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How to Become a Counselor in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Steps to becoming a counselor

Counseling is a broad field that covers a range of careers within the field of psychology and mental health. With an average annual wage of $47,660 per year for entry-level counselors, wages are around the same as the national average. However, if you’re the sort of person who takes pride in their understanding of human behavior and thrives on helping others, the career satisfaction you’ll get is priceless.

Counselors tend to specialize in a particular field, although they often work with a range of different conditions and therapeutic approaches. In this article, you’ll discover how to become a counselor, learn about the various psychology degree paths and licensure routes, and find out about the different settings counselors work in.

What do counselors do?

Professional mental health counselors are responsible for diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. Talking therapies and communication serve as the main tools these health care professionals use, and they’re expected to have an extensive understanding of mental health approaches throughout history up until the present day. Some of the disorders a counselor is expected to understand include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Sex addiction
  • Gambling addiction
  • Psychosis
  • Substance use disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • PTSD

However, counselors often work with individuals and groups with no specific diagnoses. Chronic stress, self-esteem, bullying, trauma, anger management, and domestic abuse can cause lasting damage to a person’s overall wellbeing without treatment. Mental health practitioners use their extensive knowledge of human behavior to help people overcome psychological issues that prevent them from getting the most out of life.

Some of the main duties a counselor performs in daily practice include:

  • Supporting clients through the therapeutic process and promoting recovery
  • Recognizing symptoms of mental illness 
  • Compiling treatment plans to support patients over a set time period
  • Helping clients understand behavioral patterns and challenging emotions
  • Overseeing group sessions with loved ones
  • Explaining complex concepts in easy to understand language
  • Providing education about the various types of therapy
  • Referring clients to other service providers
  • Tracking progress as patients move through the treatment plan
  • Empowering clients to develop and use healthy coping mechanism
  • Inspiring patients to believe in their ability to heal 

Counseling skills

Counselors require an extensive education to teach them about the multiple facets of mental health care. It’s possible to learn any skill, provided you have the necessary determination and put in the required time and effort. Whether you’re looking to reskill as a mental health practitioner or you’re in education and want to start a career in professional counseling, these are the most important capabilities all professionals must demonstrate:

Listening: Active listening is the most crucial component of a mental health counselor’s role. Aside from the knowledge you gain in your studies, your patients’ words are the most important data set you’ll have. You can’t assume what the issue is based on anything other than the scientific literature and the signs and symptoms your client displays. While they might not always be honest or fully understand their situation, what they say and how to speak is the only way you can gain insight into the truth of their situation. 

Speaking: While listening is crucial, clients are often keen to hear your advice and perspective. You’ll need excellent verbal and non-verbal skills to be able to gain the trust of your patients and guide them in the right direction.

Problem-solving: Problem solving involves confidently making connections between the information you’re faced with and the knowledge you have. You’re setting the example in the therapeutic relationship, and coming up with practical, actionable solutions to problems is a key aspect of this interaction.

Critical thinking: Critical thinking is a self-motivated approach that’s essential for effective problem-solving in challenging situations. As a counselor, you have your clients’ wellbeing in your hands, so it’s essential that you apply logic and reason to all aspects of practice.

Research: One of the most important things a counselor does is conduct research. Initially, this is to learn about the current literature and history of psychology, but eventually you might use research to develop your own theories and move the field forward. Every action you take as a counselor should be grounded in research and the rigor of the scientific process.   

How to become a licensed clinical professional counselor

The level of education you pursue depends on the particular pathway within the field of mental health counseling you wish to enter. Licensure and certification requirements vary between states, but here’s a quick guide to becoming a licensed clinical professional counselor:

  1. Earning a bachelor’s degree is a requisite for anyone who wants to obtain licensure as a mental health counselor. While similar degrees are often accepted by universities, a specific counseling degree is best to give you the foundational knowledge.
  2. An accredited master’s degree is also a requisite for a practicing licensed mental health counselor. CACREP is the most well-known accreditation body, but there are other recognized organizations backing top counseling degrees.
  3. If you aim to become a counseling psychologist, you’ll need to pursue a doctoral degree. Both graduate and post-graduate degree programs require fieldwork and internships so you can get hands-on experience to prepare for a career in mental health care.
  4. Most states require that you pass recognized counseling examinations for graduation or licensure. The National Counselor Examination and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination are the two most common, although some states might require additional steps for licensure

Entry-level counseling jobs

Of course, not everyone who studies counseling at bachelor’s degree level wants to go all the way through to earning a graduate degree or higher. There are plenty of entry-level careers for psychology graduates, such as:

Substance abuse counselor: Sometimes called addiction counselors, SUD counselors help individuals who are overcoming alcoholism and drug addiction. They can work in correctional settings, rehab centers, hospitals, and youth centers.

