The Ultimate Guide to Mental Health Counseling

Students who are interested in a career in mental health counseling can open the door to rewarding and enjoyable work. 

The work of a counselor can make a true difference in a person’s life, and as the pressures of the modern world increase, there is more demand for counselors than ever. 

But if you’re considering a career in counseling and want to study an online masters in counseling, what does a mental health counselor actually do? And how do you get fully qualified for the job? 

In this ultimate guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about how to become a mental health counselor and what to expect in this in-demand profession. 

Why do we need mental health counselors? 

If you’ve already looked into studying for an online masters in counseling, you’re probably well aware of why we need counselors. The high demand for these therapists shows just how prevalent stress and mental health issues are in daily life. 

Those suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar, and other mental health conditions have suffered in the shadows for a long time, but as we aim to remove the stigma around talking about mental health, more of us are open to the idea of talking therapies. 

The National Institute of Mental Health recorded in 2017 that just under 20% of US adults were struggling with psychological conditions. The hardest-hit demographics were women, young adults aged 18-25, and multiracial people.

Psychological conditions can range from low intensity to debilitating – making daily life incredibly hard. 

And despite so many of us struggling, less than 50% of people are actually receiving the treatment they should be entitled to, as mental health is often a field overlooked by GPs, hospitals, and public health. 

That’s where an online masters in counseling can help. Clinical mental health counselors can work with clients to manage their conditions through medication and therapy. 

And without counselors, the consequences of undiagnosed and unmanaged mental health issues can be incredibly negative. Of course, a highly publicized consequence of unmanaged suffering is suicide. But there’s also those turning to substance abuse to manage day-to-day life, a reduction in productivity, the dependence on family members, and low quality of life. 

Graduates of an online masters in counseling will be able to make a difference in a whole range of client’s lives, from couples with marriage problems, families who are struggling, and even prisoners living with untreated mental health conditions behind bars. 

How to become a mental health counselor 

For several job roles within the counseling, the basic requirements are a bachelor’s degree. However, most employers in the public and private sectors expect candidates to have an in-person or online masters in counseling and proof of work experience within the field. Typically, masters degrees offer students the chance to take part in a placement or internship for extra credit. 

As well as academics, candidates will need to show their level of leadership, sensitivity, emotional maturity, and how they develop trust between them and their patients. 

To be an actual counselor, you’ll also be required to apply for a license from the American Counseling Association to be able to practice within your preferred state. 

To obtain a license, each state has different requirements but generally speaking; you will need to complete an online masters in counseling or on-campus degree and hundreds of hours of work and internships within the field. Some states may also require you to complete an additional examination to fully qualify. Preparation materials for this exam can be found online from certified testing organizations such as the National Board of Certified Counselors

Do I have the skills to become a counselor? 

As with most professions, an online masters in counseling is just the start of your skills development. Graduate courses and additional internships taken to get certified will give you the chance to learn both hard and soft skills needed for the role. 

‘Hard skills’ are those that can – and need to be – taught. For counseling, hard skills include the ability to practice psychotherapy diagnostics, managing workload, and even training on specific patient management software. All these skills are taught within a master’s course, while software can be learned on the job. 

‘Soft skills’ are more likely to be developed through practice and life experience. These skills include interpersonal relations, active listening, empathy, and patience. 

A lot of people will think that counseling is only an option for those naturally empathetic. But this is a complete myth. If you want to help people, but feel you don’t currently have the soft skills needed for the job, don’t worry – you’ll learn all you need to know through an online masters in counseling and related placements. 

Where do mental health counselors work?

While most of us assume counselors work in a private practice, there are several other working environments available. Those studying counseling will be given the chance to explore these environments through their choice of internship or placement. 

So, where else can mental health counselors work? 

Hospitals and health facilities

Sudden health changes, loss of loved ones, or drastic diagnoses can all cause significant stress for both inpatients and outpatients at the hospital. Clinical counselors in hospitals will work with patients struggling with grief, acceptance, and other health conditions. They also may be called on to assess patients for suicidal tendencies or to work with other colleagues for crisis intervention


Children struggling with behavioral issues are often labeled as ‘naughty’ but could have underlying issues that need addressing. Counselors in a school setting are able to work with children, parents, and teachers to help those that need additional support. School counselors will use both talking therapies and recreational activities such as storytelling, drawing, and art. 

Those interested in school counseling will be required to take an online masters in counseling with a focus on education and schooling. 


