Mental Health Counselling Career Guide: How to Be a Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Did you know that in the United States, almost half of adults experience a mental illness during their lifetime? However, only 41 percent of people with a mental disorder in the year received professional help.

In this day and age, mental health careers are necessary to help people in need and combat the stigma of mental illness. 

If you are interested in psychology, a natural empathy for people, and the ability to listen, then a career as a mental health counselor could be the right choice for you. 

Read on for everything you need to know about starting a career as a mental health counselor! 

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do? 

Before you consider the steps to becoming a mental health counselor, it’s important to know what’s expected of you during an average day. Some people may need support as they navigate the stress of their busy lives, while others will need to be diagnosed with mental illnesses. Others may need to talk to someone to discuss complex childhood trauma. 

Here is just a shortlist of some issues that a person may be experiencing: 

  • Depression 
  • Anxiety 
  • Panic Disorder
  • Grief
  • Phobias
  • Eating Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Substance Abuse
  • Addiction
  • Self-Esteem
  • Aging

Mental health counselors will usually assess clients on their first visit through a questionnaire. Then, they’ll spend the rest of the session talking about the issues the person is experiencing and what they wish to get out of therapy. Both the patient and the counselor must be on the same page. 

You’ll also find that there are specific issues that you can specialize in. For instance, a therapist who works predominantly with couples wouldn’t be prepared to properly help a person with an eating disorder or needs rehabilitation from substance abuse.

What Is a Typical Day Like for a Mental Health Counselor? 

On a typical day, mental health counselors need to encourage their clients to be open about their thoughts, feelings, and history. By actively listening and taking detailed notes so that they remember the progress they’ve made each session, counselors provide educated insights that allow their clients to grow. 

Collecting

Counselors need to document information about their sessions, either during or immediately afterward, to keep track of their client’s progress. They also need to fill out client-related paperwork, such as diagnostic records and federal or state-mandated paperwork. 

Assessing

Counselors also need to use their best judgment to assess whether a client is a suicide risk or not. The Suicide Resource Prevention Center provides resources to help counselors decide whether clients are suicidal or not. If a counselor does believe a person is a suicide risk, it’s recommended not to leave that person alone. 

Empathizing

Last but not least, counselors need to be able to empathize with their clients. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes or to relate to another’s emotions and thoughts. Carkhuff’s five-point scale is used to measure a therapist’s ability to empathize with their patients. 

If a therapist is at level 5, they’re able to understand and respond to their client to provide insight without adding bias.

Important Qualities of a Mental Health Counselor

Licensed mental health counselors work with numerous people daily who need empathy, insight, and guidance from professionals to work through their mental health problems. With this in mind, there are many intangibles that mental health counselors need to possess to be the most effective in their jobs. 

Consider whether these intangibles come naturally to you. If they don’t, these qualities can be trained like any skill:

Interpersonal Skills

Along with a natural sense of compassion and empathy, mental health counselors need to have good interpersonal skills as they’ll work with people of all kinds of backgrounds. They need to be able to develop relationships with their clients and build trust. 

Listening Skills

Counselors need to have good listening skills. More importantly, they’ll need to read between the lines and be able to interpret their clients’ words, moods, and behavior to get a good reading on how they’re feeling.

Active listening is essential. It allows a counselor to fully understand what their client is saying and convey to their client that they’re in a safe place and that they’re being heard. 

Patience

Counselors need a great deal of patience when communicating with their clients. Not everyone will open up right away; every client will need to work at their own pace. Some clients may become distressed or angry during the session as traumatic or difficult topics arise.

Speaking Skills

Last but not least, counselors need to convey information and guidance in a way that their clients can understand. Even if some information may be helpful, it won’t be helpful to a client if they’re having trouble hearing you or don’t understand the language you’re using.

Another factor to keep in mind is to avoid overwhelming clients with too much information. 

How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

You’ll find that your entryway for becoming a licensed mental health counselor starts with getting into a four-year undergraduate program. 

1. Bachelor’s

People who normally know that they want to become counselors will either get a Bachelor’s in Counseling or Psychology. After receiving your bachelor’s, you’ll need to move on to get your master’s, but you also have other options. At this point, you can apply for accreditation as a Mental Health Rehabilitation Technician

2. Master’s

Those bachelor programs have a curriculum that will help prepare you for your Master’s in Counseling, which is required for you to be eligible for licensing. A Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling is also a great choice. 

3. Doctorate

Although a doctorate isn’t required, this may be the easiest option forward for you if you already hold a master’s in another field and want to transition to mental health counseling. 

4. Accreditation

You’ll want to ensure that the doctorate program you choose holds accreditation, either CACREP accreditation or accreditation through the American Psychological Association (APA). 

5. Clinical Supervision

Besides working on your degree program, it’s also required that you complete two years of clinical supervision before you’re able to apply for your counseling license.

These are some of the most important experiences you’ll have while on your way towards your license because you’ll be working directly with people while receiving constructive feedback. You’ll be supervised by someone licensed in mental health counseling. 

6. License Exam and Application

Once you’ve completed your two years of supervised fieldwork, you’ll be able to apply for your license by taking an examination. Once you receive your license, you’ll be able to practice counseling in the state you live in. 

7. Continuing Education

You’ll need to remember that as a licensed mental health counselor, you’ll need to continue your education as the field is constantly evolving and improving. However, states differ in the continuing education they require, so you’ll need to do your research. 

Job Outlook

Once you’ve completed your education and you begin practicing, you may be wondering if all these years can put food on the table. As of May 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that, in 2018, the median annual wage for mental health counselors was $44,630.

This is also a much-needed profession, as from 2018 to 2028, employment is predicted to grow to 22 percent, which is faster than the average for all occupations. (According to the BLS as of May 2020)

Personal Therapy

You’ll also want to keep in mind that being a mental health counselor doesn’t mean that you should skip therapy for yourself. In fact, going to a therapist as a counselor will help you work through the burnout and stress that you may feel when working with a variety of clients with serious mental health concerns each day. 

Not only will a counselor be gaining more self-knowledge that will help them become more adept in their personal and work lives, but getting therapy will also give them firsthand experience of being the client. This will help develop more empathy for their clients or give them more ideas on improving their own practice. 

Beginning Your Mental Health Journey

Becoming a licensed mental health counselor today is helpful for a variety of reasons. Not only will you be aiding people who are struggling in their daily lives, but you’ll also be breaking down the stigma of mental illness by becoming more educated and informed.

Even better, your years of education won’t be wasted, as the job outlook of counseling is incredibly strong compared to other occupations over the next ten years. 

Ready to begin looking into mental health training programs? Online certificate programs are a great way to work towards your career aspirations in the comfort of your own home.

InterCoast Colleges provides vocational and trade-school programs that can help kick off your career by developing technical skills, professional attitudes, interpersonal communication skills, and more. 

Take a look at the certificate programs that InterCoast Colleges offers today!

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