For people considering joining the ranks of the helping professions, obtaining a master’s degree in mental health counseling tends to be a viable route, and one that is often recommended by professionals in the field.In this guide
- Degree overview
- Admission requirements
- Degree cost
- Typical coursework
- Professional associations
Mental health counselors have the capability to support the well-being of others, through the provision of differing services, which might include, but are not limited to: case management, counseling, advocacy, and prevention methods. They may work with a diverse range of clients, some of which may struggle to cope with mood-related problems, interpersonal interactions, life stressors, substance abuse, and other forms of more severe pathology and mental health illnesses.
Mental health counselors can have an impact in a number of ways, supporting those who often are without adequate support. Given this information, devoting one’s career to being a mental health counselor can be very rewarding.
Individuals who might be interested in pursuing a mental health counseling master’s level degree typically have at least some level of interest in working with, communicating with, and teaching others, in addition to providing services to people in need.
These individuals are likely to enjoy gathering information, reviewing research, problem-solving, and exploring complex ideas, problems, and systems.
Lastly, individuals suited for a future profession in the mental health counseling field often consider themselves to be creative and frequently engage in novel types of thinking. They typically value relationships with others, achievement, and can work independently, when appropriate.
Master’s degree in mental health counseling overview
The master’s degree in mental health counseling enables individuals to hold a wide range of differing occupational titles, such as mental health counselor, mental health professional, mental health specialist, counselor, professional counselor, therapist, clinician, case manager, mental health program specialist, and therapist, among others.
Master’s degrees in mental health counseling typically include at least 48 credits of relevant coursework, and programs may or may not be accredited by a counseling-specific accrediting organization or by a regional graduate education accrediting body.
The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, or CACREP, is one of the most widely known accrediting bodies for these programs and is recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.
According to CACREP, the programs which are accredited by them are more advantageous for individuals wishing to enter this field, given that they ensure the programs provide students with a quality education, adequately prepare students for the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE), and the accredited programs support a streamlined application licensure process for the candidate. CACREP programs require coursework which emphasizes eight core areas, a supervised practicum, and an internship.
Check out CACREP’s directory of accredited programs for more info.
Admission requirements for master’s programs in mental health counseling
Admission to a master’s program in mental health counseling typically includes the following:
- An undergraduate degree, preferably in a relevant field such as psychology or social work
- A sustainable grade point average during your undergraduate program (the recommended GPA may vary across schools and programs)
- An application and admission fee
- Educational transcripts
- A personal statement which highlights your interest in the program and profession and your relevant experience/knowledge
- Letters of recommendation
- Completion of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) within the last five years (recommended scores may vary across schools and programs)
- And an interview with program staff and faculty members.
How much does a master’s in mental health counseling cost?
The length of master’s level programs in mental health counseling vary. Depending on the school and program, they are on average, two years long, when a student is enrolled full-time.
Some programs may offer the flexibility to enroll part-time or in a hybrid/online course, which may result in additional time being needed to complete the degree. According to a website which compares tuition across the nation, CollegeTuitionCompare, across the 254 colleges and universities in the nation which offer Mental Health Counseling graduate programs, the average annual amount for both tuition and fees was $10,972 for in-state residents and $19,033 for out-of-state residents during the 2021-2022 academic year.
Scholarships may be available both online and within specific schools and programs.
Master’s in mental health counseling coursework and specializations
Mental health counseling master’s programs are designed to equip students with the capabilities to provide counseling services for a wide range of issues and to confidently collaborate with other medical and mental health professionals.
As such, curriculums for these programs include a number of courses designed to instill this knowledge base.
Programs may be offered in face-to-face, online, or hybrid methods of instruction. Coursework generally will cover topics such as counseling theories, techniques, and treatment, research, human development and sexuality, ethics, assessment and diagnosis, cultural considerations, and courses designated to particular populations of clients, such as those struggling from substance abuse or those entering group counseling will likely also be available.
Sample course titles include:
- Counseling and Advocacy with Diverse Populations, where one might learn about how cultural considerations impact the counseling relationship and the nature of a client’s issues.
- Counseling Theories and Practice, where one might learn about the theories which provide frameworks for counseling techniques and interventions.
- Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues in Counseling, where one will familiarize themself with the professional standards associated with practicing as a counselor and face ethical scenarios/dilemmas, learning how to solve them appropriately.
- Diagnosis and Treatment of Psychopathology, where one will learn about the diagnostic manual utilized to assign diagnoses, how to establish whether clients meet criteria for particular diagnoses, how to differentiate between similar diagnoses, and what established treatment and intervention methods are available to employ.
Courses in Mental Health Counseling programs are usually didactic in nature, including a variety or combination of lectures, discussions, readings, written papers, examinations, presentations, and in-class exposure/roleplaying.
