wikiHow to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Three Methods:Getting Your EducationObtaining Your LicenseStarting Your Career

You've done some career exploration, and learned what mental health counselors do and how they help people. Now you’re thinking about becoming a licensed mental health counselor. With the right education and a license, you can do just that!

Method 1
Getting Your Education

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    Earn your bachelor’s degree. The first step in becoming a licensed mental health counselor is to obtain your bachelor’s degree.[1] Most likely your degree would be a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) in psychology or a related field.
    • Once accepted and in school, take opportunities to join student organizations and do research. These activities can give valuable experience and allow you to meet people for future networking and professional growth.
    • As part of the four year BA or BS program of study, you'll need to take upper-division credit hours in social sciences (psychology and sociology). Research methods and statistics can be helpful too, and may be required.
    • Do your best to keep your GPA up. Making good grades will make it much easier to get into graduate school.
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    Get your master’s degree. Obtaining a Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS) or equivalent degree is the next step in becoming a licensed mental health counselor.[2] Some states require that the degree program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.[3] Check with your state licensing board to determine what their requirements are.
    • Take the Graduate Record Exam. This test measures your critical thinking skills and is required in order to be admitted into graduate school.[4] Study for it well in advance, but don’t worry if you have to take it more than once. Many people do.[5]
    • Many programs have a multi-part application process. It often includes submitting essays, undergraduate records, letters of recommendation, and an interview process. Begin the process early so you have enough time to complete the process and meet all deadlines.
    • Make the most of opportunities to participate in research and in student and national organizations in the field of mental health counseling like the American Mental Health Counselors Association.[6]
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    Take advantage of internships. Internships give you supervised counseling experience and are required as part of many graduate programs in counseling.[7]
    • Use the opportunity to apply what you learn in your classes in real-world settings.
    • Take the chance to form relationships and possibly find someone established in the field to mentor you.
    • Most internships are unpaid positions, although some do offer a small stipend or other ‘perks’.
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    Think about earning your doctorate. Some licensed mental health counselors go on to earn their PhD in order to make themselves more marketable and to gain more experience and knowledge.[8]
    • Some people begin practicing mental health counseling while they are pursuing their doctoral degree.
    • Use resources like the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine if the additional years of school are worth the increase in income.
    • Earning your doctorate is optional. There are many successful licensed mental health counselors who do not have a PhD.

Method 2
Obtaining Your License

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    Complete post-masters clinical work. Once you have your graduate degree you will need to complete two years of supervised work experience for licensure requirements.[9] This is sometimes called an internship (like in graduate school), a residency, or clinical experience.
    • You will work under the supervision of a licensed mental health counselor performing assessments, providing counseling services, and other related activities.
    • You will have the chance to learn more about and gain experience providing marriage and family counseling, grief counseling, psychotherapy, or other types of counseling.
    • Post-degree clinical residencies generally provide you with about 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.[10]
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    Take the state licensure test. After you complete your post-degree clinical work, you will need to pass your state’s licensure exam. Your license gives you permission to offer mental health counseling services in that particular state.
    • Check with the licensing board in your state to determine when the test is offered, how much it costs, and what the specific requirements are for taking it.[11]
    • Prepare for the exam in advance by reviewing course material from your graduate program, participating in a exam preparation program, or joining a study group.
    • Don't get too anxious! Not everyone passes the exam the first time. You can always take it again.
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    Consider national certification. Many licensed mental health counselors become nationally certified by the National Board of Certified Counselors in order to demonstrate to the public and state licensing boards that they have met national standards for mental health counseling.[12]
    • Having national certification might make it easier for you to get state licensure and could possibly increase the amount of money you will make.
    • Your certification is valid throughout the country, whereas state licenses are usually only valid in the issuing state.
    • The certification exam is the same as for state licensure, however, additional supervision hours are required in order to become nationally certified.[13]

Method 3
Starting Your Career

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    Determine your specialty. Because mental health counseling covers a range of areas (like marriage and family counseling, psychotherapy, or substance abuse treatment) you will need to decide exactly which area or areas you want to specialize in.[14]
    • Some careers require additional training or experience in that area before you can begin practicing.
    • Think about things like what setting you want to work in (a hospital, clinic, treatment center, etc.) and the types of clients you want to help.
    • Take some time researching the area you are interested in to determine what the requirements are, how much you will make, and where you can practice (for example, private practice, in a counseling center, etc.)
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    There are many different ways you can begin your counseling career. You may want to start your own independent practice, join an existing practice, work for a non-profit organization, or even a government agency.[15] Think about the pros and cons of starting your career in each setting.
    • If benefits and security are important to you, you may want to join a practice or work for an agency.
    • Consider joining an existing practice to gain experience and then opening your own practice.
    • Research all of your options on sites the U.S. Department of Labor.
    • Think about issues like liability and the opportunity to select your own clients rather than have them assigned to you.
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    Apply for a position. The final thing you need to do to become a licensed mental health counselor is to apply for a job (and get it) or open your own practice.
    • Use the relationships and connections you made during graduate school and your residency to find out about job opportunities in your area.
    • Search job boards and sites like LinkedIn to learn about mental health counseling positions that are available.
    • Remember that you might not get the first position you apply for. Don’t let it discourage you, just keep submitting your resume to agencies and centers and you will obtain a position.


  • Try to decide where you want to live after graduation, and research that state's counseling licensure requirements. Some states have equivalency, and others require an exam.
  • Many other roads to this destination are available--registered nurses, social workers and chemical dependency counselors can perform some of the same job functions as a mental health counselor.
  • Mental health counseling is a growing field.
  • Investigate pay levels in your area as part of your decision to enter this field, and decide if the trade-off of rewarding work versus little financial reward is worth it for you.
  • Take mental health-related classes in high school, so you can see if you actually enjoy the field.

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Categories: Health Care