Mental health is a critical (yet often neglected) aspect of healthcare. Despite social stigma, it’s incredibly important to care for one’s mental health. As a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), you can provide care and guidance to help patients do just that.

Here is a look at what counselors do, as well as the key steps involved in becoming one, so that you will have a better idea of whether or not it is a good potential career for you.

What is Counseling?

A counselor is a mental health professional who is concerned with a client’s mental health. Their primary goal is to help people maintain quality (and healthy) mental wellbeing. Counselors can play a variety of different roles and work in a multitude of settings, such as private practices, community settings, the legal system, and even long- or short-term care facilities.

Often, a counselor’s exact role is shaped by the environment in which they work, so counselors can play very different roles in different settings.

If you’re planning to pursue a career in counseling, you’ll need to consider the type of counseling you want to specialize in. For example, consider what type of setting you’re most interested in, the things that you feel drawn to, and why you’re interested in counseling to begin with. Do not worry, though; many people develop their interests within counseling during their time in their graduate programs.

What Does a Licensed Mental Health Counselor Do?

So what exactly does a counselor do? It depends on the specific role you pursue. Often, someone interested in becoming a counselor considers becoming a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC).

LMHCs work with clients to improve their mental wellbeing and quality of life, which can involve a variety of different forms of therapy and interventions. They’re usually focused on helping an individual deal with typical stresses of everyday life, such as:

  • Work/school stress
  • Relationship issues
  • Drug/alcohol addiction
  • Anxiety, depression, grief, etc.

On the other hand, LMHCs working specifically in a school counseling, college counseling, or career counseling setting are likely to have roles more focused on those topic areas.

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How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

1. Earn a Related Bachelor’s Degree.

To become a counselor, you will need to earn a master’s degree, which, of course, first requires a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Although it’s not required, many individuals who know they would like to pursue a career in counseling choose to earn an undergraduate degree in psychology. Other potential undergraduate degrees you may consider include education, human services, social work, or early childhood development.

2. Earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling.

Next, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree. To become a licensed counselor, you’ll have to complete 60 credits of coursework in your master’s degree program.

It’s important to note that some programs are only 48-credit degrees, which does not meet the 60-credit requirement in order to become a licensed counselor. If you earn a degree from a 48-credit program, you’ll still need to earn an extra 12 credits elsewhere before you complete the educational requirements for licensure.

Keep this in mind when you’re choosing your master’s program.

3. Complete Pre-Master’s Field Experience.

During your master's program, most states require you to have 100 hours of practicum experience, as well as 600 hours of internship experience providing mental health counseling, usually in a supervised, clinical setting. These minimum required hours can vary by state.

Your field and internship experience will help you build initial counseling and clinical skills, where you’ll act in a clinical role under the supervision of a clinician.

4. Complete Post-Master’s Field Experience.

Once you’ve completed your master's degree program, you’ll still need to complete additional field experience, which, on average, takes two years of full-time, supervised work.

In Massachusetts, the requirement is 3,360 supervised hours of post-master’s fieldwork, and this is a common benchmark used across the country. Of those hours, a minimum of 960 hours will consist of direct work with clients (up to a maximum of 350 hours of group counseling), and at least 130 hours of supervision.

You’ll have eight years (from the time you graduate) to complete this requirement.

5. Take and Pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) Licensing Board Examination.

Next, you’ll need to take and pass the NCMHCE licensing board exam. The NCMHCE is administered in April and October of each year, and you can take the exam on a computer at over 900 testing centers throughout the United States, Monday through Saturday.

You can take the exam at any point after graduating with your master’s degree, but your score will expire after five years—unless you hold a license from another state.

6. Apply for your license.

Finally, after passing your NCMHCE exam, you’ll apply for your counselor license. Guidelines will vary by state, so it is important to check the requirements for the states in which you wish to practice.

In the state of Massachusetts, for example, you need to submit an application to the Board of Registration of Allied Mental Health and Human Services Professions that includes:

  • An ID photograph of yourself
  • Your official transcripts
  • Documentation of pre- and post-master’s field experience
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Proof of passing the licensing exam
  • Criminal background check

Advancing Your Career

Working as a mental health counselor can be an extremely rewarding career choice. Besides selecting an elite master’s program to earn the right experience, and, eventually obtaining your license, you’ll need to maintain your skills and continue your professional development.

To take your career to the next level, you’ll earn 30 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) every two years, which are earned by attending workshops, presentations, or credit-bearing courses. These help keep your skills sharp and further your career, helping patients maintain a high quality of life.

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