, relational boundaries and other nuanced aspects of the counseling profession.

Start Your Path Toward a Career in Counseling at Bradley University

Bradley’s MAC program offers students the ability to focus through the Clinical Mental Health Counseling track while achieving all of the core areas outlined by the CACREP. Furthermore, it’s an excellent option for anyone who wants to study while working or who prefers the flexibility of distance learning.

To learn more about how to become a mental health counselor or our online degree programs, connect with our advising team today.

Recommended Readings:

Online Master of Arts in Counseling — Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Why Study Clinical Mental Health Counseling?

What Can You Learn in Our Online Master of Arts in Counseling Program?

Top Careers in Mental Health Counseling

Online Degree Programs at Bradley University


ACA — Code of Ethics

ACA — Continuing Education for Counselors

AMHCA — Facts About Clinical Mental Health Counselors

BLS — Mental Health Counselors

CACREP — Why Should I Choose an Accredited Program?

CACREP — 2016 CACREP Standards

NAMI — Mental Health By The Numbers

PayScale — Average Mental Health Counselor Salary

ZipRecruiter — Mental Health Counselor Salary