How To Become A Counselor

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated June 6, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

If you are interested in helping people who are navigating difficult life situations or who want to improve their mental health, a career in counseling may be a great option for you. There are many different types of counseling and many different counseling degree programs available, so it can be confusing sometimes to figure out how to become a counselor. 

This article will delve into the various counseling education programs available to those seeking to work as a licensed counselor. We will also discuss the job outlook and potential coping strategies for mental health professionals specializing in substance abuse or behavioral disorders. 

A career helping others can be both rewarding and exhausting

How to become a mental health counselor

In order to become a licensed counselor, one usually needs to have at least a master's degree in counseling, as bachelor's degree programs may not be sufficient. Some counselors also complete doctoral programs.

Professional counselors, who can treat mental health disorders and work in many different settings, must complete a master’s degree program in mental health counseling, counseling psychology, or clinical mental health counseling. 

It's important to do research and find out the precise program criteria and certifications required as some degree programs have different names or descriptions that could not instantly imply how to become a psychotherapist. Counseling psychology, for instance, differs from marriage and family counseling, and counseling programs for forensic psychology, behavioral psychology, and other specific areas of psychology also diverge from a general degree in counseling. Rehabilitation counselors, substance abuse counseling, college counseling, and career counseling are still more options if you’re interested in becoming some form of counseling professional. However, clinical social workers usually fall into a different category altogether.

Thoroughly researching counselor education programs is crucial before committing to a particular field or graduate degree. Not all programs are equal, and aspiring counselors must ensure that they select a program that aligns with their goals, whether they seek to specialize in mental health or substance abuse behavioral disorder. Be sure to seek out an accredited program that involves supervised clinical experience, and keep in mind that you’ll generally need to complete continuing education and professional development even after becoming a licensed mental health professional. In some cases, you may be able to complete online counseling programs or graduate programs. To become properly accredited, you’ll need to obtain licensure before moving forward with this fulfilling career. 

It is a good idea to check with your state board that licenses professional counselors to find out what their educational requirements are before selecting a program to begin, in addition to checking with the National Board for Certified Counselors; making sure both certifying boards recognize your program is a vital part of the education process. Requirements differ from state to state. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, or CACREP, accredits counseling programs. Programs that CACREP accretes are quality academic programs that meet professionally approved standards. If you’re confused about how to become a counselor and pursue licensure, you can talk to a career counselor or academic advisor.

Working in any mental health field comes along with a wide variation in salaries. For counselors, salary potential and the average annual salary for most counselors may depend on the type of education or degree in counseling and the exact counseling career that you pursue, as well as the setting you choose to work in. Inpatient positions may pay more than non-public practices, and non-profit or public agency work may pay less than non-public practice. Your geographical location may also impact your earning potential as a mental health counselor. Labor statistics may shed more light on the amount of money you can make through this career path.

Types of counselors

To pursue a career in counseling, one must typically have a counseling degree, such as a master's degree. Many specialties require higher education qualifications, such as licensure as a licensed professional counselor or licensed mental health counselor. Here are some examples of counseling careers and counseling degrees.

School guidance or career counselor

If you want to interact with children or adolescents in a school setting daily, you may want to become a high school guidance or career counselor. As a high school, middle school, or elementary school counselor, you may help students discover their passions, develop plans for the future, apply for financial aid for college, or work through problems at home. 

To become a school counselor, you must earn at least a master’s degree, such as in school counseling or child psychology. If you want to be a school psychologist, you will need to hold an education specialist degree (EdS), doctor of education (EdD), or doctor of psychology (PsyD). Then, you will need to obtain proper licensure or certification according to the therapist requirements of your state.

Mental health counselor (licensed professional counselor)

If you want to be able to work with a wide range of people on mental health concerns, you may consider the path of a mental health counselor. To do this, you will need a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and post-graduate supervised experience. Your counseling technique may vary, but you’ll generally need to start with this educational path.

Under the umbrella of mental health counseling, you may decide to specialize in any number of fields or to practice generally. Some counselors or counseling psychologists specialize in the modality of therapy they use, treating specific problems like trauma or substance use, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT); others might focus on specific experiences like abuse counseling or work in certain settings like inpatient services or online therapy. Other counselors may offer services like marriage and family counseling.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

Licensed substance use counselor

If you are interested in helping individuals with substance use disorders, you may want to look into addiction counseling or becoming a rehabilitation counselor. Some states allow people with a high school diploma and a combination of field experience or certification to become licensed to work as a guidance counselor for alcohol and substance use. Licensed counselors provide assessments, develop treatment plans and provide individual, family, and group counseling to help individuals address their substance use disorder.

While counseling jobs in drug or alcohol addiction or human services may offer great rewards, the earning potential may be lower than for professions requiring a higher level of education, such as mental health counselors. It's important to note that clients with co-occurring disorders may present in treatment settings, which may require the expertise of a licensed counselor. Individuals interested in providing substance use treatment can find more information on the Practitioner Training page of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) website. SAMHSA, which is a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services, also has information about various substance use and mental health-related programs online. 

Clinical psychologist: Psyd or Ph.D.

If you are willing to devote a significant amount of time to education—at least five years beyond a bachelor’s degree, and two to three years beyond a master’s degree—you may want to look into becoming a clinical psychologist or counseling psychologist. Psychologists typically must earn a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. Clinical psychologists frequently specialize in hard-to-treat disorders or diagnostic evaluations and testing. Some clinical psychologists conduct research and make innovations in the field. Doctoral-level psychologists also serve an integral role as educators. 

Psychology, counseling, and research (such as forensic psychology and behavioral psychology) are all viable pathways for individuals who have a degree in clinical psychology.

A career helping others can be both rewarding and exhausting

How to take care of yourself, too

Many people interested in becoming a counselor may feel compelled to help others constantly, but it’s important to remember that your mental health and well-being matter, too. If you are not taking good care of yourself, it may be more difficult to maintain your counseling skills. Plus, experiencing counseling from the side of the client may also help you to become a more empathetic and informed health counselor yourself. 

People considering a career change or pursuing new career goals may be extremely busy, so the thought of taking time for therapy can feel very difficult. But, with online therapy through BetterHelp, you can meet with a counselor from wherever is most convenient for you—eliminating the need to commute to and from an in-person appointment. 

An increasingly large amount of research points to online therapy as an effective approach for helping individuals with mental health concerns. In a broad-based study published in the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects, researchers examined the effectiveness of online therapy when treating varied mental health conditions. The review included over 90 studies on everything from panic disorder to weight loss to smoking cessation. Researchers concluded that the evidence supported the efficacy of therapy via online platforms.

Read below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from those who have sought help in the past.

Counselor reviews

“Sharon is a phenomenal counselor. She is very wise and highly insightful about my issues and is not only a great listener but provides me with very helpful actionable ideas to improve what I am working on. She asks the right questions to help me understand myself and grow. I highly recommend working with Sharon!”

"I worked with another counselor for over 6 months before working with Arielle Ballard. In one 30-minute session, I got more accomplished in terms of structuring goals, building coping mechanisms, and recognizing thought patterns than in the 6 months of working with the other counselor. I’m pleased with my progress and am very grateful to Arielle."

Takeaway

If you are interested in becoming a counselor, there are many types of counseling you can consider as a career path, including a school counselor, a mental health counselor, a substance use counselor, and more. With the proper education, experience, and licensing, you can help others in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, remember that it is important to take care of yourself, too. For those with busy schedules, an online program for therapy can be a convenient option.
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