Career as a Mental Health Counselor

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

The profession of mental health counseling has come a long way from its origins.

The first official licenses for practice were issued in 1976, in Virginia, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the final state, California, did the same. While different areas of mental health counseling may require different levels of investment beyond a bachelor's degree, it generally takes two to three years to advance into private practice, or beyond five years to earn a doctorate prior to pursuing a license. In this section, we'll examine the steps toward becoming a mental health counselor and then ask four in the field today why they became one in the first place.

Steps to Become a Mental Health Counselor

  • Education

    Earn a Master’s degree in psychology, clinical mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, or a related mental health field. Degrees from school accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs provide an edge in employment.

  • Experience

    Post-degree supervised clinical work, also called internship or residency; 2,000 to 4,000 hours are required for licensure.

  • Licensure

    Become licensed in the state in which you will practice (more on this below).

  • Specialize

    Additional specialized training, in areas including biological bases of behavior, clinical assessment, trauma and co-­occurring disorder.

  • Professional Development

    Participate in professional development and continuing education. This includes topics such as peer review and consultation, continuum of care, best practices and effectiveness research; advocacy; counselor issues and impairment, and the American Mental Health Counselors Assocation Code of Ethics.

    Those with independent practice also receive ongoing training relating to accessibility, accurate representation, office procedures, service environment and reimbursement for services.

    For those who will serve as a clinical supervisor, AMHCA recommends at least 24 continuing education hours or equivalent graduate credit hours of training in the theory and practice of clinical supervision.

Best Schools for Mental Health Counseling

The best school for someone else may not be the best school for you. Here is what to consider during your research to ensure a good match:

  • program structure and curriculum
  • types of clinical education and training opportunities
  • faculty composition and tenure, student demographics
  • facilities, campus setting, geographic location
  • size of the university, size of the class
  • licensure pass rate, employment rates
  • degrees awarded, program length
  • admission requirements
  • cost and financial aid opportunities
  • extracurricular activities.

There is no official ranking of CACREP-accredited programs' relative quality, and such a ranking might be impractical, as mental health counselors need a variety of training to work with specific demographics in a variety of settings. provides a list of its ten top mental health counselor programs.

Rank Logo School Factoid
1. Boston College Their Master of Arts program in Mental Health Counseling has a focus on social justice, stemming in part from the school’s Jesuit background.
2. Wisconsin The program promotes a focus on multiculturalism and diversity.
3. George Washington One of the first clinical mental health programs in the U.S.
4. Clemson Students provide 24-hour direct services to other students through the school’s CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) program
5. Johns Hopkins Curriculum includes didactic learning, small group projects, and applied learning in the community.
6. Marquette In 2003 opened The Behavior Clinic, which serves inner-city families with children with developmental disabilities.
7. Penn State Emphasis areas under the Counselor Education Master's Program include Career Counseling, Elementary School Counseling, Clinical Mental Health Counseling in Schools and Communities, Rehabilitation Counseling, and Secondary School Counseling.
8. St. John's GRE scores no longer required for admission.
9. Buffalo Their mental health counseling program is very competitive, typically admitting 10-15 students out of over 50 applications.
10. Western Michigan Completion of the program immediately earns a student a limited licensed professional counselor (LLPC) credential.

"Make sure to really review your programs versus license to practice in your state. Many programs meet educational requirements but not state license requirements."

Stacy Haynes, Ed.D., LPC, ACS

Argosy University, 2012

Paying for School

Federal Student AidThe U.S. Department of Education office provides more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds annually to 13-plus million students.
University or College ProgramSchools and programs offer scholarships and financial aid to their students.
AmericorpsParticipating as a volunteer results in money for a student's education, no matter their major.
U.S. ArmyThe program covers a student's tuition in exchange for time spent on active duty.
Indian Health ServiceThree scholarships -- for preparatory, pre-graduate and health profession students -- are awarded annually.
American Psychological OrganizationAPA and its affiliate organizations provide a wide range of grants, scholarships and awards.
American Association for Marriage and Family TherapyOffers an annual Minority Fellowship program for students pursuing an accredited doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy with the goal of providing counseling services to underserved ethnic minority communities.
American Mental Health Counselors AssociationThe Donald Mattson Graduate Student of the Year Scholarship provides $500 annually to one outstanding student.
National Board for Certified Counselors FoundationMultiple scholarships available, including the Global Career Development Facilitator Scholarship for $5,000.
American Counseling AssociationUp to $1,000 to help pay for graduate studies.
National Institute of HealthUndergraduate scholarship program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are committed to careers in biomedical, behavioral and social science health-related research.
Psi ChiThe first student organization to be associated with the APA, Psi Chi offers two undergraduate awards of $300 each.

"Make sure you know that it doesn't pay as much as other careers, considering the investment in money and time. It is hard to support yourself solo if you live in areas with a high cost of living.

Monique Prince, MSW

University of New Hampshire, 2011

Getting Licensed and Certified

Licensure as a mental health counselor requires post-degree supervised clinical work, also called internship or residency; 2,000 to 4,000 hours’ worth. The number of hours depends on the state; for example, the California Association for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors requires 3,000 hours of post-degree supervised experience while officially registered as an intern with the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).

In addition to hours of experience, many states require a license applicant pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), a set of 10 clinical simulations administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). See how your state's licensure and certification board conducts its business.

In addition to licensure, certification from independent professional certification organizations -- such as the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification and the National Board for Certified Counselors -- for counseling, while voluntary, builds ability and credibility in specialized areas of counseling.

Poll: Why Did You Become a Mental Health Counselor6?

So we have answered the question of how one becomes a mental health counselor. But... why become a mental health counselor? That's the question we posed to four working professionals, who are listed by their undergraduate year and alma mater.

Orly Katz, LCPC (Johns Hopkins University, 2007): “I started my career as a nurse/midwife about 38 years ago. It was a wonderful profession but an extremely stressful one, especially when I had my three children. I decided to go back to school and become a counselor because I was working with postpartum women and saw the need to support them. I noticed that high number of new mothers suffer from postpartum depression and thought, 'I can help them.'”

Duane K. L. France, NCC (Adams State University, 2015): “As I redeployed from Iraq, I was attending a briefing by a mental health counselor working for the VA. She was a retired Air Force Major and told all of us, ‘If the psychology field interests you, look into becoming a mental health counselor. There are not enough veterans in the mental health field.’ From that day, I started to pursue that goal.”

Stacy Haynes, LPC/ACS (Argosy University, 2012): “I really wanted to help others and make a difference with children, families. This allows me direct access to helping families, versus a teacher or other profession working with children.”

Monique Prince, MSW (University of New Hampshire, 2011): “Why this? I see it as a calling, really. You have to have a big heart but be able to keep it together in the worst of situations. I knew this is what I wanted to do because it's who I am.”

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