Mental health counselors work with patients in a variety of contexts. The counselors might provide individual care to people struggling with mental illness, life changes or chronic stress. They can also offer group counseling to couples, families and groups of people facing similar issues. As a counselor, you can work in private practice out of your own office, or you might work for a school, business or public organization. Therapists and counselors have to be licensed in the state in which they practice and need to acquire, at minimum, a master's degree.
You'll need a bachelor's degree from a four-year college or university before you can begin school to become a counselor. Some graduate schools accept students from a wide variety of majors. However, a degree in psychology, sociology or child development can give you the basic framework you need to excel in graduate school, and might help you avoid taking remedial classes.
You'll need a master's degree before you can become a mental health counselor. Master's degree programs provide training to prospective counselors. These majors include clinical social work, psychology and counseling. The right master's degree for you depends upon what kind of counselor you want to be. A child counselor might choose developmental psychology, while a marriage and family therapist might choose to study marriage and family counseling. You'll take a wide variety of classes, including clinical and research courses, psychology courses, sociology courses and classes specific to your field of study. You might also have to complete a thesis or research project.
Some counselors get doctoral degrees in their chosen field, and a doctoral degree often can lead to higher pay. If you want to become a psychologist, you can pursue a doctorate in psychology. Doctorates are also available in counseling-related fields such as community psychology, developmental psychology and marriage and family therapy. If you plan to get a doctorate, you can pick up a master's degree along the way rather than enrolling in a separate program for your master's. You'll have to write and defend a dissertation before you graduate.
After you graduate, you'll have to seek a license to practice in your state. Some states require a knowledge test, while others require that you have a certain number of supervised clinical hours. You'll also be required to keep up with changes in your field by taking continuing-education classes. The requirements for these classes vary by state, but you'll usually have to attend several classes or seminars every few years.
2016 Salary Information for Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists
Mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists earned a median annual salary of $44,150 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists earned a 25th percentile salary of $34,550, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $57,180, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 199,200 people were employed in the U.S. as mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists
- Education Portal: How to Become a Therapist -- Education and Career Roadmap
- Psychology in Atlanta: Career Options for How to Become a Therapist -- Multiple Pathways Exist
- New York University: NYU Psychology Masters Program
- American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy: MFT Licensing Boards
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists
- Career Trend: Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.