Mental Health Counseling Degrees

The Basics

When someone thinks of health, the first thing that may come to mind is physical health. While physical wellbeing is certainly important, being healthy also involves good mental health.

There is not one single factor that causes a mental health problem. Instead, it can be a combination of genetics, lifestyle choices and circumstances. When someone is faced with a mental health disorder, they often need help, that’s where a mental health counselor can play a vital role.

Mental health counselors help people who have various types of mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They may also work with people who are having difficulty coping with specific life circumstances, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce.

A mental health counselor is trained to identify mental health issues and implement therapeutic interventions to help clients deal with their mental health problem. Counselors work with families, individuals and groups in a variety of settings. In order to become a mental health counselor, there are different degree options.

What is a Mental Health Counseling Degree?

Mental health counseling degree programs are designed to provide students with the foundation and skills needed to work with people from all walks of life who have emotional or psychological problems.

Programs include classroom work to provide students with a foundation in techniques of counseling, abnormal psychology and counseling theory. An internship is also often part of the mental health counseling curriculum at various degree levels. Internships provide an opportunity to implement different counseling theories and approaches.

There are different degrees that can be earned in mental health counseling from an associate degree to a doctorate. It is important to understand, there is a big difference between the type of work a person can do with an associate and bachelor’s degree in mental health counseling and a master’s degree or higher.

Associate Degree

An associate degree in mental health counseling is usually completed in two years. The degree provides students with a basic foundation to work in the mental health field.

Graduates of an associate degree program will not be eligible to work as a licensed mental health counselor. But they may be able to find employment in agencies that offer mental health services. For example, positions may be found as shelter managers, caseworkers and mental health technicians in a psychiatric treatment program. An associate degree in mental health counseling will also prepare students for further education in the mental health field.  Courses that are common to associate studies in this field may include:

  • Human Development: Human development is the study of the social, physical, emotional and cognitive develop of humans throughout their lifespan. It helps students have a basic understanding of developmental milestones at various stages in life.
  • Introduction to Psychology: Introduction to Psychology is an entry level class, which provides the foundation needed to understand the human mind. The class covers the history of psychology, dreams, human emotions and abnormal psychology.
  • Introduction to Mental and Development Disabilities: A Mental and Developmental Disabilities class introduces students to various cognitive and psychological disabilities. Causes, symptoms and treatments are discussed.

Credit Requirements: Although exact credit requirements may vary slightly, most associate degree in mental health counseling programs require 60 units to graduate. Full-time students can complete the program in two years.

Admission Requirements: Associate degrees in mental health counseling may be offered through community colleges and technical schools. Although admission requirements vary, a high school diploma or a GED is always required for admission.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree in mental health counseling is often a four-year program. It provides students with training on a broad range of evidence-based practices associated with different types of mental health counseling. In many bachelor’s degree mental health counseling programs, an internship at an agency providing mental health services is required.

Opportunities for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in mental health counseling may include working as an addictions counseling, facilitating support groups and working as a case manager for a mental health program. Common courses may include:

  • Statistical Reasoning in Psychology: Students in a Statistical Reasoning in Psychology class learn how to analyze and interpret data with an emphasis on psychology.
  • Foundations of Counseling: This courses covers concepts in social psychology, developmental theories and cognitive therapeutic techniques. It provides a foundation in theories, applications and strategies related to counseling.
  • Neuropsychology: Neuropsychology focuses on the function and structure of the brain as it relates to behavior and psychological thought processes. Neuropsychology is considered a subspecialty of clinical psychology and helps mental health counselors understand the biologic component of mental health issues.

Credit Requirements: Most mental health counseling bachelor’s degree programs typically require about 120 units of coursework. Full-time students can complete the program in four years.

Admission Requirements: Requirements for a bachelor’s degree in mental health counseling may be more stringent than an associate degree program. For example, a higher high school G.P.A. may be required along with strong SAT scores.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree in mental health counseling is an advanced degree that prepares graduates for licensure as a counselor. Although you can work in the mental health field with an associate or bachelor’s degree, most states require a minimum of a master’s degree to do mental health counseling. A large portion of the master’s in mental health counseling program focuses on implementing counseling theories and practices in clinical practice. Most programs also include an internship in which student work in agencies providing mental health services. Courses that are common to graduate studies in this field may include:

  • Elements of Clinical Psychology: Elements of Clinical Psychology covers theories of psychotherapy and counseling. It is intended to provide beginning mental health counseling students with an overview of the clinical practice of counseling.
  • Ethical Issues in Mental Health Counseling: This course includes the professional roles and functions of a mental health counselor, as well as ethical standards and legal consideration of counseling.
  • Crisis and Trauma Interventions: This class provides an overview of the theory and practice of crisis intervention. Students learn various models of counseling and interventions to respond to different crisis situations.
  • Social and Cultural Diversity: This class will explore the issues of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation and religion as it relates to development as a mental health counselor. Students will explore their own beliefs and learn ways to be sensitive to differences.

