For those aspiring to begin a career in the mental health industry, becoming a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) is the ultimate goal. The reason makes sense: Not only do LMHCs receive competitive compensation for their services, but these professionals work directly with patients to help them live more meaningful and fulfilling lives.
If you are interested in becoming a licensed mental health counselor, you likely have questions about the steps involved in breaking into that career. Below, we take a look at those steps and answer other questions about the job.
How much does a licensed mental health counselor make?
According to Recruiter.com, licensed mental health counselors earn an average starting salary of $74,200 to $84,000 per year. The exact pay depends on several factors, including the individual’s level of experience and place of employment. For example, in Massachusetts, top-paid LMHCs can earn as much as $110,000 on average.
How long does it take to become a licensed mental health counselor?
To become a licensed mental health counselor, you’ll first need to complete a relevant undergraduate degree, the required graduate-level education, and post-graduate clinical work. Then, you’ll need to pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) licensing board examination and apply for licensure.
How long this takes from start to finish will depend on where you are in your journey, but below are some typical time estimates to guide you.
- Complete an undergraduate degree: 4 years on average
- Complete a master’s-level degree: 2-3 years on average
- Complete post-graduate clinical work: 2 years on average
- Testing and license application: Varies
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Steps to Become an LMHC
Below is a closer look at the specific steps you can take to become a licensed mental health counselor.
1. Earn a relevant undergraduate degree.
Ultimately, you will need to earn a master’s degree in a relevant field from an accredited program to qualify for licensure. But before you can do so, you’ll need first to complete an undergraduate degree in a related field.
Each master’s degree program will have unique guidelines for which undergraduate degrees will fulfill these prerequisites requirements. However, some of the most common undergraduate degrees held by individuals who later pursue a career as a licensed mental health counselor include:
- Bachelor of Science in Psychology
- Bachelor of Science in Sociology or Anthropology
- Bachelor of Science in Human Services
But what if you’ve already completed an undergraduate degree unrelated to psychology or counseling? Fortunately, many graduate programs allow students to enroll with the understanding that they may first need to complete undergraduate prerequisite courses before beginning graduate-level coursework. If you are unsure, simply ask an admissions counselor at the college or university you are considering for your master’s degree.
2. Earn your master’s degree.
Once you have completed your bachelor’s degree (and perhaps spent some time working in an entry-level position in the field or shadowing other professionals), the next step to becoming an LMHC is to complete a relevant master’s degree. One of the most common degrees is a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology, though other related degrees may also fulfill this requirement.
When applying to programs, it’s essential to understand what coursework is required by the state you wish to practice in, says Susan Bradley, Assistant Program Coordinator for the Applied Psychology Department in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University.
“Each state mandates which courses they require for licensure,” Bradley says. “Typically included are essential counseling skills, the understanding of psychopathology, multicultural counseling, and human development, but there are many other potential areas of study as well.”
In addition to coursework, earning your master’s degree will require you to complete a certain level of hands-on training through practical experience, Bradley adds.
“At Northeastern, there’s a practicum and internship, both of which are required in Massachusetts,” Bradley says. “A major part of the training is the fact that you’re at a placement, practicing the skills you’ve learned and that you’ll leverage throughout your career.”
3. Complete your post-graduate clinical work.
Once you have earned your master’s degree, you’ll need to complete a certain number of post-master’s clinical hours in order to qualify for licensure, Bradley explains. This work is often done at an individual’s first job after graduation.
In addition to clinical hours, you’ll also be completing what are known as “supervision hours” during this time, Bradley says. These supervision hours are essentially the time that you spend working directly with a licensed professional who reviews your cases and treatment approach.
4. Pass the required examination and apply for licensure.
Finally, to qualify for licensure, you will need to pass the specific exam required by your state licensing board. This will most commonly be the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam (NCMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE).
After passing the exam, you will be able to apply for your license in the state in which you wish to practice, so long as you’ve met all other licensing requirements. This process typically involves a small licensing fee. You should also seek to understand what the license renewal process is in the state in which you will be practicing.
Education as the Foundation of Your Career
A significant part of becoming a licensed mental health counselor is ensuring that you have completed the required education and training at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. As such, choosing the right program is essential to your success.
When choosing a master’s-level program to enroll in, Bradley recommends that you evaluate your shortlist of programs by:
- Who you will be learning from: Ideally, this should include faculty members who have spent time in the field, not just in academic roles.
- The learning formats: The more hands-on experience you can gain during your studies through internships, co-ops, and research, the better.
- Your interests and passions: If you know you are interested in a particular area of counseling, you may be able to find a program where you can work closely with faculty members who share that passion or have a similar experience.
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