How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

What Is an LMHC?

Many people are interested in careers as an LMHC, or licensed mental health counselor. An LMHC assists individuals or groups with mental health issues through therapy and coping techniques. Each licensed mental health counselor undergoes thorough training to obtain an LMHC degree, typically through traditional or online mental health counseling programs.

Common duties of LMHCs include:

  • Counseling patients through thoughts, experiences, and past traumas
  • Helping patients with identifying and overcoming dependencies
  • Assisting patients in developing skills and strategies for managing mental health problems
  • Leading group therapy sessions
  • Collecting information about the patient's history, thoughts, and emotions through interviews, tests, and analysis
  • Keeping patient documentation according to state and federal guidelines

What Do LMHCs Study?

To take the examination to receive an LMHC, students will need to complete a master's degree in mental health counseling. These highly specialized master’s programs teach potential counselors their fundamental counseling philosophy and strategies, which will dictate how they will approach and treat clients later on in their careers.

Common psychological theories that make up the practice methods of a mental health counselor are cognitive-behavioral therapy, humanistic therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. It should also be noted there is some crossover between these philosophies, as LMHCs are trained to counsel anyone in need of services.

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Typical Education Requirements for a LMHC Degree

The first step toward certification as a mental health counselor is to pursue an undergraduate degree program in counseling or psychology. An undergraduate program typically takes around four years to complete and includes courses in general education as well as in counseling and psychology.

Completion of the undergraduate degree in mental health counseling should be followed by completing a graduate LMHC program that focuses on counseling, specifically a Master of Counseling or Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

A mental health counseling program teaches fundamental counseling skills, including the assessment of clients, diagnosis, and treatment in a clinical setting. Students may also be required to engage in practicum or clinical requirements to test their skills.

Since a master’s degree is the minimum requirement for LMHC licensing, most graduates begin their careers after graduating from a master’s in mental health counseling program.

However, doctoral programs in mental health counseling can also be a good way to gain entry into this field and pursue senior positions. Doctoral programs are viable options for both new graduates from counseling master's programs and even graduate degree holders from other related fields.

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What Is the Highest Degree for a Mental Health Counselor?

The highest degree you can obtain as a mental health counselor is a doctorate — either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D.) in Counseling Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Counseling Psychology.

While holding a doctorate in counseling isn’t necessary to become a licensed counselor, it has some advantages in the job market. With a Ph.D. or Psy.D., counselors are more likely to earn higher salaries, have more job opportunities, be eligible for leadership roles, and be qualified to teach counseling education at the university level.

Depending on each student’s career goals, a doctorate may not be necessary, but it’s important to do your research and make the best choice for you.

How Long is a Mental Health Counseling Program?

The time it takes to complete all the requirements for an LMHC license may vary based on the mental health counseling program itself, your engagement with coursework, and your study schedule. Bachelor's degree programs can be completed in around four years, whereas master's degree programs can be completed in two to three years. Doctoral programs may require an additional two to three years beyond the master's level. However, if you choose to study part-time, you can expect to be studying for much longer.

The total educational component to become a licensed mental health counselor can take anywhere from five to eight years, depending on the school you choose and the time you can commit to studying.

LMHC licensing also requires you to work in a clinical setting under supervision for two years, which can add time to your educational path if you do not fulfill this requirement during your studies.

Related: How Long Does it Take to Become a Counselor

Clinical Experience for Mental Health Counseling Licensure

Clinical mental health counseling experience is vital to your integration into the professional counseling field. Most students begin this experience during their graduate programs, while a few may begin after they have obtained their degree.

In some master’s degree programs, students have the option to attend conferences and workshops to use as credit toward their overall clinical experience requirement.

State requirements for clinical mental health counseling experience may vary. Most states require students to complete two years of supervised clinical experience, which should include approximately 1,000 on-site clinical hours.

Different Types of Licensed Mental Health Counselors

Since mental illness can affect people in different ways, LMHC meanings and job specifics vary widely, and many LMHCs specialize in specific treatment areas.

The list below includes some of the most common types of professional counselors in the field, some of which may be an excellent choice for you. As you read through the remainder of this guide, consider how you can help provide these specific types of services to clients.

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists
  • Psychotherapists
  • Behavior Therapists
  • Group Therapists
  • Trauma Therapists
  • Grief Therapists
  • Child Therapists

You can also learn more about the differences between a licensed counselor and a licensed therapist by checking out our licensed mental health counselor vs. licensed marriage and family therapist guide.

LMHC vs. LPC

There are two key differences between a licensed mental health counselor and a licensed professional counselor. The first and arguably biggest difference between the two comes down to state legislation. Each state has its own licensure for counseling, which can affect which one you choose. In counseling, there are seven states, including New York, that use LMHC, and 24 states (and the District of Columbia) that use LPC. Secondly, despite having the same educational requirements, an LMHC focuses specifically on mental health, while an LPC also covers other types of counseling, such as family or marriage counseling. That doesn’t mean LMHCs cannot practice non-mental health counseling, though. Most states that use LMHC are unlikely to require licenses for wider counseling, while those who use LPC licenses do. In these cases, having an LMHC proves your experience in counseling to prospective clients. 

