Mental Health Counselor Degree and Career Guide

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What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do? (Duties & Responsibilities)

Here’s what you’ll do in your role as a mental health counselor.

counselor in counseling session with client

We all face challenges throughout our lives. Often, mental health counselors will be one of the first resources available to people in need of emotional and psychological support.

Your strong sense of compassion and commitment to helping people are the most necessary qualities for a successful career as a mental health counselor. You will need to have a strong support system of your own in place to ensure your well-being as you undertake this challenging and rewarding vocation.

By addressing concerns with quality care from a mental health counselor, clients learn how to make informed and healthy decisions about themselves, their relationships and their futures.

What does a mental health counselor do?

Mental health counselors offer guidance to individuals, couples, families and groups who are dealing with issues that affect their mental health and well-being. Many counselors approach their work holistically, using a “wellness” model (as opposed to an “illness” one) which highlights and encourages client’s strengths.

On the job, mental health counselors:

  • Work with individuals, groups and communities to improve mental health
  • Encourage clients to discuss emotions and experiences
  • Examine issues including substance abuse, aging, bullying, anger management, careers, depression, relationships, LGBTQ issues, self-image, stress and suicide
  • Work with families
  • Help clients define goals, plan action and gain insight
  • Develop therapeutic processes
  • Refer clients to psychologists and other services
  • Take a holistic (mind and body) approach to mental health care

What education or certification will I need to become a mental health counselor?

Earning an undergraduate degree in counseling, psychology, sociology or social work is the first step in becoming a mental health counselor. However, you have an undergraduate degree in another field and pursue your master’s in mental health counseling. Your master’s will usually take one to two years to obtain. Learn more about What You’ll Study.

Most states require that mental health counselors complete two years of post-graduate supervised work, totaling between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of clinical experience. In addition, counselors must pass a state-recognized exam and complete annual continuing education courses. The learning is never done—and your hard work will be rewarded with greater skills and understanding.

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.

What career paths can I take in mental health counseling?

As a mental health counselor, you can work in family services, outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, hospitals, government, schools and in private practice. You can choose to work with a specific population, such as with teenagers, the incarcerated, families and the elderly. A parallel career path is marriage and family therapy, which brings a family-centered perspective to mental health treatment, even when treating individuals.

Some professionals continue their education by earning a PhD in clinical psychology, counseling psychology or mental health therapy. Earning a PhD will take a time commitment of five to six years. Throughout the course of your education, you’ll gain much experience by volunteering or interning at places like rehab treatment centers, hospitals or counseling clinics.

Learn about Pay and Job Projections for mental health counselors.

Are you interested in helping others, but unsure if mental health counseling is your path? Other careers that center on human services include education, social work, specialized care and nursing.