How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Reviewed by Dr. Elizabeth Brokamp, PhD, LPC, ACS, NCC, BC-TMH
Assistant Professor and Counseling Program Director, Gwynedd Mercy University


Interested in making a lasting difference in the lives of other people? Choosing a career as a mental health counselor will allow you to devote your professional life to helping others dealing with mental health issues. You can work with diverse populations or offer specialized therapy to a specific population, such as the elderly, disabled, military personnel, adolescents, or children.

 If you are considering becoming a mental health counselor, this article can help answer the following questions:

●    What Is a Mental Health Counselor?
●    What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?
●    Skills Needed to Become a Mental Health Counselor
●    Steps to Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

If you would like more information on becoming a mental health counselor or are interested in the online Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program offered by Gwynedd Mercy University, you can visit this link or call 844-707-9064 to request more information. 

What Is a Mental Health Counselor?

A mental health counselor is a licensed professional who uses psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and other psychological treatment models to provide care for clients with emotional and behavioral issues. They typically see clients on a recurring basis to help with ongoing issues. Counselors may work in teams with other health professionals to provide comprehensive care to a client in need.

An important distinction to remember is that mental health counselors are not psychiatrists; they cannot prescribe medication to their clients.

Mental health counselors work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Mental health clinics
  • Private practices
  • Community health centers
  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Government agencies
  • Correctional facilities
  • Businesses
  • Colleges and universities
  • Social service agencies

Depending on the state where they practice, mental health counselors may be referred to as licensed professional counselors (LPCs) or licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs).


What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

Mental health counselors help their clients by diagnosing and treating various mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Counselors may also see clients who do not have a specific diagnosed disorder but need assistance navigating challenges. These may include anger management issues, bullying, grief, self-esteem, relationships, chronic stress, and other issues.

Counselors tend to view individual needs within a humanistic context. Instead of concentrating on dysfunction, counselors often see problems as being rooted in normal reactions to developmental changes or difficulty dealing with specific life stages.

Responsibilities of mental health counselors include, but are not limited to:

●    Diagnosing and assisting clients experiencing symptoms of psychological distress
●    Working with clients to set goals and develop a treatment plan
●    Helping clients learn new skills and coping abilities
●    Providing psychotherapy to clients
●    Conducting a dialogue with clients about their experiences, emotions, and thoughts
●    Leading group sessions with clients and their loved ones
●    Working with clients to identify situations, behaviors, and beliefs that interfere with their wellness and recovery goals
●    Examining social issues that may influence a client's mental well-being, including peer pressure, substance use, bullying, prejudice, work-related stress, financial challenges, and health concerns
●    Referring clients to other health professionals or additional resources in the community, such as social services providers, job services, and support groups

Skills Needed to Become a Mental Health Counselor

The most successful mental health counselors typically possess the following qualities: 

  • Compassion
    Counselors work with people who are coping with life-altering issues. The ability to empathize with clients allows counselors to understand how they feel and better aid them in accomplishing their goals.

  • Communication
    A great majority of counseling requires clear communication between the counselor and their clients. Counselors need to be able to educate clients about the treatment process, explain their suggestions, and understand verbal and non-verbal communication. 
  • Active listening
    Listening skills aid counselors in understanding their clients' problems, concerns, and values. Being a good listener encourages clients to open up and share their thoughts and emotions. Counselors must understand what to listen for and how to identify what information isn't being said.
  • Problem-solving
    Counselors combine communication and active listening to make diagnoses, implement therapy models, and conduct research with clients. Counselors must be able to work through complicated issues and pick up on subtle cues to be able to help their clients solve problems in their own lives or with others in their lives.
  • Stress management skills
    Helping others deal with their issues is satisfying work, but it can take an emotional toll. Counselors need to have the ability to recognize when they need to practice self-care.

Steps to Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

Becoming a mental health counselor starts with building a solid foundation of education, gaining practical experience in the field and passing your state's required exams. The process typically looks something like this:

Step 1: Complete a bachelor's degree in a behavioral, social science or psychology-related field.

Your bachelor's degree, such as GMercyU's undergraduate Psychology BA or BS degree, will introduce you to key concepts in psychology, human development, counseling techniques, and assessment methods.

Step 2: Earn a master's degree in mental health counseling.

Earning your graduate degree from an accredited university like Gwynedd Mercy University will allow you to dive deep into counseling theories, research methodology, and the psychology of human development while preparing you for a career as a mental health counselor. Obtaining your graduate degree in mental health counseling is a requirement for practice as a licensed professional mental health counselor.

Step 3: Complete graduate and postgraduate internship experience for certification/licensure requirements.

Internships allow you to apply what you've learned in your classes to real-world scenarios and hone the skills you'll need as an accredited counselor. Internships are completed under the supervision of licensed professional counselors.

Step 4: Pass any required counseling exams for licensure.

Requirements for licensure can vary state by state. Some states and/or counseling programs require the passing of a recognized examination for graduation or licensure, such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and/or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Certain states have additional requirements for licensure. Completing the licensure requirements in one state might not be satisfactory for another, so be sure you check with your state’s licensing board to ensure the master’s program you are interested in meets their requirements.

Step 5: Apply for and earn additional mental health certifications.

Once you've achieved your credentials, you can continue your education and by choosing a specialization and completing additional certifications in grief, pastoral, school-based mental health counseling, or other mental health challenges, concerns, or disorders. In addition, licensed professional counselors can pursue national certification through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC).

Step 6: Continue your education and stay current on mental health counseling trends and changes.

Continuing education is crucial to maintaining professional counseling licensure. The best counselors are lifelong learners who are always looking for new ways to improve their craft and better serve their clients.

Start a Career in Counseling with GMercyU!

We hope this article answered your questions about pursuing a career as a mental health counselor. If you have more questions or are interested in taking the next steps in your professional journey by earning your online Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, don't hesitate to reach out by visiting this link or by calling 844-707-9064 to request more information.

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