Mental Health Counseling: What You’ll Study
If you want to work as a mental health counselor, here are your curriculum and degree paths.
The mental health of everyone is important for individuals and our society at large.
Mental health counselors help clients with issues such as depression, OCD and PTSD overcome their challenges and develop into healthier human beings.
Read below to get answers to the questions students ask about the different degrees you can pursue to achieve your career goals.
What degree levels are available?
Earning a four-year undergraduate degree is the first step in your education toward becoming a mental health counselor. A bachelor’s degree in most fields is acceptable to enter the required master’s level program afterward. If you did earn an undergraduate degree in a field such as education, psychology or sociology, your studies will be a benefit when pursuing your master’s degree. Earning a doctorate is not required for this specialty.
Bachelor’s Degree Programs
Most undergraduate degree programs require a blend of science and liberal arts courses. You’ll typically have chosen your track—whether that’s psychology, education, sociology or something else—and be ready to take electives by your junior year.
Junior year is also the best time to start making graduate school plans if you’re confident this is the field for you. As long as you complete the basic electives in psychology and/or education, you don’t necessarily need to have a bachelor’s in psychology to be accepted into a graduate program in counseling. Be sure to verify this with the graduate programs you plan on applying to.
To outline common classes, we’ll use the example of a four-year psychology degree. University of Phoenix offers the following program of undergraduate lecture and lab courses for a Bachelor of Science in Psychology:
Examples of Core Courses
- General Psychology: Introduces the student to the major topics in scientific psychology as applied to human behavior.
- History and Systems of Psychology: Introduces the modern era of psychology and its use. These include: structuralism, functionalism, Gestalt, behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and phenomenological/existential approaches.
- Statistical Reasoning in Psychology: Introductory course in applied statistics (descriptive and inferential), with particular emphasis in psychology.
- Biological Foundations of Psychology: Studying physiological psychology, which explores the relationship between our biological systems and behavior.
- Life Span Human Development: An examination of personality, social, intellectual, and physical development and the major theories used to describe how people change throughout their life span.
- Theories of Personality: Gain an understanding of the general approaches to understanding personality.
- Abnormal Psychology: Learn about the incidence of abnormal behavior of various types; how abnormal behaviors are classified into various diagnostic categories; the causes of psychological disorders; and the variety of methods used in their treatment.
- Psychological Tests and Measurements: Basic principles, research and theories on testing and measurement of psychological constructs are covered.
- Elements of Clinical Psychology: Provides an overview of the theory and practice of clinical and counseling psychology. Explores major theories of personality, assessment and psychotherapy.
You may also be required to conduct a thesis project on a selected topic in your senior year. Additionally, senior-year students may be required to take a Capstone Course, which creates an integrative project that combines the cumulative learning of their 4-year program into a “senior project.”
Master’s Degrees in Mental Health Counseling
A Master’s of Art or Masters of Science in Mental Health Counseling will take two to three years to complete. This degree offers a combination of learning and hands-on experience in classroom settings.
A good example of a typical experience is outlined below in the Master of Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
- Generating and advancing knowledge related to all aspects of research and practice in counseling and counseling psychology.
- Understanding people across the lifespan in cultural contexts
- Promotion of equity and social justice
- Helping all people build lives of wellness, health and meaning
Examples of Prerequisite and Core Courses
- Ethical Issues in Counseling for Mental Health & Wellness
- Foundations of Counseling
- Theory and Process
- Individual Counseling I & II
- Cross-cultural Counseling
- Research and Evaluation in Behavioral Sciences
- Human Growth and Development
- Abnormal Psychology
- Group Dynamics: Theory and Practice
- Dynamics of Vocational Development
- Special Population Course
Examples of Electives and Applied-Content Courses
- Bilingual Education: Theory and Practice
- Counseling People with Disabilities
- Current Perspectives on Women’s Development
- Substance Abuse Counseling
- Grief and Bereavement Counseling
- Introduction to Art Therapy
- Family Diagnosis and Therapy
- HIV Prevention and Counseling
- Counseling Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Adolescents
- Research in Urban and Minority Education
- Sexual Decision-Making and Risk Taking Behavior in Adolescents
- Trauma: Theoretical and Clinical Perspectives
- Gestalt Therapy: Overview of Theory and Practice
You’ll also complete lab work and a clinical internship in preparation to meet certification and licensure in all states. This will include 600 hours (300 per semester or about 20 hours per week) during two semesters in a setting approved by the NYU Internship Director, under supervision of a licensed mental health professional.
Some states and programs will also require a written exam—at NYU, this is the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE).
A doctoral degree isn’t necessary to work as a mental health counselor, although you may pursue it to increase your opportunities in academia or specific work environments. For instance, you may choose to further your career after a few years of working in the field.
What certification will I need to practice?
Becoming a licensed mental health counselor requires a master’s degree and 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. Counselors must also pass a state-recognized exam and complete annual continuing education classes.
Licensing and certification guidelines for mental health counselors vary by state; be sure to check the guidelines for the region in which you plan to study. Information about requirements for each state is available from the National Board for Certified Counselors.
Licensing and certification guidelines for psychologists vary by state; be sure to check the guidelines at apapracticecentral.org for the region in which you plan to study.
How long will it take?
Depending upon your level of dedication, the education necessary to work as a mental health counselor can take the following time to complete:
- Four-years in a bachelor’s degree in psychology, education or other related field
- One to two years in a master’s degree program
- Programs may require a one-year internship
Are online programs available?
Online programs for earning your master’s in mental health counseling are available. For example, both Capella University and Walden University offer a Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling. Southern New Hampshire University also offers a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, with a concentration in Mental Health, online.
Course outlines differ for each school, so check for information on the differences and how they pertain to your goals in earning your degree.
How much will my education cost?
Since a master’s degree is required to work as a mental health counselor, you’ll need to consider tuition for undergraduate and graduate school.
The cost of bachelor’s degree programs varies depending upon the type of institution you attend. According to College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2021-22, the average annual cost for a four-year, public institution runs around $10,740 for in-state tuition and $27,560 for out-of-state tuition.
The average annual cost for a four-year private non-profit school is $38,070.
Master’s degree program tuition average costs reached $66,340 in 2022 according to EducationData.org.
Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or an online program.
Are there prerequisites?
Undergraduate: A strong college preparatory high school education is a good start for your psychology or counseling degree program. Courses in science, math, English, history, social studies, and a foreign language are important. Science and math are especially critical because they provide the necessary skills for research and analysis in college psychology and education courses.
Graduate: A completed, four-year bachelor’s degree in psychology, education or another field will prepare you for graduate school. Any electives you’ve taken in psychology and/or education will be valuable in your graduate work.
GRE: Check with the institution and program you plan to apply to, to find out whether the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not required for admission. If it’s not, but you’ve taken the test and have good scores, you may submit them for review with your admission materials.
What accreditation is there for my program?
Many master’s and doctoral programs in mental health counseling are fully accredited by the American Psychological Association.
Accreditation shows that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, and that it is committed not only to meet those standards but to continuously seek ways in which to improve the quality of education and training provided. Also, attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.
There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized. The Higher Learning Commission conducts institutional accreditation. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western).