What You Need to Know If You Want to Become a Counselor
Becoming a counselor is a serious commitment that requires at least six years of study and thousands of hours of practical hands-on training. You can take various paths to become a counselor, many of which allow you to specialize in a particular domain. No matter what course you choose, all counselors in the U.S. are required to first earn a bachelor's degree, then at least a master's degree to practice psychotherapy.
Overview Of The Counseling Profession
The counseling profession encompasses a wide range of skill competencies and training requirements. Professional counselors have either a master's or doctoral degree and are trained to work with individuals, families, and groups. They diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.
Counselors are trained in all major forms of psychotherapy and are required to undergo significant supervised training before they can work with clients alone. Counselors work wherever mental health services are needed, including schools, clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and private practice.
The typical roles and responsibilities of a counselor include:
Encouraging open discussion of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Helping clients define goals and develop strategies to meet those goals.
Listening and providing empathetic encouragement and support.
Creating individualized treatment plans based on the unique needs of each client.
Assessing the client's mental and emotional state, as well as barriers to change.
Educating clients on healthy coping mechanisms and techniques to manage mental health concerns.
Monitoring and updating treatment plans based on client progress.
Prospective counselors can choose from several areas of specialization. CACREP, an organization that provides accreditation for counseling programs at colleges and universities, recognizes the following specialties:
Clinical Mental Health Counseling
Clinical mental health counselors support individuals with various mental and emotional challenges while promoting mental well-being. Clients can be seen individually, as couples, families, or in group settings. Clinical Mental Health Counselors know how to diagnose, treat, and prevent mental health disorders. They often collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as psychiatrists and social workers, working together in interdisciplinary teams.
Rehabilitation counselors are equipped to assist individuals with disabilities and their support networks to help them achieve their personal, social, psychological, and occupational objectives. Rehabilitation counselors are prepared to enhance the autonomy, integration, and involvement of all disabled individuals through counseling, technology, advocacy, support, and the development of services that eliminate barriers to their client's goals.
School counselors work with students ranging from kindergarten through high school. They promote the academic, social and career development of all K-12 students. They are qualified to design and implement school counseling programs that include individual counseling, group counseling, classroom guidance, and family consultations. School counselors are only licensed to work in public or private school systems.
Student Affairs And College Counseling
College counselors work in various higher education settings. They might work in a university's housing and residential life office, offer student leadership services, or provide mental health counseling, career guidance, or multicultural support services. Student affairs and college counselors receive additional training in the culture of higher education and the organizational dynamics of colleges and universities.
Addiction counselors work with those affected by alcohol, drugs, gambling, sexual, and other addictive disorders. Addiction counselors are trained to treat those who experience addiction, prevent addiction from occurring, and help a substance user through relapses.
Marriage, Couple, And Family Counseling
Marriage, couple, and family counselors work with individuals, couples, and entire families. They have additional training in family systems and family dynamics. They are trained to investigate and treat mental, emotional, relationship, and communication disorders from a family systems perspective.
Career counselors help those wanting to make career decisions and examine the relationship between education, skills, interests, and personality. They provide guidance and direction for those selecting a career or considering a career change. Career counselors use specific assessment tools and personality inventories to provide clients with information to aid them in achieving their vocational goals.
Becoming a licensed counselor requires, at minimum, a master's degree in counseling or a related field. The degree is typically between 48 to 60 credits and is accompanied by a clinical practicum, where students practice their new counseling skills under the supervision of licensed counselors. The master's degree is followed by an internship or extended period where the new counselor is practicing under the guidance of a more experienced professional.
Degrees are commonly accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Many states require that counseling programs be based on the CACREP model, even if state law does not require full accreditation.
The Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) also offers accreditation for master's-level counseling and psychology degrees.
Clinical Experience And Supervision
Those who have completed a master's degree in counseling or a related field are eligible for licensure after they complete a minimum amount of supervised experience. The number of hours required varies from state to state, but 2,000 to 3,000 hours are usually required. The hours must be completed within a specific timeframe, usually 2 – 3 years.
