How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Learn how to become a licensed mental health counselor, including the required degree, work experience, and salary expectations.
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Nalea J. Ko has worked as a journalist in Hawaii, Los Angeles, and New York covering news and entertainment. She currently writes about tech, with a focus on coding. Nalea received her MFA degree in fiction from Brooklyn College and bachelor's in jou...
Updated on July 10, 2023
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Margaret Weinhold is an associate editor for BestColleges, where she focuses on core content. She is passionate about increasing visibility and accessibility around higher education. Margaret holds a BA in English from the University of Virginia....
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  • States require mental health counselors to hold a master's degree.
  • You can choose to specialize in behavior disorders or substance misuse as a mental health counselor.
  • About 310,880 mental health counselors work in the U.S.
  • Every state requires mental health counselors to get licensed.

If you want a career helping people navigate challenges, consider becoming a licensed mental health counselor. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), mental health counselors make up one of the largest occupations offering mental health services.

Keep in mind the career does require a master's degree. In fact, all 50 states require licensed mental health counselors to earn a master's in counseling degree.

Here, we break down the steps to become a mental health counselor, including licensure requirements, specialties, and common salaries.

Featured Counseling Degrees

5 Steps for Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

  1. Get a bachelor's degree. Mental health counselors commonly have bachelor's degrees in fields such as psychology, public policy, and social services. The coursework in a bachelor's program teaches the foundational knowledge for a master's in counseling degree.
  2. Earn a master's in counseling degree. States require that you complete a master's in counseling to get licensed. And most employers prefer that you earn a degree from a school accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Program.
  3. Pass a national exam. To work in every state, you must pass a national exam. Common exams include the National Counselor Exam, National Board for Certified Counselors exams, and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination.
  4. Start supervised work experience. You must complete experiential requirements to get licensed. Specific requirements vary by state.
  5. Get licensed. Check your state counseling board's licensing requirements since licensing requirements depend on where you live. After passing the exam, you can apply for licensure.

What Are the Licensure Requirements for Mental Health Counselors?

States set licensing requirements and titles for mental health counselors. Common titles include licensed clinical professional counselor, licensed mental health counselor, and licensed professional counselor.

But no matter where you live, you need a master's degree or higher to apply for licensure. And you will need to pass a national and/or state exam. To protect clients, states must ensure that mental health counselors meet minimum standards.

Featured Counseling Degrees

What Do Mental Health Counselors Do?

Pursuing a career in mental health counseling offers the flexibility to carve out your own career path. Mental health counselors can work in outpatient mental health and substance misuse centers, individual and family services hospitals, and government agencies. They can also work in residential mental health and substance misuse facilities.

Check out more career options and their corresponding salaries below.

Common Mental Health Careers
Jobs Average Annual Salary (March 2023)
Clinical Director $82,650
Marriage and Family Therapist $60,980
Licensed Mental Health Counselor $53,300
Residential Counselors $41,890
Substance Misuse Counselor $43,360
Source: Payscale

Common Mental Health Specializations

Mental health counselors forge careers in specific areas of counseling by earning specializations. Common mental health specialties include behavioral disorder counseling, substance misuse and addiction counseling, and clinical mental health counseling.

  • Behavior Disorder Counselor: These counselors lead individual and group counseling sessions as a behavior disorder counselor. They also develop individual and group recovery plans, including treatment plans.
  • Substance Misuse and Addiction Counselor: With individuals and in group settings, substance misuse and addiction counselors perform drug and alcohol assessments. Counselors work on multidisciplinary treatment teams to serve clients and ensure they comply with treatment goals.
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor: This counseling specialty teaches you to provide direct counseling services. As a licensed mental health counselor, you'll assess, diagnose, and treat mental health and emotional disorders.
  • Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor: Experienced licensed clinical mental health counselors have full agency in the caseloads they build. They provide psychotherapy to individuals, families, and groups. The job also requires using clinical judgment to make diagnostic evaluations and referrals, and provide guidance and resources to clients.

Necessary Skills for Mental Health Counselors

  • Listening Skills: One of the most important tools for mental health counselors is active listening skills. This helps counselors to be present when talking to clients, not interrupt, and ask important questions that can inform their decision-making.
  • Clinical Intuition: Your clinical intuition allows you to use your knowledge from textbooks and your professional work experience to help you to understand your clients.
  • Clinical Reasoning: Using clinical reasoning during an assessment can deepen your understanding of the ecological factors in a client's life and their support system, which better informs potential solutions.
  • Develop Evidence-Based Practice: Mental health counselors must draw on the existing body of research to create effective therapies and interventions for their clients.

How Much Will I Make as a Mental Health Counselor?

How much do counselors make? As of May 2021, pay for mental health counselors ranged from $30,870-$77,980, according to the BLS. Across the nation and in different fields, mental health counselors earned a median annual salary of $48,520.

Projections from the BLS show that this in-demand career will see a growth rate of 22% from 2021-2031, which equates to about 77,500 new positions.

Median Annual Salary (May 2021)


Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Outlook (2021-2031)


Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics

Featured Counseling Degrees

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

How long does it take to become a mental health counselor?

No mental health counselor can earn licensure without a four-year bachelor's degree and a master's in counseling degree — a path that takes 2-3 years. Schools may offer accelerated master's in counseling degrees that can take only 18 months of full-time study, including internships.

States also require about 2,000-3,500 hours of post-master's supervised work experience and direct contact hours that can take 2-3 years. Requirements vary by state, so check your state counseling board.

Can you become a mental health counselor without a degree?

No. Because all states require mental health counselors to obtain licensure, you must earn at least your bachelor's — but typically your master's degree — to become a mental health counselor. Plus, you'll need to complete a number of supervised clinical hours.

What is the highest-paying salary for mental health counselors?

Becoming a mental health counselor can be a rewarding job — but that doesn't mean it pays the best. The top 10% of earners in mental health counseling made a median annual salary of $77,980 in May 2021. If making the big bucks is a deciding factor for you, then this may not be the right career. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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