Considering A Career In Mental Health? How To Become A Therapist

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated November 9, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

If you are passionate about helping people, therapy can be a rewarding and meaningful career option. Many careers are available in the mental health industry, and each type of therapist has a unique societal role. If you're interested in starting the path to becoming a therapist, learning more about the requirements can help you get started. 

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Educational Requirements

There are several years of educational requirements to receive your credentials to become a therapist. In addition, academic requirements on the graduate and doctoral levels vary by state when you apply for licensure, so understanding the license requirements in your state can be beneficial in not having to return to school or find extra internship hours. 

Pre-Higher Education

Many people do not have their career paths planned out until they're in college. However, if you know you are interested in psychology and mental health, you can start preparing early. Many high schools across the United States offer psychology as an elective course. If this is not your school's case, you can opt for reading textbooks or articles on the subject. In addition, if you have the option to take a distinguished course or college credit in high school, you might benefit from getting credit for specific classes early. 

Undergraduate Studies

During your undergrad years, you can participate in various degree programs to lead to your desired career in therapy. Some colleges and universities offer programs specifically related to mental health and treatment. To be able to go on to get your master's degree, you must have a bachelor's degree (four years), which can be in any of the following subjects: 

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Social Work
  • Child Development
  • Neuroscience
  • Education 
  • Human Studies

The above are some of the most popular majors for entering graduate school to further study therapy. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, out of the 1,895,000 bachelor's degrees awarded during the 2014 to 2015 academic year, 118,000 were in psychology. Because of their popularity, psychology-related subjects are also frequently offered as online courses, making pursuing counseling flexible and convenient.

A psychology degree may not be required to gain admission into a graduate school, but it could make it easier. A background in psychology and related subjects could also make you feel more prepared for the next chapter of your education. It can help you avoid taking remedial classes to catch up with graduate course material.

Graduate School

If you have not yet decided on a specific type of therapy, graduate school can allow you to decide. There are many different types of treatment that a person can choose to specialize in, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Psychotherapy
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Social work
  • Recreational therapy
  • Career counseling 

In addition to your courses, you may work in the field directly. Most state therapy boards require supervised clinical work, internships, and teaching. These experiences can be hands-on and guide those learning as they approach their career in psychology. After this point, students may choose to move on to a doctorate program or graduate with their master's. 

How long it takes to complete a program can vary. A master's degree is a prerequisite to becoming a licensed therapist, and it can take two or three years to complete. On the other hand, Ph.D. coursework often takes at least five years. A Ph.D. is not mandatory to be a therapist. Still, because you will be required to write and present a dissertation, a doctorate program is excellent for those who want to perform research and further understand the field. If you're looking for a faster path to a doctorate, you might benefit from a PsyD, which is similar to a Ph.D. but focuses less on research and more on clinical psychology. 

According to an article by the American Psychological Association, predictors of graduate school success include being curious, conscientious, resilient, and confident to succeed. In addition, having intelligence, emotional intelligence, empathy, and ambition may help you succeed in this career. After receiving your master's, you can choose to get a doctorate or move on to the licensing and supervised experience stage. 

Supervised Experience

All 50 states currently require a certain number of hours of supervision. Some states may require that you apply to be an associate, assistant, or intern under the state board before gaining supervision. Others may not have policies in place about this factor. You might also be required to have a particular portion of these hours outside of a school setting, face-to-face with clients, or under a licensed provider in your state. 

The number of supervised hours required often ranges from around 2,000 to 4,000 hours of experience, and there may be time limits on how quickly it can take you to finish these requirements. Depending on your state board's rules, you may or may not be able to work independently during this time. Check your specific state's requirements on a state board licensing requirements guide or contact them directly for support. 

Licensing And Renewal

After years of education and a fresh master's degree, PsyD, or Ph.D., you can apply to become a counselor, social worker, therapist, or psychologist through your state board. Requirements can vary depending on your region and which type of therapy you plan to practice in, and you can find this information on its respective licensing board.

For example, a person looking to become a licensed marriage and family therapist (LFMT), a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), or a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) in the state of California will need to register with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences

Each state board requires you to take one national exam, often the National Counselors Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). Some states, like California, have specific state jurisprudence exams and state mental health law exams that must also be passed. 

After passing your exam and being approved by the board, you can pay your licensing and application fee and receive your license to practice in the mail. You may be required to update your exam each year or at a particular time. In addition, many state boards require continued education courses each year, which can involve new mental health topics, up-to-date research, and modern learning topics. 

Once you have your license, you can practice therapy independently without supervision and work as a contractor, or within a therapy company or organization. Therapists have many jobs available to them, and depending on your specialty, you can work in various settings, including hospitals, prisons, or schools. 

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Career Counseling Options 

Becoming a therapist can take time, but once you have completed the steps, you can participate in a meaningful career to help others. No matter the type of therapist you are, clients all over the US are looking for support, and the number is growing. Many therapists and those looking to the profession reach out to therapists themselves for advice, emotional support, and guidance as they navigate schooling and licensure. 

If you're looking for support as you start your career journey or want to learn more about becoming a therapist from someone who has done it, you can contact a therapist online or in person for support. Many career counselors work online, as the format offers a flexible and convenient option for those in rural areas or with busy schedules during school. A platform like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples can connect you with a professional fitting your preferences at any time. 

Studies have also found that online counseling is preferable to in-person therapy for college students due to its flexibility and low cost. If you're starting your educational journey, you might struggle to find time for counseling. With online therapy, you can partake in phone, video, or live chat sessions anytime by seeing a therapist available during those hours. 

Takeaway

Becoming a therapist can require several years of schooling, supervision, internship, and support before you can get licensed. However, you can start anytime, and therapists can be valued and essential community members for many clients. Consider contacting a provider for further guidance as you navigate this career path. 

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