Health & Wellness

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselor are essential in helping people whose lives are being ruined by ill mental health to manage or overcome their conditions and to help them to improve their lives so that they can enjoy living once again.

They are also instrumental in an educational capacity, helping the family members of people with a mental health issue to better support their loved one and to deal with their own feelings around their illness.

As well as discussing how to become a mental health counselor, we will take a look at the impacts of mental illness and the career outlook for mental health counselors.

Mental Health in America

According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, 43.8 million adults in America experience a mental illness each year; that’s 1 in 5 adults.

As many as 1 in 25 people, 10 million adults, suffer from a serious mental illness, which impacts their ability to function and live a normal life. 

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. It is a major contribution to the development of physical disease because people with depression are less likely to pay attention to their health and well-being. The increasing rates of obesity and diabetes in America are strongly linked with the rates of depression.

Serious mental illness costs around $193 billion each year in lost earnings. This impact on the economy then has further implications for the mental well-being of Americans because if we are worrying about how to feed ourselves and pay for a place to live, this has a hugely detrimental impact on mental health. This in turn, impacts our ability to go out and earn money. It’s a vicious cycle.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US, and in 90% of suicides, there was an underlying mental health condition – treating mental illness is life-saving.

As a country, we are becoming more aware of the importance of prioritizing mental health, but there is still a long way to go. Nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness are not receiving treatment; the reasons for this are complex. Mental health care can be expensive and, therefore, difficult for a lot of people to access. More than this, there is a great deal of stigma and shame around mental illness. A lot of people either don’t want to acknowledge that they are unwell or are afraid to seek help because of what this might mean for their lives.

By learning how to become a mental health counselor, you are taking the first step towards helping to break down this stigma. As more and more people have their lives improved through the treatment of their mental health problems, the more people will want to seek out treatment for themselves.

Impacts on Lives

Mental health counseling is all about helping individuals and their families with mental illness, so before we discuss how to become a mental health counselor, it’s important to understand the impacts that mental illness can have on lives.

The four main mental illnesses that are diagnosed in America are:

  • Anxiety – 18.1% of Americans, or 42 million people, are living with an anxiety disorder. This can manifest in a number of ways; people with anxiety may have a specific and debilitating phobia, they may be afraid to leave the house, or they may have more ”generalized” anxiety where they are often filled with an unexplained feeling of dread. These feelings are persistent, and the sufferer can’t easily get rid of them. Anxiety can lead to panic attacks and physical symptoms, such as headaches and nausea.
  • Depression – 6.9% of Americans, or 16 million people, have depression. Depression is characterized by an extremely low mood and a lack of interest in things that you previously enjoyed. It can also cause increases or decreases in appetite and a feeling of fatigue. Perhaps the most challenging part of depression is that your world view becomes skewed; you may feel as though nobody likes you or you will never succeed. It can also feel as though things will never get better.
  • Bipolar Disorder – 2.6% of Americans, or 6.1 million people, have Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar means swinging between extreme highs and lows in mood. The lows are characterized by numbing depression, and the highs can be characterized by reckless behavior such as gambling, promiscuity, or spending all of your money. People suffering with bipolar often have delusional thinking.
  • Schizophrenia – 1.1% of Americans, or 2.4 million people, have Schizophrenia. Schizophrenia sufferers can see and hear things that aren’t there, and the hallucinations that they are experiencing are often very frightening. Unsurprisingly, Schizophrenia is also accompanied by extremes of mood.

The symptoms of mental illness are debilitating enough, but they also have further consequences. Many people with mental health problems also have problems with addiction, sometimes developed to deal with their poor mental health.

A survey conducted of adults living in homeless shelters found that 26% of them were suffering with mental illness. Mental health conditions can make it incredibly difficult to remain in employment, and people with mental illnesses often don’t have a strong support network, so it’s all too easy for them to become homeless. This then makes a recovery from their mental illness all the more difficult because living on the street is a harrowing experience even for those who had previously been mentally well. This ”downward spiral” effect can also be seen in state prisons, where 24% of prisoners had a recent history of mental ill health.

How Do Mental Health Counselors Help?

By learning how to become a mental health counselor, you are learning how to directly help individual people to make positive changes in their lives.

