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How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

From discussing the key factors of healthy relationships with college-age patients to leading group sessions on how to cope with past trauma with middle-aged patients, mental health counselors are trained to help people from all walks of life deal with a variety of issues. 

Does this career sound like a dream come true? If the answer is yes, you may be wondering how to become a mental health counselor or what jobs for masters in clinical mental health counseling may be available. In particular, you might be curious to know what kind of training you typically need and where you can receive it. 

In this guide, we’ll discuss the steps to becoming a clinical mental health counselor, including typical academic and professional mental health counselor requirements, as well as specific considerations to keep in mind as you pursue this career path. 

Step 1: Earn Your Degrees

It’s beneficial to begin your path toward mental health counseling by accumulating wide-ranging knowledge and experience in the mental health field, especially because a mental health counselor vs psychologist seem so similar. After all, when faced with a unique patient problem, it’s helpful to be familiar with diverse methodologies and best practices so that you can recommend effective treatment options. 

That’s why a systematic form of learning, such as a counselor education degree program, can be a smart step toward pursuing a career as a licensed professional counselor. Specifically, academic mental health counseling masters programs fall into the following categories: 

  • Bachelor’s – While an undergraduate degree in counseling psychology won’t make you eligible for a career as a licensed professional counselor just yet, it can function as a valuable testing ground for your interests, introducing you to various specializations for further graduate counselor education coursework.1 For example, an elective in Child Development may lead you to working with youths in school counseling in the future. 
  • Master’s – If you want to practice professionally as a licensed mental health counselor, a master’s degree is the standard qualification. Various states require you to earn a graduate degree in order to be eligible for a mental health counseling license.2 A master’s may include more specialized public health coursework, practical experience, and even a capstone project.
  • Doctorate – If you’ve fallen in love with research or are interested in applying deep research to your professional counseling practice, you may continue your education with a doctoral degree. These are split between PhDs, interested in teaching, research, and publishing, and PsyDs, interested in clinical practice.3

Step 2: Pick a State to Practice In

Once you’ve earned a master’s degree, you can start the process of earning your license. This usually requires proving to a board that you have the knowledge and practical expertise needed to work independently as a licensed counselor. Each state has its own unique professional counseling licensing requirements4, so it’s smart to determine where you want to work before applying for a license. 

Beyond a masters degree, most states also require the following in order to earn a license: 

  • Supervised clinical experience – Practical experience is an important part of getting apprentice counselors in front of a number of unexpected situations. Many states ask for internships under the guidance of a professional. For instance, California requires 3,000 professionally-supervised hours.5 These supervised internships can often be found through your clinical counseling program.
  • A passing national exam score – Earning your license also typically requires the passing of an exam—most commonly the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).6 

Step 3: Consider Your Interests and Preferences

After you’ve earned your license, you can legally practice as a licensed mental health counselor. However, before you start, it can be helpful to consider your interests and preferences as both a licensed counselor and a person. Knowing the situations and contexts in which you excel and feel most comfortable can help you provide the best quality service to your patients.

For instance, do you want to work in a large city or a rural area? Do you speak another language that would be useful in establishing your niche? These choices may impact the type of work you take on. As you pursue internships and practicums, pay attention to how the following factors affect you: 

  • Group size – While some mental health counselors lead group sessions in hospitals and are constantly meeting new people, others prefer working privately with familiar clients over the course of many years. If you find social interaction draining, larger group therapy may leave you feeling the strain. 
  • Specialization – Keep an eye out for which parts of counseling really speak to you. Are you passionate about a certain topic, such as substance abuse or domestic relationships? Perhaps you belong to a community you’d like to help, or maybe you work well with specific age groups, such as young adults transitioning into college. 
  • Institutional organization – You may be happy getting experience wherever it comes when you’re just starting out, but give some thought to the type of organization you’d like to permanently work for. Are you a self-starter who prefers the freedom of individual practice, or do you like the community of a bigger hospital?

Develop Your Passion for Counseling with Alliant

The road to becoming a clinical mental health counselor may require some time, but if you want to help individuals from all walks of life deal with their mental health issues, this career path may be the perfect fit. When you’re ready to get started, consider taking the first steps with Alliant through our MA in Clinical Counseling

Our extensive program can help you accumulate hands-on experience in the field and prepare you to receive your California Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) credentials.

Hone your clinical skills and pursue your future career with Alliant International University. 


  1. “How To Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor.” Indeed. September 15, 2021.…. Accessed February 14, 2022.  
  2. “What Are the Requirements to Become a Mental Health Counselor?” Social Work License Map. May, 2021.…. Accessed February 14, 2022.
  3.  “What’s the Difference Between a PsyD and a PhD?” Good Therapy. March 21, 2019.…. Accessed February 14, 2022.  
  4.  “How To Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor.” Indeed. September 15, 2021.…. Accessed February 14, 2022.  
  5.  “Licensure Requirements.” California Association for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors. 2022. Accessed February 14, 2022.  
  6.  “What Are the Requirements to Become a Mental Health Counselor?” Social Work License Map. May, 2021.…. Accessed February 14, 2022.  

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