Top Mental Health Counseling Graduate Programs

Mental health counselors have a profound effect on the lives of their clients. They offer guidance, support, and treatment to people who are feeling especially vulnerable. The top mental health counseling graduate programs prepare students to provide quality care in a variety of settings, from hospitals to private practices.

If you hope to work as a licensed counselor, an LMHC degree is a valuable credential. Enrolling in a master's or doctoral program in mental health counseling is an excellent opportunity to develop skills in diagnosis, assessment, and therapeutic techniques.

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What Is Mental Health Counseling?

Mental health counselors provide services to individuals struggling with problems in their lives. People who seek mental health counseling may need assistance with different issues, including:

  • Personal
  • Behavioral
  • Emotional
  • Social
  • Marital
  • Educational

Mental health counseling typically consists of a combination of assessments, diagnostics, and treatment. It's a vital service for clients who need help overcoming life challenges and coping with mental health conditions.

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☰ For detailed degree information, view the guides to:
Online CACREP Accredited programs | Online MPCAC Accredited programs

Why Earn a Master's or PhD in Mental Health Counseling?

An advanced degree in mental health counseling allows you to pursue a wider range of employment opportunities. A master's degree in mental health counseling is a requirement for licensure in many states and makes it possible to open a private practice.

If you're interested in conducting research and expanding your knowledge of the field even further, a PhD may be the right choice. Mental health counselors with PhDs are often employed in research facilities as well as in healthcare settings. A PhD program may also teach you to use additional therapy and treatment methods and allow you to specialize in a particular practice area.

Benefits of a Graduate Degree in Mental Health Counseling

When you enroll in a mental health counseling graduate program, you have the chance to explore new areas of the field and hone your existing skills. Additional advantages of completing an advanced degree include:

  • Career growth: A graduate degree may help you establish your own practice, take on a supervisory position, or expand the scope of your services.
  • Enhanced skills: Graduate programs help you refine your current skills and develop new counseling techniques and strategies.
  • Community impacts: Mental health treatment is in high demand, and a graduate degree allows you to offer greater support to members of your community.

Although a bachelor's degree is sufficient for some counseling careers, a graduate degree opens doors to additional opportunities and employers.

Reasons to Study Mental Health Counseling Online

A growing number of students choose to complete an online mental health degree rather than a traditional on-campus program. Students prefer the format and structure of an online program for varied reasons, including:

  • Flexibility: An online degree program makes it possible to structure your course schedule around your other obligations, such as work or childcare.
  • Accessibility: Rather than having to attend classes in a specific location, you can take online courses from anywhere with a reliable internet connection.
  • Cost savings: Online students are often exempt from paying fees that are required for on-campus students, and you may be able to save money on transportation and housing.
  • Small class sizes: Classes offered online are often smaller than in-person courses, providing you with more individualized feedback and attention from instructors.

These benefits make online degree programs especially appealing for students who have families or who prefer not to relocate.

How Much Does a Graduate Degree in Mental Health Counseling Cost?

According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of a master’s degree is around $65,000. However, the cost varies significantly based on the school you attend. For example, the average cost of a master’s degree in a public school is approximately $59,000, compared to nearly $88,000 for students attending a private school.

In addition to tuition, you may also be responsible for paying technology or online attendance fees. Class materials, such as eBooks, are another cost to consider.

Mental Health Counseling Graduate Program Curriculum

During a mental health counseling program, students develop a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of human behavior, practice using therapeutic techniques, and explore different potential diagnoses and conditions. To meet these goals, the curriculum of a graduate-level program generally includes courses in subjects such as:

  • Human growth and development
  • Counseling theory and process
  • Cross-cultural counseling
  • Professional ethics
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Diagnosis
  • Psychopathology

Depending on your specific area of interest, you may have the opportunity to select electives in topics such as addiction counseling, school counseling, and couple and family therapy. Most graduate mental health counseling degrees also require students to complete one or more internships and practicums.

What Are the Admission Requirements for Mental Health Counseling Graduate Programs?

Applying to graduate school involves reflecting on your educational and professional background, seeking references from colleagues and instructors, and requesting official documents from schools you previously attended. Although every mental health counseling program has its own set of criteria, the most common requirements include:

  • Bachelor’s degree: Some programs require students to have completed degrees in psychology or similar majors. Others accept high-performing students regardless of their major.
  • GPA: Graduate schools often ask students to provide evidence that they earned a certain GPA in their undergraduate work. The degree program may also have a separate GPA requirement.
  • Experience: Work experience may strengthen your application for admission. List any professional roles that are relevant to mental health counseling.
  • Letters of recommendation: Former college instructors can detail why you’re a good fit for the program. Only request letters from faculty who have seen you produce quality work.
  • Personal statement: An essay response detailing your interest in the program, background, and future goals is a common requirement for graduate admission. The statement should be tailored to each prospective program.
  • Test scores: Some schools require students to submit recent scores from the GRE. International students may have to provide official TOEFL scores.

During the application process, pay close attention to the specific requirements of each institution.

Accreditation for Mental Health Counseling Graduate Programs

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing a graduate program is accreditation status. Most programs list their accreditation status on their websites, and accrediting boards also provide program lists.

The Benefits of Accreditation

Academic programs earn accreditation by undergoing a thorough assessment process and demonstrating that they have met the highest possible standards of excellence.

