What Are the Requirements to Become a Mental Health Counselor?

If you are considering a career in mental health counseling, becoming a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) may be an ideal path for you. Answers about education requirements and how to become a mental health counselor are discussed below.

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What Is Mental Health Counseling?

Mental health counseling helps individuals and communities address their emotional, behavioral and mental health concerns in a safe environment with licensed mental health counselors and professionals.

What does a mental health counselor do? A mental health counselor’s duties and responsibilities may include diagnosing mental, behavioral and emotional disorders, developing therapies and providing treatment to:

  • Individuals
  • Couples
  • Families
  • Groups
  • Specific populations such as children or the elderly

Pursuing a mental health counselor career and becoming an LMHC may allow you the option to focus on any number of specializations.

Types of Mental Health Specializations

The mental health counseling field offers specializations for those who wish to focus on one or more areas of mental health.  

  • Substance abuse counselors and addiction counselors: This type of mental health counselor works with clients with a chemical dependency on alcohol, drugs and/or other addictions. Because substance abuse may affect many facets of a person’s life, a counselor in this specialty may work with clients and their families. Court-ordered treatment, interventions and 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are common elements in some addiction treatments. These counselors may also address gambling, sex, shopping, food and other addictions.
  • Behavior disorder counselors: This type of counselor may help clients deal with behavior disorders that can be disruptive at school and at home, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or conduct disorder (CD). 
  • Licensed mental health counselors (LMHC): A licensed mental health counselor addresses a wide range of mental health concerns, and develops treatment plans for their clients to develop coping mechanisms and learn to successfully live with their diagnosis. This role requires passing licensing exams per state regulations.
  • Licensed professional counselor (LPC): Although this type of counselor can provide mental health care, these professionals may focus on other forms of non-mental-health counseling like rehabilitation and career counseling. Depending on the state where you work, becoming an LPC may require a license to practice any form of counseling.
  • Licensed clinical counselor: A licensed clinical professional counselor provides therapy services to clients in addition to taking on a supervisory role. These professionals may also work in research and training staff. 
  • Licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC): This mental health professional provides mental health services to various clients, including individuals and groups. Treatments mirror those under other mental health counselor titles. 

Common Steps to Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

Since every journey is unique, the steps you take to become a licensed mental health counselor may differ from your peers. However, the steps below reflect a typical path. Please note that the LMHC title differs from state to state and as such, may be called by another title elsewhere. Be sure to check the mental health counseling licensing requirements in the state in which you want to practice before taking any steps toward becoming a mental health counselor. Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Those who are looking to become a mental health counselor should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves and within their state of practice.

1. Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree 

Students focused on becoming mental health counselors tend to begin their studies with an undergraduate degree in counseling-related subjects like psychology or sociology. 
Taking a mental health counseling curriculum that includes such courses as lifespan human development and abnormal psychology early in your program may help provide an advantage when you advance to your graduate work. However, a bachelor’s degree in a different field like a Bachelor of Social Work may meet a graduate program’s prerequisites. Check the admission requirements for the master’s in counseling programs that interest you.

2. Earn a Master of Mental Health Counseling Degree

To become a mental health counselor in most states, you must possess a master’s in counseling, though the name of this degree may vary by program. 

Earning your degree in mental health counseling from an institution accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) indicates the program’s content and quality meet the high standards set forth by the mental health profession. Though CACREP is the widely preferred accreditor, a CACREP-accredited degree is not required in every state. Be sure to check with your state board for more information.

3. Pass Licensing Exams

All states along with the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico require potential mental health counselors to pass one or more National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) exams such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Applicants may also be required to pass state-specific examinations, though this will vary by state.

4. Complete Supervised Clinical Experience

Before you earn mental health counseling licensure, you must gain hands-on experience through graduate and post-graduate internships under the supervision of licensed counselors. 

States may require between 2,000 to 3,000 clinical hours for some levels of licensure. Students will need to obtain an initial license, which allows the graduate to be supervised by a licensed independent practitioner in post-degree practice and can be thought of as a temporary professional license. The name of this license may vary by state and include Associate Licensed Counselor or Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern.

