How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

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Two people clasping hands.

You have an affinity for connecting with people. You empathize with their problems. You want to make a positive difference in their lives by helping them navigate life’s difficult transitions and challenges.

If you recognize these qualities in yourself, you may want to consider how to become a mental health counselor. Counseling professionals use their education and training to guide their clients through challenging periods in their lives and help them work through mental health issues. Although they differ from psychologists, they similarly provide therapeutic interventions for depression, anxiety, school problems, marital discord, trauma, loss of a loved one, workplace issues and other life stressors.

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

The first step in researching the field is learning what a mental health counselor does.

Mental health counselors assess, diagnose and treat a wide range of mental and emotional health issues. They’re trained to provide counseling on a one-to-one basis, as well as provide treatment for groups, families or even communities.

While the ultimate goal of mental health counseling is to help clients develop coping strategies that can lead to improved mental well-being, no set template for approaching this goal exists. One reason is the sheer breadth of mental health challenges that can be assessed and treated through counseling. These challenges include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Adjustment disorders due to life changes, such as a new baby
  • Eating disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Substance abuse
  • Personality disorders
  • Dementia

Mental health counselors work with their clients to help identify thoughts, behaviors and social or environmental contexts that could trigger issues. In some cases, mental health counselors may use psychotherapy as part of a treatment strategy. They may also refer clients to other resources or communal services, so clients can receive additional support.

While some mental health counselors open private practices, they also work in many other environments. The type of counseling that they deliver may depend on that environment; for example, counselors who practice out of health care settings, such as hospitals, may provide counseling to families dealing with dementia.

Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

A mental health counselor’s work can be critical to individuals seeking to improve their overall well-being in the face of difficult issues. Because of the sensitivity of the position, the path to becoming a mental health counselor typically entails many steps.

The Master’s Degree in Counseling

Earning a master’s degree is an essential step for those who want to become a mental health counselor. To be accepted to the program, students should have a bachelor’s degree with the grades specified by the school they wish to attend. Many institutions also require that prospective students take the GRE.

The master’s degree program in counseling incorporates clinical instruction, lectures and practical experience. Students learn how to identify issues that can negatively impact their clients. They also gain competencies in developing safe and ethical interventions that employ many of the advanced tenets of consultation and counseling theory.

Internships and practical training allow them to gain skills while under the supervision of professional counselors. The master’s degree in counseling also prepares students for state licensure and professional certifications.

Accreditation of Master’s in Counseling Programs

The Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the accrediting agency for master’s degrees in counseling. CACREP’s curriculum requirements include professional counseling orientation and ethical practice, social and cultural diversity, human growth and development, career development, counseling and helping relationships, group counseling and group work, assessment and testing, and research and program evaluation.

The Demand for Mental Health Counselors

With the increasing awareness of the importance of mental health in the overall health and well-being of individuals has come a rapidly growing demand for mental health counselors in various settings.

The job market for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is projected to grow by 23% between 2020 and 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This is nearly three times higher than the 8% job growth that the BLS projects for the average profession. Many of these jobs are in specialized fields, such as family counseling, substance abuse counseling, stress management, career counseling and marriage counseling.

Graduates of mental health counseling programs find opportunities to launch and advance their careers as psychotherapists, substance abuse counselors, career counselors, program directors, human resources professionals and employee assistance managers.

Job settings include the following:

  • Mental health clinics
  • Social service agencies
  • Hospitals
  • Private practices
  • Schools and universities
  • Correctional facilities
  • Research institutions
  • Career services

Advancing in the Mental Health Counseling Field

Like many other professions, obtaining state licenses and certifications from professional organizations are often an important part of how to become a mental health counselor.


State licenses give permission to a qualified individual to identify as a mental health counselor and to practice counseling. Rules and licensing requirements vary by state. Typically, they include a master’s degree from an accredited institution, a certain number of hours of supervision and counseling experience, and passing scores on the required exams. Those interested in how to become a mental health counselor should familiarize themselves with the licensure requirements for their projected state of practice prior to starting the journey.


A counseling certificate is a credential that signals to employers and clients that the counselor has met the national standards of the counseling profession. Requirements include a master’s degree in counseling from an accredited program, a stipulated number of hours of supervision and counseling experience, and passing scores on the required exams.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) awards the following certifications:

  • National Certified Counselor (NCC)
  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC)
  • National Certified School Counselor (NCSC)

Take the First Step to Become a Mental Health Counselor

When considering how to become a mental health counselor, it’s important to know that a master’s degree in mental health counseling prepares graduates for possible jobs in the mental health care field. With your assistance, your clients might successfully navigate life’s challenges and difficult transitions, and reach their fullest potential.

Begin your journey by enrolling in the online Master’s in Mental Health Counseling at Wake Forest University, a program that melds comprehensive curriculum, high-quality classroom instruction by experienced professionals, and practical training that allows students to gain real-world experience under supervision.

When you graduate from our online master’s in counseling program, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge and skills for fulfilling careers in clinical mental health and school counseling. The program also prepares you for certification and licensure. Our graduates often excel as community leaders, advocates and practitioners who model compassionate service to humanity and foster the well-being of society.

Our online Master of Arts in Counseling program features a specialization in mental health counseling that’s designed for students seeking to fully embrace the mental health counselor career path. Our online program is specifically designed for those who want to work full time while they earn their master’s degree. The flexible online platform helps students balance their academic studies with their busy lives. The program’s academic rigor and its 95% student pass rate on the National Counselor Examination have earned Wake Forest University’s master’s of counseling program a reputation for excellence.

Recommended Reading:

Social Worker vs. Counselor: Which Career Is Right for You?

Serving Humanity: Career Opportunities in Mental Health

What Is the Difference Between a Counselor and a Psychologist?


Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs


Forbes, “What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?”

HuffPost, “So You Want to Be a Counselor/Therapist? Let Me Tell You the Different Ways”

Indeed, How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor

National Board for Certified Counselors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Verywell Mind, Mental Health Counselor Training, Skills, and Salary