The new counselor must be supervised by a licensed professional who meets the requirements to supervise entry-level counselors. States differ in their approach to supervision; most require one-on-one supervision, but group supervision is often allowed. Some states require a signed supervision contract. The requirements for a professional to provide supervision, the number of supervision hours required, and limitations on how those hours can be acquired will vary from state to state.
All states require that prospective counselors pass a comprehensive licensure examination that evaluates the test taker's knowledge of core competencies. States accept two exams for licensure. The first is the National Counselor Examination (NCE). The NCE is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and is the most common exam states use in the credentialing process.
The National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) is the second exam. The NCMHCE focuses more intently on mental health practice and is accepted by several states for licensure. To locate which exams each state accepts, visit the NBCC State Board Directory.
In addition to an exam assessing counseling skills, many states require licensees to pass a jurisprudence exam covering the applicant's knowledge of licensing rules, operating procedures, and state laws regulating practice.
Most states require professional counselors to earn continuing education (CE) credits. CE hours are usually earned annually or biennially and are required for license renewal. States generally have specific domains that must be addressed through CE hours, such as ethics. The exact number of CE hours varies from state to state, and states may differ in their restrictions on what constitutes appropriate continuing education. For example, some states may require a certain number of CE hours to be obtained through live instruction rather than online.
Once fully licensed, a counselor may also pursue specialty certifications, such as those offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors. NBCC offers three specialty certifications, which show that a counselor has met national standards for the specialty, including additional education and passing a specialty examination. The specialties offered by the NBCC include the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC), the Master Addictions Counselor (MAC), and the National Certified School Counselor (NCSC).
How Can Online Counseling Help?
Meeting with a counselor online can help you make decisions about your career path and help you achieve your goal of becoming a counselor. A counselor will work with you to help overcome barriers in your education, maintain your mental health, and solve problems affecting your overall well-being. They may also be willing to share personal experiences and offer practical advice and guidance for your educational journey.
Counselors who practice online use the same evidence-based techniques as traditional therapists. They have the same training and credentials described above, a master's degree at minimum, passage of a comprehensive exam, and thousands of hours of supervised clinical experience. The online counseling process is nearly identical to in-person counseling, and current research suggests that the techniques used are just as effective when administered online as in an office setting.
Becoming a counselor is a rewarding but challenging career path. Counselors require a bachelor's degree and at least a master's degree in counseling or a related field, which usually amounts to six years of education. Following their degree, prospective counselors must pass a comprehensive examination and complete 2,000 to 3,000 hours of supervised practice before seeing clients independently. They can then specialize in several areas, including addiction counseling or clinical mental health counseling. After their initial training is complete, counselors must obtain additional annual training in the form of continuing education credits, which are required to renew their license.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What Qualifications Do You Need To Be A Counselor?
The qualifications you need to be a counselor largely depend on what sort of counselor you’d like to be (health counselors, school counselors, mental health counseling, etc.). Generally, though, you’ll need a counseling degree (Bachelor’s at minimum) as well as professional and educational experience in the field.
Many counseling programs and centers look for potential hires who have a master’s in counseling too. You may even need to obtain a doctorate in counseling, depending on what sort of work you’d like to do. Counseling degrees cover all sorts of areas and specializations, so the field is quite diverse.
Even if you’ve got a degree in counseling, you may need additional training. School and career counselors that work with children in counseling programs, for instance, may need further education to prepare them to work with young people. If you’d like to work in addiction rehabilitation or with special needs patients, the training will again vary.
There isn’t a singular answer to this question, as different paths have different steps along the way. To generalize, though: you’ll need a degree, if not multiple degrees, to become a counselor in most places for most reasons.
How Qualifications Do You Need To Be A Counselor?
It can take anywhere from a few to upwards of ten years to complete all the schooling and professional training you need to become a counselor. A big part of what determines this is what area of the field you go into (school counselor, mental health counselor, substance abuse counselor, etc.).
For most people interested in becoming a counselor, multiple counseling degrees usually end up coming into play. Many professionals have a Master’s in counseling. It still is possible to go into some counseling parts without a master’s degree in counseling or any counseling degrees at all.
