Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counseling careers are built over time. Licensing requirements are met during graduate school and during the first few years of post-graduate practice. The foundation is often laid years before.

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The Undergraduate Years

The goals at the bachelor’s level are career exploration and preparation for graduate school. Graduate programs typically have one requirement: that the degree is earned through a regionally accredited university. A bachelor’s degree earned through a nationally accredited trade school is unlikely to meet graduate school standards. Some licensing agencies even mandate that undergraduate degrees be earned through regionally accredited schools. The course of study, though, is left up to the student.

There’s no one correct path, however, grades are important.

Some graduate programs prefer students who have a significant amount of social science coursework on their transcripts or even state a preference for those with degrees in psychology or other behavioral fields. There’s no one correct path, however. Grades are important. Some programs set the minimum GPA as high as 3.0, though they may accept exceptional candidates who have lower averages. Professional experience can weigh in a student’s favor. University-sponsored internships are one way to gain experience. They can also give students a more realistic picture of the helping professions.

Though the graduate school may set a few prerequisites, courses taken in undergraduate programs do not count toward licensure.

The Graduate School Years

Graduate programs, on the other hand, must meet specific requirements referenced in state administrative code. States may set general requirements for program quality as well as coursework. Generally, the safest bet is to select one that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Though the majority of states do not mandate that programs be CACREP-accredited, they often model standards after those of CACREP and may state that a non-accredited program needs to be equivalent. They differ in their policies regarding making up academic deficiencies post-master.

Generally, the safest bet is to select a Master’s program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Mental health counseling programs are 60 semester hours and include core counseling courses like career and lifestyle development as well as courses that are more specifically focused on mental disorders. Students begin to take on counseling roles at the graduate level. The first patient care experience generally comes in the form of practicum. Practicum experiences are generally at least 100 hours. Practicum is followed by an internship of at least 600 years. At this stage, counseling students take on more professional responsibility.

Some licensing agencies require candidates to submit multiple professional references. One letter may come from the intern supervisor.

Meeting Additional Requirements

Some students take the National Counselor Examination (NCE) before graduation. In some states, this is the sole examination required for licensure. Other states require the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), either singly or in combination with the NCE. There may also be a test of laws and rules. The timeframe for taking examinations is determined by the state.

After graduation, the individual can take a position providing mental health services but must work under approved supervision. In some cases, the new graduate will hold a counseling license, though a limited one.

The trainee will have a clinical supervisor; this is different from an administrative supervisor. The clinical supervisor generally has a dual purpose: to ensure that patients receive appropriate diagnoses and quality care and to guide the counselor’s professional development. The counselor typically meets with the supervisor on a weekly basis; meetings are credited as direct supervision. States set their own rules for supervision as well as practice. Some states require detailed evaluations at the end of the supervisory period and at regular intervals during the time that requirements are being met.

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