What is a Mental Health Counselor?

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A mental health counselor is a mental health professional who has completed education, training and licensing requirements in their state, and is authorized to provide mental health treatment, including diagnosis, testing and treatment. The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) provides information about this type of counselor, including accredited education programs and job duties. Licensed clinical mental health counselors have completed a master’s degree, at least two years of supervised internship work, and passed a state or national exam for certification.

Educational Requirements

Mental health counselors should complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology, counseling, or a related field, such as social work. Because they focus on the whole person and wellness, the core set of skills they will learn in graduate school mean that they need to complete a master’s degree program that aligns with the specialty’s standards. They should also be certain they are enrolled in a graduate degree program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Licensing Requirements

Licensed mental health counselors have different licensing standards depending upon the state in which they will practice. Counselors able to practice independently must complete a two-year supervised internship. Each state’s licensing exam and educational requirements differ, although all states require a master’s degree and passing a licensing exam. California refers to mental health counselors as Professional Clinical Counselors and requires that you complete an accredited counseling master’s degree program, a supervised practice of at least two full years, which must include supervised individual counseling, group therapy, and and telephone counseling. Most states require counselors to pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors. Some other examinations are administered by other organizations, and are accepted by some states.

Counseling Emphasis

The professional term mental health counselor represents a counseling specialty that focuses on the whole person, and on wellness and prevention. They need skills in diagnosis and mental health conditions, psychological testing, assessment and measurement, program evaluation and research, evidence-based counseling practices, social and cultural foundations of mental health and wellness, human growth and development, and lifestyle and career support.

Roles and Employers

Once they are licensed, mental health counselors can work in private practice, community mental health organizations, managed care organizations, hospitals, and substance misuse treatment centers. They can provide individual therapy, group therapy, and can set and review treatment plans. They provide psychotherapy, but generally on a crisis basis, not long-term therapy provided over the course of a number of years. The discipline’s emphasis is on wellness and on problem resolution and prevention. They seek to provide a positive path for change and resolution of individual crises and mental health challenges.

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Although their licensing requirements and educational paths are similar to Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) or Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), Clinical Mental Health Counselors have their own distinct treatment philosophy focused on wellness and establishing paths to better mental health and healthier lifestyles. They may specialize in addictions, family dysfunction, employee counseling or individual lifestyles or career paths such as sports counseling. The accreditation organization for the field, CACREP publishes guidelines for mental health counseling education and licenses in every state.