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Working as a mental health counselor is a career path that allows you to truly make a difference in the lives of your clients in a way that you can see unfolding over the course of your time together. People will see a mental health counselor when they are struggling with complex and distressing issues, so when you are thinking about how to become a mental health counselor, it’s important that you think about how you gain the skills to really be able to help people in that position.
Although it takes a lot of hard work to gain the skills that you need to be effective as a mental health counselor, for the right person it can be worth it. Mental health counseling was ranked in the top 10 social service jobs and the top 100 best jobs overall, with mental health counselors being very satisfied with their careers.
It’s also a career choice that is likely to be able to offer good job security. According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), the field is expected to grow 25% between 2019 and 2029, which is much quicker than other areas. In 2019 there were 319,400 mental health counselor jobs, and by 2029 this is expected to have increased by 79,000.
Hone Your Listening and Communication Skills
The most important skill to think about developing when you are considering how to become a mental health counselor, is communication. When you are selecting your training program, which we will go on to discuss, you should find a course that focuses on communication. You may find that depending on your background, your communication skills are already well defined, but it’s not something that you can ever practice too much!
Some of the communication skills that a mental health counselor needs to possess are:
- Empathy – The ability to understand another person’s experiences, even when they do not explicitly describe every detail of them to you. You will be able to understand the choices of the other person, even if they are choices that you wouldn’t personally make so that you can guide your client and help them to explore what they are feeling. A therapist with excellent empathy skills will be able to tell where a client’s difficult feelings are coming from, even when the client themselves cannot.
- Listening – Therapists practice active listening, which involves listening and reflecting back at the client what they have said to you. It also involves being aware of body language and being able to pick up on the things that a client is not saying. For example, you might notice that they seem agitated when talking about a particular thing.
- Boundaries – It is important that as a counselor, you set boundaries with your patients in order to preserve the therapeutic nature of the relationship.
- Communication – You must be skilled at communicating your meaning to your patient so that they do not misunderstand you, and you must also be able to set them at ease so that you can build up a relationship where they can trust you.
Understand Cultural Impacts on Mental Health
Another topic which you must develop a strong grasp of when considering how to become a mental health counselor, is the impact that a person’s background and culture has on the mental health of the individual.
The way that mental health and mental illness is perceived is different in every culture. In many cultures, there is a stigma around mental illness which may prevent people from seeking treatment, and it may mean that they show resistance to treatment once they have been diagnosed.
Culture can also have an impact on the ways that people talk about their symptoms. For example, in some cultures, only physical ailments might be considered a symptom of illness, whereas in others, there may be a stronger focus on the emotional. An awareness of this on the part of the counselor could help them to prompt their patient to be able to ‘fill in the gaps’ and talk about the symptoms that they might not on their own.
It’s also important for a counselor to understand what kind of support their patient is likely to be receiving outside of therapy sessions, as this will impact on what treatment methods may be utilized and how effective they are likely to be.
Develop Strong Critical Thinking Skills
Mental health counselors are involved in the assessment of patients, the diagnoses of conditions and the development of treatment plans.
When thinking about how to become a mental health counselor, it’s important to think about developing the critical thinking skills that will allow you to do this.
You will need to be able to take into account everything a patient has told you, as well as the knowledge you have of their background and previous diagnoses, and cross reference this information in order to form an opinion of their current status and the best way to proceed. Good counselors will keep abreast of the latest treatment options that are being developed across the field, and where appropriate, try new and pioneering techniques on their patients, all the while keeping a scientific framework in place that allows analysis of the effectiveness of the treatment. You will need to constantly revise and assess treatment plans as they are ongoing, in order to provide your patients with the best possible outcome.
You will also need to apply this critical thinking ability in helping your patients to set goals and boundaries in their own lives, allowing them to create a happier future for themselves.
Understand Counseling as a Business
All counselors have a set of legal and ethical responsibilities, which you must understand fully when learning how to become a mental health counselor.
You will need to keep records of your patients, their diagnoses, treatment plans, and progress, and you must ensure that these records remain absolutely confidential. You will also need to have excellent time keeping and organizational skills, the impact of you missing a scheduled session with a client due to poor timekeeping could be catastrophic for the trust in the relationship.
