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Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Mental Health Counselor
When people think of professionals who work in mental health careers, they typically envision psychologists, psychiatrists and the other medical specialists who work in clinical pathology. However, there’s another sector of professionals who are making a positive impact on issues nearly everyone has experience dealing with: mental health counselors.
“Counselors address mental health in an approach that focuses on the client’s wellness and strengths holistically,” explains Dr. Jennifer Boswell, a tenured associate professor and Chair of Counseling & Human Services at University of St. Thomas Houston. Taking this approach, she elaborates, allows the mental health counselor to understand the client, as well as the crisis or trauma they are working through, in a fuller way.
If helping others by becoming a mental health counselor sounds like a fulfilling career path to you, join us as we explore the requirements to becoming a mental health counselor.
4 Steps to becoming a mental health counselor
Clinical mental health counselors provide direct counseling services to their clients by utilizing psychotherapy approaches and practical problem-solving to support individual, family and community change. They can work in private practice, community mental health, managed care, medical, business, education and religious settings.
If you can envision yourself becoming a mental health counselor, the following four steps can help get you there:
1. Earn your bachelor’s degree
Becoming a mental health counselor requires post-graduate study, but first you’ll need to complete a bachelor’s program. While there are no required majors, some options that can help you build a solid foundation for grad school include public policy and social services, psychology, social science, or even education.
“In our field, we don’t require that you come from a mental health undergrad background,” Dr. Boswell notes, explaining that it’s more important to possess a passion for helping people and the dedication to turn that into a career.
2. Complete a master’s program
Regardless of what bachelor’s degree you earn, you’ll then need to pursue a master’s degree to practice as a mental health counselor. “Most states will require you to earn a master’s counseling degree in a related field such as family counseling or counseling psychology,” Dr. Boswell says. It’s important to note, however, that every state has different requirements for this portion of the process, so you’ll want to be sure you look into the regulations in your area.
To practice as a certified clinical mental health counselor (CCMHC), you will need to complete at least 60 semester hours of graduate-level academic credit in counseling from an accredited program. Among these credits, you’ll be required to take courses covering at least three of the following areas:
- Advanced clinical skills
- Family or couples counseling
- Addictions or substance abuse counseling
- Human sexuality counseling
- Counseling for trauma, violence or abuse
- Clinical counseling for special populations
To obtain the CCMHC certification, qualified candidates also need to complete nine semester (or 15 quarter) hours of supervised clinical training experience, in addition to at least 100 hours of documented postgraduate clinical supervision.
3. Take your licensing exam
Obtaining your license to practice is the next step to becoming a mental health counselor. There are two test options available for those pursuing this as a career.
The first option is the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). During this exam you can expect to complete 11 case studies with 13 questions each. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) provides a sample case study that may be useful when preparing for your exam and can help you to better understand the layout.
The second option is the National Counselor Exam (NCE). This test consists of 200 questions that are split into 6 domains, covering the following topics:
- Professional practice and ethics
- Intake, assessment and diagnosis
- Areas of clinical focus
- Treatment planning
- Counseling skills and interventions
- Core counseling attributes
The questions are designed to test the knowledge, skills and abilities that will be necessary to provide exceptional and effective counseling.
While it is required that all mental health counselors must pass a state-issued exam, the details may vary depending on your location. Be sure to determine the state-specific requirements that are applicable to you when preparing to become a mental health counselor.
4. Decide which population you want to serve
Once you have earned your bachelor’s and master’s degrees and have obtained your licensure, you will have the opportunity to choose how and where to apply the knowledge you have attained into practice.
Specialty areas for mental health counselors are vast. Dr. Boswell states that some of these focus areas include “school, child and adolescent, private practice, inpatient/residential treatment, anxiety and eating disorders, and mental illness.” These specialties can be used effectively in a number of settings including mental health centers, prisons, probation or parole agencies, juvenile detention facilities, halfway houses, detox centers, or EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs).
You should also consider what work schedule aligns with your lifestyle when choosing a specialty and setting, as some positions may require counselors to work evenings, nights and/or weekends.
Start your journey toward a fulfilling counseling career
Mental health is a prevalent – and growing – issue in the world today, which means there will continue to be a need for mental health counselors. This career path will allow you to spend your workdays focusing on helping others navigate life’s struggles and learning to use the tools available to them to find their place in the world.
To learn more about your options, visit the University St. Thomas Houston Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program page.
Ready to take the next step?
The University of St. Thomas (UST) is Houston’s Catholic University, committed to the religious, ethical and intellectual traditions of Catholic higher education. For more than 70 years, we’ve been graduating students like you into successful careers in medicine, education, business, public administration and more – throughout Houston and across the globe.