How To Become A Counselor To Help Others | It's Time to Figure Out How To Become a Counselor

By: Nadia Khan

Updated August 10, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

If your goal is to help people who are struggling with difficult life situations (issues such as substance abuse and declining mental health), counseling may be the right profession for you. With all of the different types of counselors, you can be, and the enormous number of professional counseling education programs available, determining the next steps may seem difficult.

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Educational Requirements

To become a counseling therapist who works with clients to help attain their goals or treat mental health concerns, it is necessary to pursue a master’s degree as a minimum. Professional counselors, who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental health problems and work in many different settings, must complete a master’s degree program in mental health counseling, counseling psychology, or clinical mental health counseling. Some degree programs have different names or descriptions. 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.

Not all counselor education programs are created equal, so it is very important to take the time to thoroughly research each master’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or doctoral degree program before committing time and resources to a particular program or counseling field. 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. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, or CACREP, accredits counseling programs. Programs that are accreted by CACREP are high-quality academic programs that meet professionally approved standards.

Continuous Learning

Counselors are never finished learning. Even after you have finished your initial educational requirements, you will have continuing education requirements to continue working as a mental health counselor in the fields of counseling and psychology, including forensic psychology and behavioral psychology. Counselors are ethically required to stay aware of developments and research in the field to provide the best possible service to clients.

While having a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or doctoral degree may be important steps to take in becoming a counselor, counselor’s cannot stop there because the field of mental health (psychology, counseling, and psychiatry) is steeped in human services, and humans are ever-evolving ever-changing subjects.

Salary

How much do counselors make? Far from being a simple answer, the truth is that working in any mental health field comes along with a wide variation in salaries. Salary potential is dependent 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 private practice, and non-profit or public agency work may pay less than private practices.

In general, the more education you have, the greater your salary will be. Your geographical location will impact your earning potential, as well; some areas have more demand than others, and others have a greater number of mental health workers than there is a need for. Those with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. have the education necessary to teach and even to research. With these additional avenues of employment, salary typically increases.

Types Of Counselors

There are many different areas of specialty in the counseling field, and most require at least a master’s degree. Here are some examples of counseling careers:

School Guidance Or Career Counselor

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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, gain college admission, or work through problems at home. You may also administer testing to students to determine special needs and qualify entry into subsequent programs.

To become a school counselor, you will need to earn a master’s degree in school psychology or become an education specialist (EdS). Either way, a master’s degree will generally take 3 years of graduate education after a bachelor’s degree is completed. Finally, you will need to attain NASP certification by completing an internship to demonstrate clinical experience and proficiency, then pass a test (the Praxis II school psychology exam).

Many schools now require a psychologist to attain a Ph.D. or EdD, so more schooling may be necessary, but this is not yet a universal requirement. To start, aim for getting a master’s degree, and check with local certified counselors and governing boards to determine the preferred level of education in your area. Each state varies in its licensure requirements, and you will have to become licensed in the state you plan to work in. Contacting your state board for school counseling will provide you with information on what their educational and licensing requirements are, and may even give you a window into the types of mental health counselors the school is looking for. 

Marriage And Family Therapist

If you want to offer to counsel to couples or families, you may want to become a marriage and family therapist. Some topics you might address include grieving the loss of a loved one, infertility, conflicts, substance abuse, pornography addiction, domestic violence, and LGBTQ issues. To work through these issues, you will need to observe how individuals interact with each other and holistically address relational issues.

How do you become a marriage or family therapy counselor? You should first earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, family studies, or a related field. Then, you must earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or counseling. Before you can practice independently, you will need to complete post-graduate supervised work, totaling around 3,000 hours of experience.

Your state board for marriage and family therapy will have valuable information about requirements for becoming licensed to work in your state as a marriage and family therapist. Some states require social workers to be completed in preparation for effective family therapy work. Others focus primarily on specific niches, including substance abuse. When selecting a degree in counseling, make sure you seek out a master’s degree program that focuses on the related field you want to work in.

Mental Health Counselor

If you want to be able to work with a wide range of people, you may want to gather information on how you can be a mental health counselor. To do this, you will need a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and post-graduate supervised experience. Under the umbrella of mental health counseling, you may decide to specialize in any number of fields, or to practice generally. Some counselors specialize in the modality of therapy they use, treating specific problems like trauma or substance abuse, or work in certain settings like inpatient services, or online therapy.

Licensed Alcohol And Drug Abuse Counselor

If you want to know how you can be a counselor without a college degree, you may want to look into addiction counseling. Some states allow people with a high school diploma and a combination of field experience or certification to become licensed to work as a counselor with alcohol and drug abuse. The earning potential in this field is typically less than that of counseling professions that require more education, and in treatment settings, there are disorders that your clients may present with that are co-occurring with substance abuse that you will not be qualified to treat. Nevertheless, human services and social work fields involving substance abuse can be extremely rewarding workplaces.

Clinical Psychologist: PsyD or PhD

If you are willing to devote a significant amount of time (at least five years beyond a bachelor’s degree, and 2-3 years beyond a master’s degree) to education, you may want to look into becoming a clinical psychologist. 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 (think forensic psychology and behavioral psychology) are all viable pathways for individuals who have a degree in clinical psychology.

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Other Counseling Options

Perhaps you want to work with clients one-on-one, but you are not sure that counseling is right for you. There are many other options, and each option requires different levels of education, though a high school education is fairly standard, and a bachelor’s degree is quite common.

A health and fitness coach or a personal trainer works with clients specifically on weight loss or athletic goals. If you are interested in helping people achieve optimal physical health, this job may be for you. Because physical health and mental health are so closely intertwined, you may have a positive impact on clients’ mental health even if you aren’t a counselor!

Similarly, a nutritionist works one-on-one with clients to ensure that they are eating properly so that they can achieve their personal health goals. As with health and fitness coaches, nutritionists have a variety of educational and certification options, though registered nutritionists require a high school diploma and at least a bachelor’s degree and may even require a master’s degree in some states or programs.

Finally, if you are interested in helping children and adults who are in tough situations, you may want to become a social worker. Social workers may have a bachelor’s or master’s degree and work in many different environments. Social work, though difficult, is enormously rewarding and fulfilling, and many states are in short supply of social work employees, which leaves individuals who are marginalized, living in poverty, or otherwise in need of assistance without the help they need.

Online Counseling

There is an increasingly large amount of research pointing to online counseling as an effective method of helping others with mental health issues. 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—with almost 10,000 total participants—on everything from panic disorder to weight loss to smoking cessation. Researchers concluded that the efficacy of counseling via online platforms was supported by the evidence.

As mentioned above, whether you’re considering counseling as a career choice, or seeking counseling for your own mental health, online therapy is an effective option. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you’ll be able to connect with a licensed, qualified mental health professional from the comfort of your home. The counselors at BetterHelp go through a detailed vetting process, with only 15% of applicants being accepted. Licensed online counselors know a how-to guide on the path to better mental health. 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 I had in the 6 months working with the other counselor. I’m pleased with my progress and am very grateful to Arielle."

Conclusion

If you are wondering how to become a professional counselor there are many ways to achieve this goal. With hard work and dedication, you can obtain both the education and the work helping others that you want to. Whatever your educational attainment, if you are committed to your individual clients, you are sure to make an impact and help others in a meaningful way.


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