Mental health counselors can work long hours, but typically they don’t work ”anti-social” hours so it’s a good career for people who want to work in healthcare but don’t want to have to work shifts and sacrifice time with their own families. You can also opt to work privately and open your own practice, which affords an additional degree of flexibility.

On a typical day, the main task of a counselor is speaking with their clients. They will utilize the communication skills that they have learned during their training to create an environment where the client feels as though they can safely and freely discuss the things that they are feeling. Through discussion about their lives and their relationships, the counselor helps the client to come to realizations about themselves, which can help them to make positive changes. Crucially, the counselor also provides a feeling for the client that there is a space in the world where they are cared for, which can have an enormous positive impact.

Some mental health counselors might facilitate group therapy sessions; for example if they were working with a Narcotics Charity they might run group therapy sessions for people who are struggling with addiction. This can help the clients to foster a sense of community while working to implement positive self-care strategies under the supervision of the counselor.

Counselors must also keep meticulous records of clients’ treatment, which are protected by a strong confidentiality agreement, and assess their patients for risk of suicide or other harmful behaviors for safeguarding purposes.

Counselors may also be involved with crisis interventions from time to time, such as when a client has made or is threatening to make a suicide attempt. They will also liaise with other healthcare providers involved in the care of the client, as well as working with families and other care providers to ensure that the treatment plan is effective.

If this sounds like a career that would be a good fit for you, then read on to find out how to become a mental health counselor.

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

To become a mental health counselor, you will first need to take the licensed mental health counselor exam for your state. You will also need to have completed 3,000 hours of supervised clinical hours and hold either a master’s or a doctoral degree in mental health counseling.

When thinking about how to become a mental illness counselor for yourself, the first step is choosing masters or doctoral program that’s right for you.

A requirement of counseling licensure is to have 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience; it’s important that you choose a degree program that will support you to find and complete clinical placements. Good educational institutions should have links to counseling practices which you can utilize.

Secondly, it’s important that you choose a degree program that fits in with your life. More and more counseling programs are available online, so if you have childcare or work commitments that would make it difficult to attend a bricks and mortar institution, then this doesn’t need to stop you from following your dream.

Finally, it’s important to ensure that you feel as though the degree program you choose will leave you feeling prepared to work as a counselor when you graduate. Not only should your course provide you with the communication skills that you will need, but it should also teach you about the ”business” side of counseling, the paperwork that you will be required to fill out, and the checks you will need to make. You should also be able to build up a community of trainee counselors and supervisors throughout your training, who you can turn to for support, not only during your training but after graduation and beyond. Having a network of people working towards a similar goal to you is invaluable both to keep you motivated and to help you to solve any problems that you might have.

Career Outlook for Mental Health Counselors

According to the US News and World report, mental health counseling is in the top 10 best social service jobs and the top 100 jobs. Mental health counseling professionals are generally very satisfied with their careers.

The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) is predicting a 25% increase in the number of substance abuse, behavioral and mental health counselors between 2019 and 2029, with an additional 79,000 jobs predicted. The average growth across other professions is only 4%, so this field is growing much more quickly, which means greater job security for mental health counselors. The reason for this growth is the increasing awareness of mental health and treatment for addiction as a priority, and more people seeking treatment as a result. The healthcare sectors in the US are focusing more on preventative treatments for physical health issues, and counseling is a big part of that.

You could work in a wide variety of different settings as a mental health counselor. Some counselors work with veterans through the VA (Veterans Association), helping returning soldiers to acclimatize to civilian life. Some counselors work specifically with people who have substance abuse problems, helping them initially to implement plans to decrease their substance use and then to help them to maintain sobriety.

You could also specialize as a youth counselor, working with children and teenagers. NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness) reports that one-half of all chronic mental illnesses occur before the age of 14 and three quarters by the age of 24. Working with children and teens at this early stage of their illness can be instrumental in determining the impact that it has on their lives.

Possibly the biggest question for people asking about how to become a mental health counselor is the salary. In May 2019, the median salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and mental health counselors was $46,240. This is higher than the average salary across all professions, which was $39,810. The lowest 10 percent of counselors were paid less than $29,520, while the highest 10 percent were paid more than $76,080. These averages encompass a wide range of different roles across the country, so it’s worth doing your research based on where you are likely to be working to see what your salary expectations are.

The BLS found that the highest-paid counselors were employed in government positions, whereas the lowest-paid were employed in residential mental health and substance abuse facilities.


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