How Do I Become a Mental Health Counselor?

If you are a compassionate people-person with great listening skills, you might wonder how to become a mental health counselor. Mental health counselors help clients cope with mental or emotional disorders, challenges within personal relationships and life experiences. A mental health counselor may teach clients coping strategies for handling stressful feelings and situations.

Mental and emotional symptoms such as depression, anxiety, stress and suicidal thoughts and actions may indicate the need for mental health counseling. Mental health counselors also assist with coping with life changes such as loss of employment, divorce or separation, the death of a loved one or an emotionally traumatic experience. A mental health counselor may help individuals handle personal relationship difficulties in healthy ways. In addition to treating individual clients, mental health counselors may work with couples, families and groups.

Because mental health has such a large impact on overall health, mental health counselors work in various workplaces. Some mental health counselors work in inpatient or outpatient hospitals or substance abuse treatment centers, where they may help sick or injured patients and families or recovering drug or alcohol addicts, respectively. Others work in facilities dedicated to mental health care. Still others work with students at colleges or employees through a workplace’s employee assistance program. Mental health counselors also may choose to be self-employed in their own private practice.

Success as a mental health counselor requires excellent listening and speaking skills, a compassionate attitude and the ability to interact sincerely and effectively with others. A mental health counselor should be trustworthy if clients are to disclose personal and difficult emotions and life experiences to them. Mental health counseling begins with a thorough education. Students should first earn a bachelor’s degree that will help them succeed in a master’s-level counseling program. Both undergraduate and graduate courses may include studies in psychology and related fields, including how to identify and treat mental and emotional disorders through counseling. After earning an advanced degree, prospective counselors must complete as many as 2,000 to 4,000 hours of clinical counseling experience under the guidance of a licensed mental health counselor before they can become licensed themselves. To earn and maintain this license, mental health counselors must pass a state exam and complete continuing educational programs throughout their careers.

Mental health counselors earn a median salary of $38,150 per year, which is somewhat higher than the $33,840 median annual salary for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The government agency anticipates the field of mental health counseling to grow 36 percent during the 2010 through 2020 decade, much faster than the average job growth expected across all industries. For many mental health counselors, the real reward is the difference they make in the lives of clients. If you have a passion for listening others and helping them overcome their problems, knowing how to become a mental health counselor is the first step to a career where you can really make a difference.

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