These health care professionals use their knowledge of human behavior to assess, treat, and supervise individuals with an SUD diagnosis. In many cases, addiction is a maladaptive coping mechanism. In this role, you have the capacity to help clients understand their situation and develop new, healthy coping mechanisms. 

Youth counselor: If you’re passionate about working with young people, a career as a juvenile or youth counselor could be incredibly rewarding. Socioeconomic imbalances and social issues mean that many children are born into homes that aren’t fully-equipped to support their development. Counselors help these young people, who often end up committing crimes or harming themselves, by developing care plans and offering support and advice.

College counselor: One of the most crucial times of anyone’s life is the transition between finishing school and entering the workforce. College counselors help clients with graduation, financial aid, job searching, coursework, and psychological services. 

Educational requirements for becoming a counselor

Counselors have a lot of responsibility, which means they must study extensively. A four-year bachelor’s degree is required in all states, and in most cases, a master’s degree is necessary to get a license and start practicing. Getting a bachelor’s degree in counseling is the most effective way to prepare for a master’s degree. 

Bachelor’s degree

Most undergraduate degree programs in counseling are a mixture of liberal arts and science. If you see yourself entering a career in counseling, you should start thinking about your graduate pathways in junior year. The more you can hone in on counseling as a specialty, the better prepared you’ll be — and your CV will look better to prospective colleges and employers.

Psychology, human services, and counseling are the main degree courses you should study at this stage, but some colleges accept any major. 

Course examples

Let’s take a look at some of the courses you might study on an undergraduate degree in counseling:

  • Introduction to psychology: In this subject, you’ll learn about theories on personality, memory, ethics, problem solving, and learning. 
  • Human behavior and environment: This course teaches students how to identify, define, and explain behavior. Communities, society, family units, and institutions play a major role in shaping the psyche — in addition to helping people overcome psychological issues. You’ll learn various theories and how to incorporate them into practical interventions. 
  • Interpersonal communication: Communicating in personal and professional situations is usually completely different. However, as a counselor, you’ll straddle both with your clients. This course teaches you how to navigate deeply personal interactions while remaining professional during psychological interventions.
  • Prevention and crisis intervention: When it comes to prevention and intervention, different demographic groups have different risk factors. This course teaches learners how to distinguish between the two strategies and demonstrates the ethical implications of both.
  • Case management in human services: People who work as counselors have to juggle heavy caseloads with multiple clients at all times. This course offers guidance on how to effectively and efficiently manage and organize data, as well as teaching critical skills. 

Master’s degree

There are an array of master’s degree programs available for individuals who wish to advance to the top of the counseling field, including Master of Science, Master of Art, and Educational Specialism. Art therapy, rehabilitation counseling, school counseling, marriage and family therapy, counseling psychology, and general psychology are some examples. 

It usually takes between two and three years to complete a master’s degree, which combines learning with on the job experience. 

Course examples

Some of the courses you might study on a master’s degree in counseling include:

  • Counseling theories
  • Group counseling theory and practice
  • Research methods
  • Spousal and child abuse, crisis, and trauma counseling
  • Psychopathology and counseling
  • Career development and counseling
  • Social and cultural diversity issues in counseling

Counseling psychology Ph.D. 

Earning a Ph.D. in counseling psychology is seen by many in the field as the pinnacle of counseling education. It allows you to open your own practice and work across the various fields of counseling, with people of all age groups. In addition to gaining extensive experience through internships, you’ll conduct research to assess and develop new treatment methods for people with mental health concerns.

People with a counseling psychology Ph.D. have significant potential to develop and improve the practice. You’ll learn techniques for assessing, diagnosing, and treating clients who present a wide range of symptoms, and take part in a year-long field placement or internship.

