What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Mental Health Counselor?

If you’re a compassionate person and a good listener, a career as a mental health counselor will allow you to make a living by helping other people deal with issues in their lives. First, you will need a master’s degree and a license.

The Work of a Mental Health Counselor

Similar to a marriage and family therapist, a mental health counselor is a professional in the field of community and social service who help clients cope with problems. Mental health counselors help clients with a broader array of challenges, including:

  • Anxiety, depression and other mental and emotional disorders
  • Life changes, like layoffs and divorces
  • Grief that follows a loss or death
  • Relationship problems
  • Making decisions that affect the future
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Managing stress
  • Changing behavior

Mental health counselors work with individuals and groups. They listen carefully and compassionately to what their clients have to say and encourage them to open up and share their problems. They help clients understand their problems and cultivate the skills and techniques necessary to cope with them effectively, often through a type of counseling called cognitive behavior therapy.

A Master’s Degree in Counseling

If mental health counselor sounds like the career for you, be prepared to earn an advanced degree. Aspiring mental health counselors can choose from degree programs in social work, psychology, and – perhaps the most popular – counseling, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Master’s-level programs in counseling teach students effective counseling strategies and how to use them in their work with clients. These programs also train students to identify symptoms that could indicate that their clients are suffering from mental and emotional disorders. For students who need flexibility, some schools offer distance learning counseling programs. In fact, the online master’s degree in counseling happens to be among the 50 best online degree programs.

Before graduates of counseling programs can attain a license and begin legally practicing as mental health counselors themselves, they need to gain real-world counseling experience under the guidance of licensed professionals. Licensure requirements vary from one state to another, but they typically call for 2,000 to 4,000 hours of experience working with individuals, families and groups. Candidates must also earn a passing grade on a state exam before they can officially become licensed mental health counselors.

Mental health counselors earn a median salary of $40,080 per year, the BLS reported. They currently enjoy a highly positive job outlook. Opportunities in this career field are growing at a rate that’s much faster than average, with the BLS expecting a 29 percent increase in mental health counselor jobs over just a decade compared. Most mental health counselors enjoy the fulfilling nature of helping clients. Factors like the job outlook, rewarding work and the opportunity to work for oneself led U.S. News & World Report to rank mental health counselor 33rd on its list of the best health care jobs and 72nd on its 100 Best Jobs list.

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