According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 45 million people in the United States live with a mental illness. In recent years however, there has been a shortage of qualified mental health professionals, which has made it difficult for people with a mental illness to find the help that they need.
Counselors support people who have a mental illness. With a talent for listening and a concern for those in need, counselors have the opportunity to change their clients’ lives. Students with a desire to help others often choose to become counselors, and the first step toward achieving that goal is learning how to get a counseling degree.
Who Are Counselors?
Although all counselors want to help others, each individual counselor brings a unique perspective to the treatment of mental health issues based on his or her life experiences and education. Students who become counselors often have previously worked in helping roles, including as mentors, tutors and summer camp counselors.
Successful counselors are people who have a natural talent for empathetic listening, the ability to accept clients as they are, and the inclination to provide clients with a safe place to be heard. Because of this, exceptional communication skills are crucial for any student considering getting a counseling degree.
First Steps to Getting a Counseling Degree
For any student who has been wondering how to get a counseling degree, research is the first step. At this stage, it’s critical that a student take the time to figure out which program is best suited for his or her desired career track, work schedule and family life.
A counseling degree is a postgraduate degree, and a student must complete a four-year program from an accredited institution before beginning a master’s program. Most institutions require a minimum undergraduate GPA of 2.5 to be eligible for a master’s program. In addition to applying, prospective students may need to provide letters of recommendation and a personal statement and attend an interview. Having these materials prepared early in a student’s educational career can make applying to a master’s program much more straightforward.
Master’s programs in counseling are offered in-person or online. Any student interested in studying online must first determine if there are any limitations to the program being considered. For example, recent federal regulations have limited what is available online to out-of-state students, but this varies by program.
Once all these factors are evaluated, it is time for a student to select a master’s program.
Choosing a Counseling Degree
An important consideration for students interested in how to get a counseling degree is which area of mental health they want to work in. There are three primary areas of study that a master’s degree will fall into, with each program taking 18 to 24 months to complete:
Clinical Mental Health
This program focuses on working closely with individuals struggling with issues ranging from drug and substance abuse to family and marriage issues. Pairing clinical skills with therapeutic relationship-building techniques, a counselor can help clients with their personal and professional lives at any age.
In the U.S., there are a vast number of counselors employed in elementary, middle and high schools. Many school counselors choose to help children when they are young to encourage a healthier adult life. This program track focuses on building relationships with children and their families as well as working with educators to improve the children’s quality of life at school and at home.
For students who are interested in working in management and administration in mental health organizations, non-clinical master’s degrees in human services are available. This program–which is not a counseling degree–focuses on developing a student’s management skills to use in social service programs, adult-care facilities and nonprofit organizations. These skills help counselors and organizations deliver resources that are effective and easily accessible for clients.
Advice for Earning a Counseling Degree
Learning the specifics about how to get a counseling degree can help students realize that it takes hard work and dedication early on in their education. The most important step to earning a counseling degree is research. Choosing the program that best suits a student’s desired career path can be difficult, but students can leverage their networks of faculty members, student peers and internship directors for assistance in navigating through the resources available for the different program tracks. Students can also volunteer or seek out internships that will help them discover if pursuing a counseling degree is the right choice for them.
Counselors, mental health clinicians and human services professionals use their active listening and social awareness skills and their knowledge of psychology, therapy, counseling and personal services to bring positive changes to their clients’ lives. If a career helping and counseling others is appealing, consider Wake Forest University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling.
National Institute of Mental Health
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Wake Forest University
Counsel for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Education Programs