So, you’re interested in becoming a mental health counselor. With all of the various ads for schools, and multitudes of information on the internet it might be a bit difficult to get the following simple question answered: What are the requirements for becoming a licensed counselor? Is that even the right term for someone who does talk therapy? In this post, I will explain what all the titles mean and clearly tell you what you’ll need to do to become a mental health counselor.
First of all, let me explain the different levels of education in the psychology field, because it’s changed within the past 20 years or so. It used to be that psychiatrists (medical doctors who specialized in psychology) did all of the psychotherapy (which is just a fancy term for therapy done by a licensed professional.) Now, psychiatrists pretty much just dispense psychotropic (which is just a fancy term for medication used to treat mental illness) medication and manage side effects. The psychologists, who have a Ph.D. but are not medical doctors, generally do all of the formal mental health testing. The licensed mental health counselors, or other licensed professionals working at the master’s level, are actually the ones doing the psychotherapy.
Here are the general steps for obtaining licensure at the master’s level:
1. Complete coursework requirements
2. Complete practicum and internship hours
3. Pass a comprehensive exam
4. Work for a year or two or three under supervision
5. Pass the state licensure exam
At the master’s level, there are a few different directions you can take. You can opt to become a mental health counselor, marriage therapist or social worker. Each have different professional identities, and different course work requirements. Adding to the confusion, the titles can vary by state. For example, a licensed mental health professional is called “licensed mental health counselor” in my home state, Florida, but is called “licensed professional counselor” in some other states.
Generally, the course work is different between specialties. Social work programs are usually totally separate from mental health. Marriage and family may also be a separate program, depending on state requirements for licensure. Again, using Florida as an example, if you complete the mental health coursework, you can also meet the marriage and family coursework requirements by just taking a few extra classes.
Practicum and Internship Hours
As part of the academic requirements, you will need to complete a certain number of hours working in a mental health setting doing psychotherapy with clients. The number of hours varies with the accreditation body of the university, but it’s usually 1000. During this time, you will attend a class where your teacher will also be your faculty supervisor. In addition, you will have an on-site supervisor. You will be accountable to both.
As part of your master’s program, you will need to pass a comprehensive exam. This exam is usually administered after all courses are taken, and is intended to measure the academic knowledge you have gained.
Yes, I know it’s confusing. There’s “internship” as part of your academic program, then there’s “internship” after you graduate. These are two separate requirements. The main difference is that you will need to register with your state for this internship, and you will have a title that you will need to use. In Florida it’s called “Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern”, “Registered Marriage and Family Therapy Intern” or “Registered Social Worker.” Once you have registered with the state and chosen a supervisor you can begin your hours (the required amount varies with the state), which will need to be documented. You will also be required to sit with your supervisor weekly or so to review cases.
The final step is passing the state licensure exam. In some states, you can take the exam as soon as you become a registered intern. I recommend this, as your academic information will be fresh in your mind. Generally, these licensure exams are rather difficult, so plan for a few months of study time.
For more information, including a link to state licensure boards, visit this blog post.