How to Become a Mental Health Counselor: Education and Licensure Requirements

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor-Education and Licensure Requirements

Are you interested in a career helping others deal with personal issues like stress or grief? Do you want to teach people healthy ways to cope with addiction or mental illness? If so, you may want to consider becoming a mental health counselor. The counseling industry is expanding quickly as more and more people seek the help of trained mental health professionals. This guide will explain the mental health counselor education requirements and licensure requirements for those interested in exploring this in-demand career, as well as give insight into the many paths this career can take.

There are some common steps to follow to become a licensed mental health counselor:

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree program.
  2. Earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling or a related field.
  3. Pass the required exams for counseling licensure.
  4. Apply for a temporary license.
  5. Complete postgraduate clinical hour requirements.
  6. Apply for your independent practice license.
  7. Consider earning additional mental health certifications.
  8. Meet any continuing education requirements to maintain licensure.

8 Important Steps to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor

1. Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program

All U.S. states require the completion of a graduate degree in order to become a licensed mental health counselor, and a bachelor’s degree is required for admission to graduate degree programs. Schools offering mental health counseling graduate degree programs might request or prefer applicants to complete a BA or BS in a related field, such as psychology or sociology. However, the Family Institute at Northwestern University encourages individuals with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field to apply to their Bridge to Counseling Program

Before applying for a license, students must complete a master’s degree in mental health counseling or a related field  in order to meet education requirements. If you hold a bachelor’s in psychology, child development and family studies, social work, sociology, or another counseling-related field, you most likely qualify for the online master’s in counseling Standard Program from Northwestern. If you hold a bachelor’s degree in another field, you may apply to Northwestern’s Bridge to Counseling Program. 

Most counseling programs incorporate some form of fieldwork to expose students to the day-to-day tasks of a licensed mental health counselor. Counseling@Northwestern facilitates Practicum and Internship placements for their students. The school’s field specialists identify suitable options for students, and each student completes 200 hours total (10 to 15 hours per week) of hands-on work with clients in Practicum and 600 hours of advanced work in Internship. Under the supervision of a professional or faculty member, interns work directly with clients in a clinical setting. 

Some states only recognize degrees from schools and programs that have been accredited by specific industry boards, such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). The online Counseling@Northwestern master’s degree is accredited by CACREP. Be sure to check with your state board on their requirements.

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Northwestern University’s CACREP-accredited online MA in Counseling has options for applicants who do not have a BA in a related field. Request more information to find out how to apply.

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3. Pass the Required Exams for Counseling Licensure

Every state  licensing board requires applicants to pass at least one exam proving their capabilities and knowledge before their counseling license can be issued. License applicants will typically take the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) and/or the National Counselor Examination (NCE). CACREP approves and provides accreditation to programs, like Counseling@Northwestern, that specifically prepare students to be able to sit for these exams.

4. Apply for a Temporary License

States typically require graduates to apply for a temporary (or provisional) license, which can be obtained after completing a graduate degree program, passing the appropriate exams, and meeting other state-specific requirements. A temporary license lets aspiring professionals fulfill clinical hour requirements under the supervision of a licensed professional.

5. Complete Postgraduate Clinical Hour Requirements

Every state requires license applicants to accrue clinical hours before applying for an independent practice license. However, the specific requirements (minimum hours, location, time frame, etc.) vary state by state. Students should check with their local licensing board for exact guidelines. 

6.  Apply for your Independent Practice License

In order to practice as a mental health counselor, you will need to apply for an independent practice license in the state of your choice. Requirements to apply for state licensure vary, so be sure to check with your state board.

7. Consider Earning Additional Mental Health Certifications

Those considering becoming mental health counselors might want to earn additional credentials beyond a master’s in counseling, especially if they want further training in specific fields like addiction counseling or child counseling. These certifications may be required in your locality to work with certain populations. Even when extra certifications are not required, they may boost your resume by demonstrating your training and expertise. Additional certifications can be earned at any point in your career as a mental health counselor, and they may also count toward continuing education requirements.

8. Meet Continuing Education Requirements to Maintain Licensure

Licenses must be renewed every few years, though the exact time frame varies by state. A condition of license renewal is the completion of further training, or continuing education (CE), in mental health treatment. The number of hours that must be completed is different for every state and may change depending on whether the license-holder has renewed before or is renewing for the first time. In Illinois, for example, licensed professional counselors must complete 30 hours of CE

All CE must come from approved providers such as the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), the American Counseling Association (ACA), and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

The Family Institute faculty member Jinah J. Rordam, PhD, NCC, ACS gives this advice to students thinking about becoming mental health counselors:

“Start with personal reflections about your motivation to become a counselor—examine and explore your intentions, thoughts, and feelings about relating to others. Preparing to become a counselor requires individuals to reflect on and explore their values, beliefs, and biases. Creating this kind of awareness about oneself is an activity that can illuminate and clarify the reasons why someone should pursue or not pursue a career as a mental health counselor.”