If you have a master’s in counseling or higher, you might have more opportunities available to you than other candidates. While obtaining a master’s in counseling, or throughout other parts of their schooling, many counselors decide to focus on a specific area: school counselors, for instance, might focus on how they can best support young learners, and mental health counselors may focus on strengthening their knowledge on psychology and mental illness.
Again, even if you don’t have a master’s in counseling or another degree, there is still work available for you at various counseling programs, even if you can’t be an official counselor through said counseling programs.
Can You Be A Counselor Without A Degree?
Yes, it is possible to go into the field without a degree in counseling, though your options may be much more limited. That’s because, in general, only those with a degree in counseling can fit into most of the roles within the field (mental health counseling, school counselor, etc.).
The work for those without counseling degrees varies, but you can expect to find jobs focused on supporting or aiding others within counseling programs. Like substance abuse counseling, some counseling forms can allow you to work more directly with others and might be an ideal option.
If you don’t have any counseling degrees (a Bachelor's or Master’s in counseling), it may not be possible to be a mental health counselor or a school counselor, but all hope is not lost. When it comes to counseling psychology and mental health in general, the field is constantly changing and evolving, and so too will our opportunities to be involved with it.
If you don’t have the time or finances to get a degree in counseling, you could try taking an intensive course to get certifications. For example, in California, how to become a therapist is by getting a certification in substance abuse counseling. This shows potential employers that you have specific skills, even if you don’t have a four-year degree. Extra skills like learning sign language or getting a certification in teaching English as a second language can also boost your skillset and make you a more desirable candidate.
How Much Do Counselors Make A Year?
Most mental health-focused counselors can expect to make around $40k-50k a year, but mental health counseling isn’t the only option out there. There are many different areas you can go into with a counseling degree, and they may reward different salaries.
Different counseling programs offer different services and, as a result, may require different expertise available to them. Those with a counseling degree (Bachelor or Master’s degree in counseling) may be the most likely to make more money. Still, other careers (like substance abuse counseling) can bring home an amount similar to what’s mentioned above.
School counseling programs are a great example of another prominent area within counseling (aside from mental health). The median pay for school counselors is actually slightly higher than that of other counselors.
School counselors are knowledgeable about both educational and psychological barriers that young people may face, and they’re an important part of the educational process for many. A school counselor still has a lot of the same education and background as others, but a school counselor works with children in a school setting.
What's The Difference Between A Therapist And A Counselor?
Through counseling and therapy are often used interchangeably, there is a notable difference between the two. Counseling is mostly focused on giving individuals the tools they need to face a certain set of obstacles, like losing a family or dealing with addiction. On the other hand, psychotherapy focuses on long-term issue management and building skills to handle mental illness symptoms or long-term mental distress.
What is a counselor? There are all sorts of types of counselors in all sorts of different positions. For instance, school counseling is very different from mental health counseling and requires different educational and professional backgrounds.
A counselor usually has a master’s degree in counseling. Still, it’s possible to work in the field without a counseling degree. A therapist usually has similar qualifications, but they may also have a doctoral degree.
When we think of a counselor, we usually think of a mental health counselor. These counselors deal with very similar issues when compared with therapists, so it’s easy to understand why many may confuse therapists and counselors. But, in reality, there is a lot of variety within the counseling field (school counselors, substance abuse counselors, etc.), as there is therapy (family therapy, couples’ therapy, etc.).
Counseling programs can cover all sorts of ground, and counseling psychology and mental health are closely related.
You might find counseling programs where you don’t necessarily expect them; school counselor and career counselor positions are important in the educational system, for instance. A school counselor can help provide the support a child needs to receive a thorough education. A school counselor can also provide guidance and help a child plan their future. A grief counselor may help people through difficult grieving processes, or a substance abuse counselor may help someone with an addiction. On the other hand, a therapist has typically gone through more schooling so that he or she can treat a wide array of persistent mental health problems.
Why do you choose to be a counselor?
What makes one a good counselor?
What is basic counselling skills?
What is the job of a counselor?
Is becoming a counselor worth it?
Can I be a counsellor without a degree?
Can anyone become a counsellor?
How do I start a counselling career?
Do counselors make money?
What is the job of counsellor?
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