How to Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor

Helping others to become their best selves is the highest aim of many. The human mind is a tricky place, though, and many people aren’t sure how to do that: How can you help someone past the trauma of childhood? How can you guide them toward different thinking? How can you save them from the mental mire caused by current wreckage or trauma, save a marriage, change patterns, or even just help someone achieve career or aesthetic goals?

These are the questions that clinical mental health counselors ask every day. It’s not necessarily an easy field, but it’s most certainly a rewarding one … especially once you start to see those positive outcomes you’ve dreamed of. A good counselor can make a huge difference in the lives of their patients, but only once you start practicing, of course.

If you’re considering becoming one, then it’s important you know how to get your practice going. That starts with education, then continues with apprenticeship, licensing, continuing education and more.

Let’s take a look at how to become a clinical mental health counselor today.

What Is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

First, a definition or two. According to Northwestern University, it’s not always easy to figure out what psychology program to choose, especially because “oftentimes students are faced with the choice between clinical mental health counseling and counseling psychology. The line between the two professions appears to be blurred, making it difficult to determine the differences between clinical mental health counseling graduates and counseling psychology graduates.”

Overall, though, you can think of it like this: “it could be said that counseling programs treat mental health disorders from a strength-based and development emphasis while counseling psychology programs emphasis is on the medical model.”

In other words, mental health counseling is all about how the practice of actually using mental models and methodologies to treat patients and achieve positive outcomes, whereas counseling psychology is a more medicine-based and sometimes a more academic approach. Therefore, if you want to treat patients with a straightforward and talk-based approach, you’re in the right place.

What Does a Clinical Mental Health Counselor Do?

According to Verywell, “A mental health counselor is a professional who utilizes a variety of psychotherapy methods and techniques to help people experiencing psychological distress.” Psychotherapy is in turn defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a way to help people with a broad variety of mental illnesses and emotional difficulties. Psychotherapy can help eliminate or control troubling symptoms so a person can function better and can increase well-being and healing.”

Problems that clinical mental health counselors might help with include helping people cope with the death of a loved one, the impact of trauma, mental illness, specific mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, difficult work or relationship situations, substance abuse and addiction, or just the rigors of daily life.

In any given day, therefore, a clinical mental health counselor might be doing any of the following:

  • Assessment and diagnosis of mental health issues
  • Prescribing appropriate techniques for dealing with mental, social or emotional issues
  • Creating and implementing interventions and treatment plans
  • Using a variety of types of psychotherapy to help their patients resolve issues
  • Managing mental health crises
  • Reviewing current treatment plans to ensure they’re still effective
  • Working with educational and medical teams to make well-rounded plans for patients
  • Networking with community programs and finding resources for patients
  • Engaging with and educating family members

Unfortunately, while it might be useful in some cases, clinical mental health counselors are not able to prescribe medications to their patients. That is the purview of psychiatrists and psychopharmacologists, so in this position you would need to refer out to other professionals for chemical intervention.

How Do You Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

There are a number of different routes to this job. In some states, you can work as a clinical mental health counselor with a master’s degree, while in others you have to have a doctorate in order to do so. The important aspect of this role to note is the “clinical” part, which means that you will be interacting with patients on a medical and science-based basis every day. That makes it important that you have a high level of training in order to serve them the best way you can.

If you want to achieve the gold standard, it’s best to get a doctoral degree. That means either a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), both of which will set you up well to work with all populations in all places. However, depending on your jurisdiction, a master’s degree might be enough, and you may wish to start there in order to test the waters and avoid student loans where possible.

The other route to becoming a clinical mental health counselor is to enroll in a specifically counseling-oriented program. There are master’s and doctoral programs in counseling available across the country, although they are less numerous than psychology programs. Research the ones in your area here to learn more about what’s available and what the pros and cons are of each. Briefly, here are the main differences between the two:

  • Psychology programs focus more on research and academia. If you want to focus on studies, articles and cutting-edge techniques, a psychology program could be better.
  • Counseling programs focus more on interacting with and helping people. If your calling is to work directly with individuals as often as possible, then a counseling program might be better.

You will also need to pass the licensing exam. If your program was in psychology, this is the EPPP. For counselors, depending on the state in which you want to practice and the program through which you earned your degree, it might be different. The best bet is to ask your program coordinator which degree you should take upon graduation, the better to prepare for it.

What Is the Job Outlook for a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

Although this job does not have its own designation from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the BLS estimates that clinical psychologists can expect to make on average $76,990 in the middle of their careers. With time in the field, the top performers can make $129,310 or more. If you like the work and stay in the role for a decade or more, you can easily expect to make six figures.

If you’re interested in this role, it’s time to learn more today. Don’t hesitate to reach out to ask us questions or start your school research now. There’s no time like the present to achieve your dreams, so get started!

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Ann Steele, Ph.D.

Ann Steele, Ph.D.

Editor-In-Chief

Ann Steele, Ph.D., is Editor-In-Chief of PsydPrograms.org. Ann has training as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who has worked with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens throughout San Diego county.