Credit Requirements: The credits needed to complete a mental health counseling master’s degree vary from 45 to 60. A thesis is often part of the requirements. The program takes about two or three years to complete.

Admission Requirements: A bachelor’s degree in counseling or a closely related field is often required to get into a master’s in mental health counseling program. The Graduate Record Exam is also usually a prerequisite for acceptance into a master’s in mental health counseling program. Letters of recommendation are also needed.

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree in mental health counseling prepares students to work as clinical supervisors, professors and researchers in the field of mental health. The curriculum focuses on research and clinical supervision. Common classes may include:

  • Diagnostics, Assessment and Treatment: In this class, students will learn administration, scoring, and interpretation of commonly used personality tests in order to assist in diagnosing mental health disorders.
  • Statistics and Research Design: This class provides students with an introduction to research design. Students will learn how to analyze, design and interpret their research in the mental health field.
  • Psychopathology: Psychopathology provides students with a board understanding of social and mental disorders and criteria for diagnosis. Students will also learn to perform a variety of mental status exams.
  • Psychoanalytical Approaches to Treatment: Students will explore various treatment approaches from different points of view. Perspectives on the therapeutic process in general are also covered.

Credit Requirements: Doctoral programs in mental health counseling are about 45 units and can be completed in three to five years. Some programs are structured to include a written exam at the end of the first year to advance to Ph.D. candidacy. A Ph.D. dissertation must also be completed before the doctorate is awarded.

Admission Requirements: Competition to get into a doctoral program can be tough. A master’s degree in mental health counseling or a closely related field. Demonstration of research skills related to mental health is also often required. Some programs require licensure as a mental health counselor. Submission of a resume, along with letters of recommendation is required.

What is an Online Mental Health Counseling Degree?

An online mental health counseling degree involves taking all or most of the required classes online. Although online mental health counseling degree programs are set up differently, they often offer a curriculum similar to a traditional onsite program. Although most classes are completed online, an in-person internship is often required.

Online mental health counseling programs may be structured directly. For example, some programs allow students to focus on one class at a time, completing about one class a month. Other programs involve taking a specific number of classes simultaneously each semester.

Students interested in an online mental health degree program should look for the same things they look for in a traditional program. For example, look for a program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Attending an accredited program can make the process smoother for graduates who want to pursue their license as a mental health counselor

An online mental health counseling degree program may offer more flexibility and convenience than and in-person program and may be a great option for some students.

What Does it Take to Get a Mental Health Counseling Degree?

In addition to getting the right education, there are certain skills and traits that increase the chances of someone being successful as a mental health counselor. Consider some of the following:

Compassion: Compassion cannot be faked and is a must for mental health counselors. A mental health counselor needs to be compassionate and empathetic in order to gain trust and develop a strong therapeutic relationship.

Patience: Dealing with people with mental health issues is not easy. Progress can be slow. It takes someone who is patient and caring to commit to the process.

Good Communication Skills: Counselors must be comfortable speaking with all types of people. Keep in mind, communication does not just involve speaking. Counselors must also have good listening skills in order to understand what is going on with their patient.

Creativity: Mental health counseling is not an exact science. What works for one person may not work for another. Counselors who are creative think outside the box and consider new theories and approaches when something is not working.

What Can You Do With a Degree in Mental Health Counseling?

Mental health counselors work in a large variety of settings including inpatient psychiatric hospitals, mental health clinics, addiction treatment centers and prisons. Jobs may be found working for non-profits, schools and government agencies. Those with a master’s degree or higher may also work in private practice.

The type of work you can do with a mental health counseling degree depends in part to the level of your education. For example, those with an associate or bachelor’s degree may find positions as caseworkers for agencies providing mental health services.

Individuals with a master’s or higher in mental health counseling may work as a counselor. Some people choose to obtain licensure as a mental health counselor and work in private practice. The requirements for licensure vary by state but usually include a minimum of a master’s degree in mental health counseling, 2000 to 4000 hours of supervised clinical work and passing a written exam.

What Degrees are Similar to Mental Health Counseling?

Clinical Psychology: A clinical psychology degree focuses on the assessment and treatment of people who psychiatric problems. Course work focuses heavily on psychology classes including abnormal psychology and cognitive psychology. Most jobs require a doctorate.

Rehabilitation Counseling: Rehabilitation counselors help people overcome physical, psychological and cognitive issues in order to live more independent lives. Bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs are available. Course work is often a combination of counseling, psychology and biology classes.

Marriage and Family Therapy: Marriage and family therapists help people navigate difficulties in their relationships. Coursework often includes classes related to relationships, such as family therapy theory and marriage and family systems. Master’s and doctoral programs are available.

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