There are few careers that offer you the chance to dramatically improve the quality of clients’ mental health quite so much as becoming a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC).
Of course, becoming a licensed counselor is no easy feat, and, in return, they typically earn higher salaries and benefits—the average salary is $72,530 per year—while also bringing about real change in the lives of their clients. This makes counseling both an incredibly rewarding and stable career.
So, how do you become a licensed counselor? Below, we’ll cover the exact steps you need to take to earn your LMHC license and cover the requirements to work as a licensed counselor in the state of Massachusetts.
The first step to becoming a licensed counselor in any state is to earn your bachelor’s degree. Because a graduate education is required to attain licensure, all LMHCs must hold an undergraduate degree as a prerequisite to enroll in a qualifying master’s degree program.
While there is no set requirement when it comes to your BA area of study, choosing to major in psychology, education, behavioral science, social work, or a related field is incredibly useful, as you’ll learn about human behavior and the foundational materials for learning to address concerns.
Once you’ve earned your BA, you’ll need to complete a master’s program in mental health counseling or a related field, which can take approximately two years to earn if you study full-time.
Some common areas of study include counseling, clinical psychology, counselor education, and rehabilitation counseling.
During your master’s program, you need to complete 60 credits. However, not all master’s programs are created equal. Some only require students to earn 48 credits, but in order to be licensed, you are required to earn 60.
Should you complete a 48-credit program, you’ll still need to earn 12 additional credits elsewhere in order to meet the educational requirements to sit for the licensure exam.
While the 60-credit curriculum is required in most states, master’s programs may vary. When choosing a program, you should ensure that the credits you earn fulfill the requirements of the state in which you wish to work.
In the state of Massachusetts, for example, certain courses are required to fulfill your 60-credit curriculum, which consist of courses covering social and cultural foundations, counseling theories, ethical and legal issues, mental health across the lifespan, and courses in treating special populations, to name a few.
No matter what program you choose to complete, check your state’s requirements beforehand and ensure that the program you are considering meets that state’s specific requirements.
Your master’s program will prepare you intellectually, but completing fieldwork provides you with real-world, hands-on client experience.
During your master's program, most states will require that you complete 100 hours of practicum experience and 600 hours of internship experience. Of the 100 hours of practicum experience, 40 are direct client contact, lab, or peer role play experiences. Other hours can consist of supervisory contact hours both in a group and individually.
Your internship will provide you with direct client contact at a clinical field experience site.
With this in mind, as you evaluate master’s degree programs, it’s important to get a sense of the types of field experience that the program can help you complete. Most universities have relationships with local employers which often serve as the setting where students will gain this experience. Speak to a member of the faculty to understand where previous students have interned, and what opportunities are available to you which align with your unique goals.
Becoming a top-of-the-line counselor doesn’t stop with a degree, though, as licensure requires additional field experience post earning your master’s degree and completing your pre-master’s fieldwork.
In Massachusetts, licensed counselors must complete 3,360 supervised hours of supervised post-master’s fieldwork, and this is a common benchmark used across the country. During this time, you’ll work face-to-face with clients for individual, family, group, or couple’s counseling.
Upon successfully completing your post-master’s field experience, you can now apply to take (and pass) the NCMHCE, which is administered in April and October of each year.
Your program and field experience should prepare you to pass your exam, so make sure you work with your professors and supervisors to get the information you need to prepare. Additionally, there are online resources and prep materials you can use to study.
The Massachusetts Mental Health Counselors Association has the most accurate and up-to-date information on the exam and even offers its own paid exam prep workshops.
You may take the exam any time after graduating with your master’s degree, but your scores expire after five years—meaning you would need to retake the exam to apply for licensure should you let your scores expire before submitting your documentation to the licensure board.
Finally, you’ll apply for your counseling license. Guidelines and requirements vary by state, so it is important to check the requirements for the states in which you wish to practice.
For those planning to work as an LMHC in Massachusetts, you need to submit an application to the Board of Registration of Allied Mental Health and Human Services Professions that includes:
Once you’ve earned your license, you can then practice in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under your own license. Remember, though, that you’ll need to earn 30 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) every two years—which are earned by attending workshops, presentations, or credit-bearing courses—in order to renew your license and to keep your skills sharp and further your career.
It’s never too early to take steps toward acquiring a fulfilling career as a counselor, and doing so always begins with looking for the educational program that best suits your needs.
In choosing a degree, look for a program that has a curriculum that fulfills the requirements in the state in which you wish to work and offers electives that align with your areas of interest.