5. Apply for Licensure  

Passing your licensing exam is a big step in your journey. Next, you need to apply for a mental health license in your state. This will be considered as an independent practice license. Specific licensing requirements vary between states, so it is essential to follow the state’s counseling board guidelines where you want to practice.

6. Seek Additional Mental Health Counseling Certifications

Applicants may opt to apply to become a National Certified Counselor (NCC) through the NBCC. This is typically voluntary, though it may be required by certain states to obtain prior to licensure. However, certification requirements may differ from licensure requirements, so applicants will need to check with the NBCC for more information.

Once licensed, you may apply for mental health counseling certifications. The NBCC offers a Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) certification for counselors who have completed a 60-credit graduate degree, are already an NCC and have at least 3,000 hours of postgraduate clinical experience.

7. Maintain Your Mental Health Counselor License 

As a licensed mental health counselor, you may want to stay up-to-date on trends and changes in the mental health field. Continued education may help you provide the best care for your client. For this reason, your state may require you to earn continuing education hours regularly.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Mental Health Counselor?

How long do you go to school to be a mental health counselor? Like many other healthcare professions, mental health counseling requires a four-year undergraduate degree as a foundation. This bachelor’s degree is usually in counseling, psychology or a related field. 

To work as a licensed professional mental health counselor, you will likely need a master’s degree. This advanced mental health counseling degree may take an additional one to four years of postgraduate study depending on your program choice, type of enrollment and how often you take courses. You must also complete your clinical hours during a specified period per state guidelines. For example, the California Board of Behavioral Services stipulates a licensed professional clinical counseling candidate complete 3,000 hours over a minimum of 104 weeks. 

Mental Health Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

Curious as to what licensed mental health counselor jobs pay? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors was $47,660 in May 2020.

Although a master’s in mental health counseling is a requirement to gain licensure, you may find quite a range in salary for these professional roles. Mental health counselor salaries may vary widely by role and by locale.

The BLS projects that employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors will grow 25% by 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Mental Health Counseling Career FAQ

Your interest in mental health counselor careers may be accompanied by many questions. Below are a few questions about jobs in mental health counseling.

What Qualifications Do You Need to be a Mental Health Counselor? 

To become an LPC or licensed professional counselor, you need to meet several qualifications. Licensure and certification requirements for mental health counselors may include earning a master’s degree in counseling, post-graduate clinical hours and passing an exam. 

Mental health counselor certifications may also require additional education, experience and examinations. Once you satisfy the requirements set forth by your state, you can apply for a mental health counselor license.

Do You Need a Master’s to be a Mental Health Counselor?

Many people wonder, “What degree do you need to be a mental health counselor?” You do need a master’s degree if you wish to be a licensed mental health counselor. Some states require specific coursework to earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling. 

The majority of states mandate the completion of 60 semester hours of graduate work, including a minimum of a 48-semester-hour master’s degree from an accredited program. CACREP is the widely preferred accreditor in the field. Be sure to check with your state board to see if this is required.

Where Do Mental Health Counselors Work?

Mental health counselors may work in hospitals, clinics, substance abuse centers or residential mental health facilities. In addition, you may find a licensed professional counselor working in government roles, private practice, schools and in companies’ employee assistance programs. Most mental health counselors work full-time. Some employed at inpatient facilities may work various shifts that include evenings, nights and weekends.

Is a Mental Health Counselor a Good Career?

The demand for mental health counselors is increasing. The BLS projects that employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors will grow 25% by 2029. However, whether a mental health counseling career is a good fit for you is a subjective question—many personal variables play a role. 

You’ll want to consider the job growth outlook, day-to-day duties and education requirements when considering a career in mental health counseling, as well as what jobs are similar to mental health counseling. Other positions that may interest you include health educators, community health workers, social workers and school counselors.

The number of people in the United States experiencing mental health issues including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation is increasing. A recent report from the nonprofit Mental Health America found that the “number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed,” and that there is an unmet need for mental health treatment among youth and adults. 

Last updated May 2021