How long does it take to become a counseling psychologist?

Earning a Ph.D. can take anywhere between four and eight years, which is equivalent to 90 to 150 credits. 

Professional organizations for counseling psychology

Joining professional organizations is one of the best ways to get ahead in your career. They give you access to industry professionals to network with, conferences to attend, industry news, and access to career opportunities. Some of the most useful organizations to join include:

Licensure required to become a counselor

Counselors play a major role in improving society and helping people overcome mental health struggles. To upkeep public safety and ensure consistency, there are licensure and certification standards in place for counselors in all states. Below is a general explanation of how to get licensed as a counselor,

How to become a licensed counselor

The requirements for getting your license vary depending on the state you wish to practice in, but these are the typical requisites:

  1. Get your master’s degree
  2. Complete the clinical practice hours requirements 
  3. Go through a background check, including proof of ID and fingerprinting
  4. Pass one or both of the counselor licensure examinations
  5. Obtain certification if necessary

While your license is issued by the state you practice in, the NCE examination is a national counselor exam. Some states require that you pass a third exam, the clinical rehabilitation counselor examination. Others necessitate supplemental examinations in jurisprudence or ethics. 

Career options available in counseling

Counseling can be an umbrella term or a discipline in its own right, and there are many pathways to explore while studying. In general, deciding what you’d like to do as a job sooner rather than later provides you with additional opportunities to zero in on that specialization and get as much experience in the field as possible, while also making your academic record more attractive to prospective employers and educational institutes. 

Read on to find out everything you need to know about career options for counselors: 

Where do counselors work? 

You should base when you choose to work on your preferences and passions. For example, if you like the idea of being on the front lines as a certified counselor, offering guidance to those who need it most, you might work in a hospital or youth detention center. If you care deeply about caring for the elderly, working in a senior care facility would be ideal. Being motivated by the service you provide will help you navigate this challenging yet rewarding role.

Let’s take a look at some of the settings counselors work:

Hospitals: Counselors in hospitals perform a variety of functions, from mental health evaluations to family grief counseling. Some work in a department of the hospital, helping people who have a specific condition, while others work in a more general capacity, helping patients overcome behavioral and psychological challenges. Ph.D. counselors can work as clinical supervisors or work as part of the health care administration team. 

Care facilities: Residential care facilities such as homes for children with disabilities or facilities for adults with severe mental or physical impairments require counselors. You can usually work in this type of setting with an undergraduate degree, and you’ll help residents in one-on-one and group sessions.

Residential and outpatient rehab and detox centers: Around 10% of Americans have experienced addiction at some point, but only a fraction of these people get treatment. In the past, there was a stigma attached to mental health care and particularly addiction. As this gradually dissolves, more people than ever are seeking treatment at rehab and detox clinics. Counselors help people with an SUD diagnosis understand the causes of addiction and implement healthy coping mechanisms.

Mental health facilities: Working as part of the team at a mental health facility sees you work with people who have been admitted in an acute capacity or as part of their long-term health care plan. This branch of counseling can be hugely challenging and equally rewarding as you’ll often help individuals who are suffering considerably as a result of their condition. 

Elder care facilities: The population is aging, and that means the demand for counselors in senior care facilities is set to continue growing. Getting older can lead to health concerns that trigger further mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Counselors in these settings work with residents to help them get the most out of the present moment and overcome challenges. 

Correctional facilities: Working as a counselor in a prison, jail, or correctional facility requires that you have a deep understanding of and compassion for your fellow human beings. You’ll need to work criminals without judgment, with the best interests of the patient and society at the forefront of everything you do. You might work with people who have committed terrible crimes, so resilience and strength of character are essential traits for workers in this field.

Career centers: While some people know what they want to do as a career from a young age, many struggle to know the best ways to develop their passions and skills. Working as a careers counselor means you’re contributing directly to making society a better place, and helping people find the job that gives them maximum satisfaction.

Educational facilities: Children go through an incredible amount in a very short period of time, and have to navigate obtaining their education while going through the most extreme hormonal shifts they’ll experience in their lives. Some counselors offer crisis intervention services in case of events like suicide, death of a student, or a school shooting. Others might work one on one with children who are experiencing problems at home or school.

