Becoming a Mental Health Counselor – Schooling and Degree Guide [2024]

Last Updated: May 22, 2024

Mental Health Counselor Career

Mental health issues are serious and impact many individuals from around the world. According to a compilation of statistics from, at least one in four people will be afflicted by a mental health problem each year.

Depression and anxiety issues are among the most common of these mental struggles and women are more likely candidates to have to deal with them than are men. These statistics may seem startling, as they should, but there is a line of defense and help for those that want to deal with these problems and potentially move forward.

Mental health counselors are among the greatest of help for those struggling and a strong resource for those with a mental disorder or condition. If you are considering becoming a mental health counselor, the following explains more about what you need to know to become one.

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

Mental health counselors provide psychological care to patients suffering both acute and chronic mental or psychological difficulties. They often diagnose as well as treat such conditions. There are many specialties falling under the umbrella term of mental health counseling but whilst their clients may vary, their techniques remain similar.

At the heart of what they do is talking through a problem to better understand it and to put a plan in place to try to resolve it. How they achieve that falls roughly into two categories.

Psychodynamic Counseling

Psychodynamic counseling looks to a person’s past to try to understand their current situation. People practicing this technique believe that the relationships someone has experienced previously will directly impact upon their perceptions of the world in the present.

Mental health counselors using this technique work with individuals to uncover negative experiences from their past that may be having such effects. It is felt that by exploring some of these negative influences, they can be better understood, their destructive impacts lessened and the effects they have in the present can be minimized.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a very different approach, it is a newer field but one which has achieved great support. The focus of CBT is in the present – on the thoughts and behaviors of a client which is having a detrimental effect on their health and wellbeing.

CBT works to remodel these problem thoughts and destructive behaviors into healthier attitudes. This is done over a period of time, where the client will usually keep a written record of attitudes and experiences – giving them the ability to reflect upon these with their counselor. The mental health counselor can then help the client to challenge these ideas and eventually, over time, adapt the behaviors.

The techniques employed may be different but the aim of all mental health counselors is to discuss a patient’s difficulty and to help them try to resolve it.

Related: What Are The Careers in Mental Health Counseling?

Why Do We Need Mental Health Counselors?

Mental health counselors can be a vital service in helping clients deal with stress and mental health issues in a safe and productive way. Everybody experiences stresses at some point in their lives, if they are not able to deal with this stress then they can begin to suffer emotionally, and sometimes physically.

By providing an outlet where stresses can be identified and discussed, mental health counselors can provide people with the tools to cope with stress before it begins to affect them in this way.

Mental health counselors provide a safe and reliable outlet where people suffering from any form of mental health issue or condition, can discuss in detail and develop mechanisms for coping by focusing on adaptions to thoughts and subsequent behaviors.

With the number of adults now experiencing some form of mental health issue, the service provided by mental health counselors is exceptionally valuable. They can provide an emotional supplementation to medical treatments and help a patient to understand the root causes of problems so they can deal with them successfully.

Where Does a Mental Health Counselor Work?

Most mental health counselors are employed by hospitals, substance abuse centers, schools, nursing and residential care facilities, outpatient care centers, individual and family services, government agencies, and private practices.

News magazines like Time and other prominent publications have spoken on the mental health care crisis and perceived need in America and around the world. As these topics become less taboo and the need is more discussed, the jobs for mental health counselors are expected to rise.

What are the Education Requirements to Become a Mental Health Counselor?

There are varying levels of education that are required to become a mental health counselor. First, one must obtain an undergraduate degree in a related field, which is most often psychology, sociology, or social work. These programs usually take four years to complete and include coursework in general studies, such as the humanities, science, math, and of course, introductory coursework in mental health studies.

Upon completing an undergraduate degree, students must then obtain a master’s degree in counseling or a related field if they are to be considered for licensure in most states. Much like undergraduate programs, graduate level programs vary in terms of their exact subject matter, though, as noted above, programs must be closely related to counseling.

Typical graduate programs in mental health counseling last anywhere from two to five years, with both classroom learning and experiential learning built into the program.

For example, a mental health counseling program will likely require a certain number of classroom hours in which students learn about counseling theory and related topics, as well as a certain number of hours of internship in which they put that classroom learning to work in a real-world environment.