In regards to specializations, a number of them exist based on the school and program in which you choose to enroll in. Commonly pursued specializations might be based on the following topics:
- Addictions/substance abuse,
- Corrections counseling
- Career counseling
- Rehabilitative therapy
- Sex therapy
Several types of specializations are available, and it might be worthwhile to research topics of interest more in order to survey potential options. National Certifications may also be available post-graduation for specialty topics. For example, the Association for Death Education and Counseling provides national certifications and fellowships for practitioners interested in counseling terminally ill clients and their family members. Additional requirements likely apply for specializations to be acquired.
Practicums and internships in master’s in mental health counseling programs
Master’s programs in mental health counseling typically include some semesters which provide students with clinical field experience, otherwise known as practicums and internships.
Following the completion of the majority of your core coursework in the program, you may be assigned or allowed to choose a site in which you are able to complete this relevant field experience. You will typically be required to work at the designated agency for a designated amount of time each week, for a particular time period.
Practicums and internships typically must be unpaid positions and you will be asked to demonstrate your competency within the designated setting(s), while receiving both training and supervision. Practicums and internships will test your capabilities to provide counseling and assessments within the field, while upholding the ethics and standards associated with the profession.
Practicums and Internships typically accompany courses, which allow for students to discuss cases, receive additional supervision and consultation, and learn from one another’s experiences. These experiences can be crucial for students in applying the knowledge they’ve acquired during their program and especially as they are considering what lies beyond graduation.
Obtaining licensure in the field of mental health counseling
Upon obtaining a master’s degree in mental health counseling, one makes themself eligible for licensure in the field. Each state within the country, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, require licensure in order for individuals to legally and independently practice as professional counselors.
Licensure laws vary from state to state, but generally require that individuals minimally meet educational requirements, complete an examination locally or nationally, and have a particular amount of hours of experience within the profession.
Many states prefer that licensure-eligible individuals have obtained their degree from a CACREP accredited program or that their school of choice follows a curriculum based on the CACREP model, even if they are not accredited.
For individuals who may graduate from a non-accredited university, additional requirements may apply to obtain licensure and it can be important that one maintains access to their course syllabi, credit-related information, and their transcripts.
Each state has their own board, which is responsible for issuing licenses and enforcing regulations over the counseling profession. Check out our state guides for more info.
Following obtaining licensure, providers may hold a title which indicates they are licensed, and these titles vary by state. They include:
- Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
- Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
- Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
- Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC)
- Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC)
- Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP)
Prior to obtaining one’s license, states typically have opportunities for professionals who have graduated from a master’s program to hold an associate license, where this title may also vary by state. Other titles include:
- Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern (RMHCI)
- Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC)
- Licensed Professional Counselor Associate (LPCA)
- Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor
- Counselor in Training
- Clinical Resident
Associate licenses permit individuals who have recently graduated to practice within the counseling profession under an already licensed and credentialed supervisor while they obtain the necessary experience, supervisory hours, and complete the appropriate examination to obtain licensure themselves.
In order to obtain licensure, most states require mental health counselors to have between 1,000 and 3,000 hours of supervised experience within a certain time period.
For example, within the State of Florida, approximately 1,500 hours of supervised experience is required, and must be obtained following the completion of an eligible master’s program and in no less than two years.
States also typically require a specific number of supervision hours to occur prior to licensure being obtained. Each state dictates their own examination procedures as well, with some states requiring the passing of the National Counselor Examination (NCE), which is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), some states requiring the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE), and other states requiring or permitting the completion of the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRCC). The NCE is the most common examination method across all states in the US.
It is important for individuals considering a field in mental health counseling to recognize that moving to a different state may require either the completion of additional requirements to obtain licensure in the new state or a formal request for the new state to transfer a previously held license in another state.
Licensure is typically maintained in a variety of states by continuing to receive ongoing education in topics of your interest, referred to as Continuing Education Units, or CEU’s. Differing states may have differing requirements on the number of CEU’s you should complete in a given time period to maintain licensure.
An optional credential for those who enter the Mental Health Counseling field is the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor title. This credential is issued by the NBCC and generally requires for an individual to pass either the NCMHCE, the CCMHC, or the Examination of Clinical Counselor Practice (ECCP).
The National Board for Certified Counselors provides additional information on examinations, credentialing, and certifications. State boards are also exceptionally important to research, depending on your geographic location, given the major differences in state requirements and some unique requirements between states.
For example, the following states also require for associate counselors to complete an exam prior to licensure which tests the professional’s knowledge of state laws and rules:
Mental health counseling professional associations
Following obtaining a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling and in some ways even as a graduate student, one can become active with relevant professional associations.
A popular and well-known professional association for this field is the American Mental Health Counseling Association, or AMHCA. For an annual fee, members gain access to a number of professional resources, can connect with other professionals in the field via networking and discussions, can run for leadership positions, engage in advocacy on a wider scale, and gain access to both continuing education opportunities and annual conferences.