Rehabilitation centers: Rehabilitation centers help people who have been through life-changing events or have disabilities, such as a stroke or cerebral palsy. People with disabilities have to cope with feeling out of place within a society that values fitting in, and a counselor can help them cope with these feelings. The physical progress of a person who’s experienced a traumatic event might be restricted by their mental state. A counselor can help someone feel more confident and worthy so they’re better prepared for physical therapy.

Types of counselor

There are many types of counselor who work in the locations mentioned above. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular career paths for counseling graduates.

Licensed professional counselor

Licensed professional counselors are trained to at least master’s level, and they can work with groups, individuals, and families, treating various emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders and issues. This is the most popular career path for people who study general counseling or counseling psychology. 

Marriage counselor

Family units are perhaps the most important and complex groups within our society. The way these units collectively function has a huge impact on communities and individuals. Issues from one or both partners’ childhoods can resurface and lead to problems in a family that was once thriving. In some cases, people have emotional or behavioral problems that are causing friction in a relationship.

As a marriage counselor, you help people communicate better, set boundaries, and understand each other’s point of view.

Mental health counselor

Mental health counselors are usually the first line of defense when it comes to referrals for mental health concerns. You offer guidance to groups, individuals, couples, and families to help them cope with challenges that affect their health and wellbeing. A key aspect of this role is encouraging people to be open about their experiences and emotions so they can learn to overcome difficulties in a healthy way.

Recreational therapist

Recreational therapy is a branch of counseling that helps people who have physical or mental illness to become active and get the most out of life. You’ll assess medical records and make observations to determine the best experiential course of action for various individuals with conditions that impair their senses.

By using recreational therapies such as dance, animal care, art, games, sports, and music, you inspire recovery in a way that’s fun and helps the client develop long-term, effective coping mechanisms.

Rehabilitation counselor

Rehabilitation counselors work with people who have a disability or been in an accident to regain or develop independence. You’ll help patients to reach their specific goals and enhance quality of life through activities, talking therapy, and implementing long-term plans. Counselors in this field tend to enter a specialization such as head injuries, deafness, blindness, or spinal cord injuries. 

School counselor

Working in a school is one of the most popular career paths for counselors because you have the opportunity to help children while their minds are still developing. School counselors can work at elementary school, high school, and college. Your main role is usually listening to students’ concerns and offering advice, but you might also work in a crisis intervention capacity.

Addiction counselor

Issues such as the prescription opioid crisis and the growing impact drugs such as fentanyl are having on society means SUD counselors are in higher demand than ever. In this role, you might work as part of a team in a rehab or detox clinic, or as an independent practitioner in an outpatient setting. This type of counselor can also be found in prisons, schools, and VA hospitals.

Addiction isn’t a moral problem or a choice; it’s a complex mental disorder. Counselors work individually and one-on-one to help sufferers get to the bottom of why they misuse substances and develop healthy ways of dealing with challenging emotions.

Alternative paths for counseling psychologists

The above careers are the most popular routes for counselors. However, there are alternative jobs that have just as much utility for individuals who want to specialize in something more specific. 

Organizational counselor

Organizational counselors work within government, nonprofits, and companies to help managers and employees get the most out of work. They conduct psychometric tests and speak to team members to help ensure people are in the correct roles, and resolve issues that impact operations.

Group counselor

Group therapy is one of the most important tools in mental health treatment, and behavioral health problems in particular. While individual counseling is also an important component in treatment, it can never offer the real-time examples that peer group counseling offers. It’s usually much easier for people to recognize challenges in others than themselves, and counselors direct group sessions to make sure everyone gets a fair share and the conversation moves in the right direction. 

Sports psychologist

The dynamic of a sports team is just as important as it is in a company or organization. Plus, athletes are usually expected to physically push themselves beyond what’s expected in daily life. Sports counselors help individuals overcome limitations and mental hurdles to maximize the performance of the entire team.   

No matter which specialization you choose, a career in counseling offers excellent job prospects, opportunities for growth, and an enormous sense of satisfaction. Getting a license can take anywhere between four and ten years at university, and you’ll contribute to making the world a better place upon graduation.  

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