—Jinah J. Rordam, PhD, NCC, ACS

How Northwestern University Can Help Prepare You to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Counseling@Northwestern prepares students for both the rigorous licensing process and the important work of a mental health counselor. With live classes taught online and clinical field placements sourced and vetted by Northwestern faculty, students graduate ready to begin their careers in various locations. The online counseling program at Northwestern is CACREP-accredited (a requirement for licensure in several states) and is open to students who have a bachelor’s degree in any field, not just psychology. 

The Standard Program, available for students with some clinical experience or a BA in psychology or related field, can be completed in an accelerated (six quarters) or part-time (12 quarters) format as well as the traditional (nine quarters) time frame. The Bridge to Counseling Program includes all the same work as the Standard Program, with the addition of a three-course quarter in introductory concepts prior to beginning the Standard Program coursework. Students can choose to specialize in child or adolescent counseling. Coursework includes studies in human sexuality, psychopharmacology, cognitive behavioral therapy, and more. 

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Eager to get started with your MA in Counseling online? Find out how you can apply.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

How long does it take to become a mental health counselor?

After earning a bachelor’s degree, it generally takes 4 to 6 years to become a mental health counselor. This time frame includes the completion of a graduate degree, clinical hours, and exams required before becoming independently licensed. 

Is an online master’s in mental health counseling a good option?

The online master’s in counseling program at Northwestern has all the rigor of the on-campus curriculum combined with the ease and flexibility to learn from home. The in-person course requirements are the Practicum and Internship, which Northwestern faculty help students secure, and two immersions that take place in Illinois. The accreditation from CACREP means Counseling@Northwestern graduates are well-prepared to apply for licensure in most states.

What do mental health counselors do?

What is mental health counseling—and what does a mental health counselor do on a day-to-day basis? 

Mental health counselors are a broad group of trained professionals who help others deal with life-changing issues or make difficult choices in a healthy way. Counselors can work with others in relationship counseling, career counseling, addiction treatment, or mental health treatment. By working directly with clients, counselors can provide them with strategies for mitigating stress and coping with situations. Mental health counselors support lifestyle changes and generally help improve lives. 

Although the primary licensure outcome of the online master’s in counseling from Northwestern is to become a mental health counselor, graduates can pursue other career paths. Some have gone on to work in schools as career counselors, as well as in nonprofits, hospitals, or government agencies as program directors or clinical directors. 

What are the requirements for becoming an LPC or LCPC in the state of Illinois?

Those seeking to become a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in Illinois must apply for licensure through the state’s Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Requirements for LPC licensure in Illinois include completing a graduate degree program in counseling at a school recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, obtaining supervised experience in a clinical counseling setting, and receiving a passing score on the National Counselor Examination (NCE), among other requirements. The next step is for LPCs to receive supervised practice under a licensed mental health professional and pass the NCMHCE. Finally, once the required post-LPC supervised hours have been met and a passing score on the NCMHCE is achieved, the LPC can apply to practice independently (LCPC).

What is the career and salary outlook for mental health counselors?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of mental health counselors is projected to grow 23 percent from 2020 to 2030. Systemic changes in criminal justice, such as redirecting drug law offenders to treatment instead of prison, and increased awareness of mental health conditions are fueling this growth. 

You may be wondering: How much does a mental health counselor make? With their skills in demand, the median annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $48,520 in 2021. But this salary can go up or down depending on location and experience level. Nationally, the highest-paid 10 percent of mental health counselors earn upward of $77,980. Counselors working for government agencies tend to earn higher median salaries than counselors in hospitals or private practice.

Summing Up: Should You Become a Mental Health Counselor?

If you are looking for a career in a fast-growing industry that lets you help people, becoming a mental health counselor may be the right choice for you. Northwestern supports students of all ages and backgrounds who come to that decision in their own time. Unlike some other schools, Northwestern does not require students to hold a bachelor’s degree in a counseling-related field before starting the MA in Counseling. With the same academic rigor and  accreditation as the on-campus program, the online Counseling@Northwestern program is a great option for students who want the opportunity to study without having to relocate or leave their homes.

Contact Northwestern University

Northwestern University’s CACREP-accredited online MA in Counseling has options for applicants who do not have a BA in a counseling-related field. Request more information to find out how to apply.

Request Information

Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the online Master of Arts in Counseling program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.