Many counselors choose to go into private practice, and if this is something that you would like to do you will also need to learn about running a small business or at least employ someone who can do that side of things for you. You will need to manage your finances, pay your taxes, devise a marketing strategy to get business and maintain your reputation, and carry out the day to day administrative tasks that are involved with running any office.
Think About Where You Would Want to Work
Mental health counselors can work in a variety of settings, and when you are considering how to become a mental health counselor, you need to think about where it is that you would like to end up working and consider whether there are any additional skills that you need to acquire to help you with your specific goal.
Places that you might work are:
- Correctional facilities
- Health centers
- Insurance organizations
- Inpatient and outpatient facilities
- Not for profits
- Public and private practices
- Residential care facilities
- Scientific and technical facilities
If, for example, you wanted to work in a correctional facility it would be worth ensuring that you understand the relationship between mental illness and incarceration.
If you aren’t sure about where you might want to work then spend some time researching this. Contact organizations who employ mental health counselors and try to get a feel for what the day to day working conditions are like. You could also consider the salary in different sectors as a criteria for deciding where to work.
The median pay for mental health counselors across all sectors was $46,240 in May 2019, however, the average differs depending on the area of the country and also which industry the counselor is working in. For example, counselors employed by the Government earned an average of $52,720, whereas those employed in residential facilities earned an average of $39,690.
It’s also worth considering the average hours worked in your chosen setting. In general, mental health counselors will work during the day, during the week. However, those working at inpatient facilities might be called upon to work outside of those hours.
Choose Your Masters Program
To become a clinical mental health counselor, you will need to obtain a masters level qualification at a minimum. When deciding how to become a mental health counselor and which degree course to take, it’s important that you choose a course that will provide you with the skills you need to reach your specific career goals.
It’s also essential that the course you choose is CACREP accredited. If it isn’t, you will need to have your coursework evaluated by CACREP to see whether the work you have done is relevant.
A key part of selecting your masters program is ensuring that they will support you in gaining clinical experience and that you are able to fit the work in around your life. More and more institutions are making their programs available online, which makes it much easier to fit your work in around the rest of your life. You will still have the same communication with your tutors and fellow students, only from the comfort of your living room!
Gain Clinical Experience
In order to become licensed as a mental health counselor, you will need to gain 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. This is an invaluable part of how to become a mental health counselor, as it allows you to apply all that you learn in the classroom to a real-life setting. The way the supervised experience works will differ from placement to placement. Still, in general, you would expect to meet with your supervisor regularly to discuss your progress and any issues you are facing. You might record your sessions with patients and listen to them with your supervisor, so that they can offer you support and advice on how to improve.
When you are choosing where to gain your clinical experience, it’s worth thinking about what kind of environment you would like to work in after you graduate. If you can gain experience in an institution that you would like to work in one day this can be a great way of showing your future employers what you are like, as well as gaining the specific skills that they find valuable.
Pay for Your Studies
Undertaking postgraduate education is an expensive business, so it’s important to think about how you will pay for it while you are considering how to become a mental health counselor.
Of course, there are federal and private loans available to pay for your studies, which can be worthwhile if you are taking a degree course, which is highly likely to result in employment if you can find one. Grants for your education are a great option because it means that you won’t need to pay them back.
A multitude of nonprofit organizations offer grants to help people with the costs of education, and many states are now investing money into training healthcare professionals because of the predicted rise in employment in this area across the country. It’s definitely worth spending a little time doing some research.
Get Licensed by Your State
The final step in your journey of how to become a mental health counselor is to get your license. A lot of states will need you to sit an exam to gain a license before you are allowed to practice as a mental health counselor. Typically this is the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). If you have undertaken a masters program then this exam shouldn’t be too hard, but you may need to do some studying! There are also different levels of licensing available in some states, which allow you to work more independently and without supervision once you achieve them.
Before you begin your program of study it’s important that you take the time to review the requirements for the state you are planning to practice in to ensure that you are meeting their requirements.