Master’s of clinical mental health counseling programs guide

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Introduction to clinical mental health counseling programs

Before pursuing a role in mental health, consider what kind of counselor you want to become. There are a host of specialties, and the graduate degree program you choose can impact the positions you can qualify for in the future.

For example, you might want to work as a career counselor and support your clients in identifying and establishing themselves in their careers. You could consider marriage counseling and provide support and advice to couples who are struggling with issues in their relationships. You might be interested in a role that focuses on helping people with depression, addiction, anxiety, and stress.

Many counseling positions require a master’s degree. Mental health counseling courses are designed to equip you with a broad range of skills.

The demand for counselors is high. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), each year 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness. People can often successfully manage their conditions with the right support from a counselor.

In 2018, only 43.3% of adults in the U.S. with mental illness received treatment. A higher number of well-trained professionals in this field could contribute to a vast improvement in those statistics.

Earning a clinical mental health counseling degree

Clinical mental health counseling master’s degrees share some general core elements. These elements include ethical practice, understanding diversity, establishing counseling or helping relationships, and critical thinking skills. Additionally, students generally learn about the different approaches to counseling, including psychoanalysis, person-centered, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

The types of master’s degrees for counseling vary depending on the institution. You could earn a master of science (M.S.), a master of counseling (M.Coun), or a master’s degree in education (M.Ed.). These degrees should provide you with the necessary knowledge and skills to become an effective professional counselor. You are likely to find a mix of theory and practice in the curriculum.

The majority of courses have electives designed to help you meet the requirements for licensure, depending on where you plan to practice. Most employment positions require the minimum of a master’s degree as well as a license.

Requirements for entry into a master’s program

Applicants for master’s degree programs will need to meet several requirements. Most institutions ask for the official transcript from your undergraduate institution. Your major is generally not highly scrutinized, although some universities are more likely to consider those with a psychology or human development background. 

The majority of schools ask for a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0. You might still qualify with a lower average if you can provide supporting experience. Especially if your bachelor’s degree is from a program that doesn’t hand out grades, you may need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test and submit your score.   

You may also need to supply a letter of intent that sets out your goals for your education and career. Other requirements include a resume and letters of recommendation from your employer or academic supervisors.  

Generally, deadlines are in the summer semester, with courses starting in the fall. Many applications can be filled out online by accessing the institution’s website and navigating to the section for prospective students.  

Online and campus study

The 2 primary options for completing counseling degree programs are on-campus or hybrid learning. Although courses are available online, the supervised practicum and internship elements mean that not everything can be completed digitally.

If you’re looking for a flexible program, a hybrid program might suit your needs. Like completely online programs, hybrid programs generally allow you to complete the theoretical parts online to better fit your studies around your work or family life. The difference between these 2 types of programs is that with a hybrid program you may need to attend weekend or other classes for group work and the supervised practicum elements.


Accreditation is a quality assurance system that’s carried out through peer review. It allows students to recognize which university has content that meets professional standards. Most likely, the financial stability of an institution has also been evaluated.

Certified universities will display the name and logo of the accrediting body. The main route for accreditation for counseling courses is through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). However, the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) also reviews institutions.

Counseling career options

Earning a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling could lead to many different careers. They include roles in the following areas:

  • Career guidance
  • Depression
  • Grief
  • Substance abuse
  • Couples therapy
  • Family
  • Hospital
  • Rehabilitation

The average annual salary for a licensed professional counselor is $48,648.

Counseling master’s degree program details

Programs are typically available on a full- or part-time basis. Depending on which route you choose, you could complete your program in 18 months to 2 years. If a more flexible approach is taken, it could take 3.5 to 4 years of study.

The majority of master’s degrees in clinical mental health counseling require you to complete between 60 to 90 credits. You’ll find that these graduate degrees are likely to be a mix between theory and practical, hands-on education. You might need to complete independent study and group work as well.

The internship usually has an assigned number of credits. It might also have a minimum requirement for the number of hours to be completed, for instance, 16 to 24 hours or around 2 semesters in length. Other courses typically require a minimum of 700 hours of supervised client counseling.

The internship and supervised practicum are crucial elements of the course, as they provide direct experience and a sense of what it’s like to be a counselor. Plus, most states require a minimum number of counseling hours before you can practice independently.

Most programs also include classes on continuing education and professional development. This generally includes self-awareness, evaluating your skills, and reviewing career prospects. It also covers the credit requirements you’ll need to keep up your license.

Program focus

A master’s degree in counseling might begin with a background survey on the main theories and techniques of therapy. After that, mental health programs focus on a broad range of issues. You’ll likely be able to choose electives that cover different counseling specializations. These could include:

  • Trauma
  • Career
  • Education
  • Forensic
  • Family
  • Addiction
  • Military families and culture

Other modules include multicultural theory, couples counseling, and practice and research methods for education. You might also study human growth and development. Additionally, you could expect to undertake a supervised practicum in counseling and an internship. Many institutions will attempt to help you find an appropriate placement that fits with your program concentration.

Degree program costs

Master’s degree programs often have a small application fee. The primary cost is the tuition payment, which is calculated either by school year or on a per-credit basis. This amount can range from $560 to $680 per credit for hybrid courses.

Campus-based mental health counseling programs that charge per year generally have different charges for in-state and out-of-state students. These master’s degrees can cost around $16,500 for in-state residents and $35,000 for all other students.

Financial aid

There are several opportunities typically available to secure financial support for your counseling master’s program. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the best resources to help you find financial aid. 

You could apply for a grant from specific organizations such as the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) You can find grants for programs from different states to help you specialize in services for the visually impaired, those with disabilities, and vocational rehab. Alternatively, there’s the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which offers financial assistance in areas such as suicide prevention. 

Licensed professional counselors

Before embarking on your career as a counselor, you’ll need to become fully licensed. Each state has its own individual requirements. However, the majority ask that applicants have a master’s degree in an appropriate subject, such as clinical mental health counseling. They’ll also specify a minimum number of practice hours and a period of supervision. 

You might have the title of licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), or licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC), depending on your region. Most states use the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). You can find your state licensure and certification boards through a tool on the American Counseling Association website. 

You may also want to seek voluntary certification from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). It offers specialist accreditations for clinical mental health, addiction, and school counseling. Having this credential as a National Certified Counselor (NCC) shows clients that you meet and uphold specific standards.  

Further education options

To continue your education, you could pursue a doctorate of psychology (Ph.D.), the terminal degree for counseling. A Ph.D. could lead to a career in research or teaching at a college or university. There are doctoral programs in counseling, advanced studies in human behavior, and counselor education and supervision.

Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) 

The website for the main accrediting body for schools providing counseling courses. 

Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) 

The website for another accreditation council, specifically for master’s level degrees. 

National Board for Certified Counselors 

The website for the certifying body for the voluntary status of National Certified Counselors. 

American Counseling Association 

A counseling membership body, a resource for professional information, and a service to search for state licensure boards. 

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