Once the master’s degree is completed, students usually have to complete one to two years of work in a clinical setting under the watchful eye of a licensed counselor. There is leeway in terms of where pre-licensed counselors can work, including public and private schools, colleges and universities, mental health clinics, or even state-run institutions.

At the conclusion of the probationary period, graduate level counselors can then take the state licensure exam, and, if they pass, can be conferred licensure by their state.

What Do You Learn in a Mental Health Counseling Degree?

Professional, Legal, and Ethical Issues

A large part of being a mental health counselor is knowing the limits of appropriate behavior with clients and what each party involved in the counseling process is entitled to. These classes help protect both clients and future counselors from harm.

Counseling Theories

Counseling has a long and storied past. As a result, various schools of thought have been formed around how counseling ought to be carried out and what both client and counselor should focus on during this process. Professional counselors often have dedicated personal styles of counseling deeply rooted in a certain counseling theory. In order for this to occur, students must first learn about different theories.

Assessment Strategies

Counselors are always tasked with trying to understand their clients. For instance, the first time a counselor meets a client, he or she must assess the state and needs of the client quickly and adapt their approach accordingly. New counselors must be able to perform this task regularly and efficiently.

Social and Cultural Diversity

Cultures view mental health professionals in vastly different ways. For instance, some cultures esteem doctors and mental health professionals highly, believing that curing illnesses of any kind is a worthy profession.

Other cultures believe that mental issues are something to be ashamed of and often mistrust counselors. In addition, there exists great divides between what different social groups are sensitive towards. Counselors must be able to navigate these social challenges with clients from different backgrounds.

Substance Abuse and Addictions

The use of narcotics alters how the human brain functions tremendously. As a result, counselors must be able to identify common indicators of substance abuse in their clients. Not only that, counselors have to possess the skills required to aid people struggling with various types of drugs and addictions even if their work doesn’t revolve directly around working with people with substance abuse problems.

Counseling programs aim to introduce their students to narcotics, their common effects, how they alter brain functionality, and how addicts ought to be treated.

How to Work with Various Age-Groups

The brain structure of children and adolescents is enormously different from that of adults. As a result, they think and behave unlike adults in many respects. Working with this subset of the population requires different strategies and carries its own set of rules and implications.

Students must learn how to behave in situations involving children and adolescents and what strategies counselors are expected to use when working with them.

In addition, the elderly often have specific needs that must also be met. The strategies typically used with adults have to be adjusted when working with older populations. These are all things which counseling programs generally include in their curriculums.

What Skills are Required for a Mental Health Counselor?

Ethical and Legal Skills and Knowledge

A huge part of working as a counselor is knowing what constitutes ethical behavior and where legal obligations and rights exists. The reason these rules are enforced so heavily is because they protect both counselors and their clients.

For instance, when a counselor suspects there might exist abuse within a household, he or she has to be aware of the proper steps she must take.

Respecting client confidentiality is important, but there are times when counselors are legally and morally obligated to divulge things they’ve learned during sessions to proper authorities. Having knowledge of all these nuances and the ability to apply this knowledge in counseling is vital for professionals working within this field.

Assessment Skills

When a counselor first meets a client, they must conduct assessment on the condition of that person. Things that they must consider include how likely a person is to harm themselves or others, are they in any particular danger, are they at risk for something, what things seem to be bothering that person, etc.

The answers to these questions thoroughly influence how the counselor will approach the situation. Counselors must be able to assess clients both accurately and quickly.

Diagnosis Skills

All counselors must be familiar with the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, or the DSM. At the time of writing this, the most recent edition is the DSM-5.

This manual serves as a tool counselors must abide by when diagnosing and treating clients. A large part of counseling work is diagnosing clients and it remains an important skill for counselors to possess.

Social Skills

Counselors have a vast range of social responsibilities. These extend from having to educate family members of their clients about potential ways they can help their loved ones to actively managing their identity during counseling sessions. Counselors must also have the required skills to appear empathetic and trustworthy to clients.

Many counseling situations also require professionals to maintain a degree of distance from clients in order to maintain a professional relationship. These types of skills present narrow paths counselors must be able to navigate. Without proper social skills, counselors risk the well-being of their clients and themselves.

What is the Salary for a Mental Health Counselor?

As of January 2024, according to ZipRecruiter, the average salary for a mental health counselor is $75,386. The top ten percent and the bottom ten percent earned the average salary of $144,500 and $34,500 respectively.

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