Similar to school children, university students may struggle with the challenges of new locations, higher expectations, and social pressures. College students are hugely susceptible to stress and developing mental health conditions. 

If you’re choosing to study for an online masters in counseling, you might have chosen to avoid campus life in the hope of reducing the added pressure and stress. However you choose to study, you will be in a great position to help others in similar situations. 

A university counselor will help those struggling with change to navigate their new surroundings, access medication and treatments they need, and help the university to maintain student retention rates. 

Public Sector

After studying for an online masters in counseling, you might also find yourself drawn to helping those within the public sector. Counselors can be hired by federal or state organizations to work with clients in prisons or even in the military. 

This line of work can be incredibly difficult for counselors but also greatly rewarding. Prisoners and veterans will likely have been through traumatic experiences that the average person could not imagine. This adds an additional layer of responsibility and stress for the counselor as they will need to take these experiences with added sensitivity. 

Private Practice 

Those interested in combining their counseling skills with a level of entrepreneurial knowledge might consider opening up their own private practice. Private practice counselors will work with clients typically in 45-1-hour sessions, and their responsibilities will be focused on scheduling and running their business, as well as therapy. 

Virtual Settings

Technological advancements have increased the level of accessibility for those needing counseling. Once you have finished your online masters in counseling, you might find meeting patients face-to-face a little intimidating. Virtual counselors can now work exclusively with clients online through video conference and counseling apps. Sites like BetterHelp allow counselors to provide therapy through video appointments, as well as supporting clients between session through messaging and calls. 

The day-to-day work of a counselor

Depending on which route you take after completing your online masters in counseling, your day-to-day work will have a strong focus on evaluating patients and discussing their concerns through regular, face-to-face appointments. 

However, this is just one portion of the work a counselor does. Counselors may also have a large waiting list of patients referred to them from physicians or the emergency room. 

The initial process of evaluating patients and the care they need will involve asking them to work through an intake form. An intake form will help you identify current symptoms and their severity, family history and relationships, current living situation, and any medical conditions or history of substance abuse. All of this information can help a counselor gauge a better idea as to where their issues may be coming from and the best course of action. 

Alongside the practical work required by a counselor, you will also need to keep on top of paperwork. This can be for healthcare records, as well as insurance plans. 

You may also be asked to take part in data collection and research projects about patients alongside your colleagues and other counselors. There will also be division meetings, calls with peers, and research into new technologies, treatments, and discoveries. 

How much do counselors earn?

When it comes to how much counselors earn, it’s worth mentioning that those with years of experience will naturally earn more than those just starting up. Another thing to consider is that those with their own private practice are able to schedule as many or as few appointments as they like. Therefore, the salaries for a counselor can significantly differ. 

That said, those that study an online masters in counseling can expect a salary of $40-58,000, with those in different states having various starting salaries available. 

How can I get started? 

Suppose you’re still in school and are looking to choose a degree option to set you on the path to a rewarding career like mental health counseling. In that case, it’s worth considering a counseling or psychology bachelor’s degree. 

Once you complete your undergraduate, take a look at an online masters in counseling as the next step. Employers find those with this additional training to be more equipped for real work settings. Within the masters, you’ll be given the chance to gain on-the-job experience within the field – ultimately giving you a better idea as to what’s expected and what the job entails day-to-day. 

Online courses have become a popular option for a lot of students across the US – especially after an uncertain year of stay-home policies. Many universities across the globe were forced to shut their doors to the campus, and as such, many students are looking at their online options for continuing their studies. 

Courses that can be accessed online are also beneficial for those who want to retrain in later life. Modules can be scheduled around work or family life – giving you the flexibility to pursue a second career without having to head back to college.

While studying for your online masters in counseling, make sure to keep a close eye on the job market. What types of jobs are taking your interest? What are their specific requirements? This will give you a better idea as to the steps you’ll need to take once you qualify. 

Finally, you’ll be expected to take the licensing exam and complete a designated number of hours working within the field. 

Once all of this is done, you’ll be a fully licensed counselor within your state and can open your own private practice or work in one of the other environments we’ve highlighted above.  

Final thoughts

So, this was our ultimate guide to mental health counseling. This in-demand career route can give graduates the chance to help vulnerable members of society day after day. There are plenty of different options for those who study an online masters in counseling, ranging from private practice to working with prisoners or veterans. 

Counseling can be incredibly difficult but also super rewarding. If you think you’re ready to become part of the industry, check out online masters in counseling courses available near you and what requirements they have. 

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