A mental health counseling program that is accredited is more likely to offer the most current practices and theories. As a result, some employers will only accept degrees from accredited institutions.

Types of Accreditation

Although some programs have national accreditation, attending a regionally accredited program is usually preferable. Courses from these programs are more likely to transfer if you change schools prior to graduation.

Mental health counseling master’s and doctoral programs can also receive accreditation from the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Some state licensure boards only accept degrees from CACREP-accredited institutions.

Career Options for People With a Graduate Degree in Mental Health Counseling

A graduate degree in mental health counseling serves as a strong foundation for many careers. Common employers of counseling professionals include:

  • Community clinics
  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient facilities
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Private practices

Many graduates of programs in this area work as mental health counselors. Others choose to specialize in more specific areas, such as:

  • Addiction counseling
  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Geriatric counseling
  • School counseling

For current mental health professionals, a graduate degree allows for career advancement into administrative or research roles. It may also help you qualify to work as an educator.

Colleges and universities hire individuals with expertise in counseling to teach psychology and counseling classes. If you prefer to share mental health information with the general public, local agencies employ community health educators to provide outreach and serve as advocates.

Mental Health Counseling Graduate Degree Salary and Job Outlook

Mental health counseling is a promising field of employment. Many roles offer competitive pay and stable employment.

Potential Earnings

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual salary for mental health counselors is close to $50,000, which is higher than the median annual wage for all workers. However, the amount of money you earn is largely dependent on your employer.

Data from the BLS shows that counselors in outpatient mental health centers have median earnings of about $48,600 per year, while those who work in hospitals have a median annual salary of about $55,000. A graduate degree may also help you negotiate a higher salary.

Job Growth

The stigma of mental illness has diminished over time, causing a growing number of people to seek help from professionals. As a result, skilled counselors are highly sought after by organizations across multiple industries.

According to the BLS, the projected growth rate for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is 18%, which is significantly higher than the average 3% rate for all occupations. This translates to more than 71,500 job openings from 2022 to 2032. 

Scholarships and Financial Aid Information for Mental Health Counseling Graduate Programs

Paying for a graduate program is challenging for many students, but the cost of a degree shouldn’t deter you from achieving your goals. Consider these financial aid opportunities when applying for graduate school:

  • Federal aid: Complete a FAFSA to determine whether you qualify for federal loans or grants.
  • State aid: Your state government may offer separate aid programs.
  • Scholarships: Search an online database for scholarships designed for mental health counseling majors or individuals with your specific background or circumstances.
  • Employer assistance: Your employer may offer tuition reimbursement or assistance as a benefit.

If you need help navigating possible aid opportunities, reach out to the financial aid office at your prospective school.

Mental Health Counseling Graduate Programs FAQ

These are common questions that prospective mental health counseling students have about graduate programs.

How Much Can You Earn with a Graduate Degree in Mental Health Counseling?

According to the BLS, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors have median earnings of $48,520 per year. The median annual salary for school and career counselors is $60,510.

Your earnings may differ significantly based on where you work and your level of experience. For example, the BLS states that mental health counselors in Alaska, Hawaii, Utah, and New Jersey have annual mean wages of above $65,000.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a PhD in Mental Health Counseling?

Full-time students typically complete their doctoral degrees in four to six years. This includes taking courses, participating in internships, and completing a dissertation project. Part-time students may need eight years or longer to finish their studies. The specific time frame depends on how quickly a student is able to research, write, and defend their dissertation.

Is Getting a PhD in Mental Health Counseling Worth it?

A PhD in mental health counseling may be worthwhile, depending on your goals and interests. PhD students gain a deeper understanding of the field, allowing them to focus their services or shift to a career centered on research work.

In addition, mental health professionals with doctoral degrees usually earn substantially higher salaries. According to Payscale, the median annual salary for an individual with a doctorate in mental health counseling is $87,000.

Why Are Schools Not Requiring the GRE for Mental Health Counseling Programs?

Many graduate schools prefer to look holistically at an applicant’s qualifications, including their GPA, previous coursework, and professional background. Some programs allow students to submit their GRE scores if they feel they will be beneficial to their application.

The decision to eliminate the GRE as an admissions requirement is based on several factors. Some colleges have concerns about bias and financial barriers created by the exam. They also feel that the test doesn’t accurately reflect a student’s abilities and knowledge.

Can I Earn a Mental Health Counseling Graduate Degree Entirely Online?

You can earn a mental health counseling degree entirely online, but you may have to participate in on-site practicums or internships in your local community. Online programs usually have flexible schedules and small cohorts, and you can complete your coursework from any location. However, succeeding in an online degree program requires strong time management skills, access to technology, and the ability to self-motivate.

What Careers Can an Individual with a Mental Health Counseling Graduate Degree Get?

Graduates of mental health counseling master’s and doctoral programs often work as counselors with different specializations. Common practice concentrations include behavioral disorders, substance abuse, school counseling, and couple and family therapy.

Mental health professionals also serve as community educators, postsecondary teachers, and healthcare administrators. Career opportunities may also be available in social work.

Counseling Career Guide

Still Looking for a Counseling Degree?

Here are some of the most popular online counseling programs. On each page you will find a detailed write-up of the program, specific courses, and schools that offer that program that are currently accepting applicants.

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