LMHC vs. Psychologist

When people think of LMHCs, meaning licensed mental health counselors, they think of psychotherapy. Both an LMHC and a psychologist help people deal with their mental health. However, to become a psychologist, which is a more specialized mental health professional, you need a higher level of education. LMHCs need a master’s in counseling or psychology, whereas a psychologist will need a doctorate in psychology. Due to the advanced education of a psychologist, they can pursue more specialized avenues, including neuropsychological testing, research, and forensic psychology. They are also better equipped than LMHCs to treat complex mental health problems, such as schizophrenia. 

Licensed Mental Health Counselor vs. Therapist

An LMHC is a specialized counselor with at least a master’s degree in counseling or psychology who deals with mental health problems in one-to-one and group settings. On the other hand, a therapist is an umbrella term for any mental health care provider who offers therapy, including social workers and psychiatrists. In some states, you must have a license to be considered a therapist, whereas in others, anyone can call themselves a therapist. Distinguishing yourself as an LMHC can help assure patients and prospective employers that you have the relevant qualifications to specialize in mental health counseling.

LMHC vs. LCSW

The main difference between a licensed mental health counselor and a licensed clinical social worker is the education path of each. Though both are equipped to deal with mental health, LMHCs take a more clinical approach to their jobs, while LCSWs have a more social approach. As such, LMHCs are required to complete a master’s in counseling, and LCSWs are required to complete a master’s in social work. In the working world, LMHCs are more likely to attend to people with mental health needs, assessing and treating them in therapy or counseling sessions. In contrast, although LCSWs often deal with people who may have mental health problems, they focus more on providing help with social policy and advocacy.

LMHC vs. LMFT

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, sessions focus on helping couples and families specifically. In contrast, an LMHC focuses on individual, group, or family therapy, mostly around mental health topics. Because of the difference in focus, an LMHC is required to complete a master’s in counseling, whereas an LMFT will pursue a master’s in family therapy.

LMHC vs. LMHP

When comparing Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC) with Licensed Mental Health Professionals (LMHP), it’s important to understand both the commonalities and distinctions that define these roles within the counseling field. This comparison aims to clarify these positions for individuals seeking mental health services, as well as for professionals considering career paths in mental health counseling.

Education & Training:

  • LMHC: Master’s degree in counseling or related field, plus postgraduate supervised clinical experience.
  • LMHP: Includes LMHCs and other professionals like LCSWs, Psychologists, and Psychiatrists, each with specific education and licensure requirements.

Scope of Practice:

  • LMHC: Focus on providing psychotherapy and counseling to help clients with emotional, psychological, and life issues.
  • LMHP: Broader range, including psychotherapy, medical assessments, and medication management, depending on the professional’s background.

Services Provided:

  • LMHC: Specialized in therapeutic interventions, employing various psychotherapeutic techniques.
  • Other LMHPs: Offer a wider array of services that may extend beyond psychotherapy to include medication management and medical evaluations.

Choosing the Right Professional:

  • For Psychotherapeutic Support: An LMHC may be ideal for those seeking to explore and understand their mental health through counseling.
  • For Specialized Interventions: Other LMHPs, like Psychiatrists for medication management or LCSWs for social factors affecting mental health, might be more appropriate depending on the individual’s needs.

 

How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor

1. Bachelor’s in Counseling or Psychology

The journey to becoming a licensed mental health counselor begins with undergraduate LMHC programs. Choosing a bachelor’s program that best fits your mission is the fundamental first step in your career, which will set you up for success. 

2. Master’s in Counseling or Mental Health Counseling

The next stage of your learning experience is at the master’s level through a traditional or online LMHC program. State licensing for becoming a mental health counselor requires you to hold at least a master’s in counseling, making this degree vital to your future credentialing.

A master’s in counseling or clinical mental health counseling can both be viable options. Regardless of what counseling degree you choose, ensure the program is CACREP accredited to ensure that you’re receiving high-quality education.

3. Doctorate in Counseling

In some cases, moving into a doctorate program in counseling may be more fitting on your journey to becoming a mental health counselor. If you have graduated from another degree field and are seeking to transition into counseling, doctoral programs in counseling could help you successfully fulfill your goal.

4. Ensure CACREP or APA Accreditation For Your Program

All of your mental health counseling graduate programs should also be accredited, with some counseling supervision programs holding CACREP accreditation and other research-oriented majors having accreditation from the American Psychological Association (APA).

5. Clinical Supervision

Regardless of which degree program you choose, you are required to complete two years of supervised clinical experience before taking the counselor’s examination for licensing — which adds up to approximately 1,000 hours of clinical practice. During this experience, you will work with clients in a mental health setting and receive constructive feedback and teaching from a supervisor licensed in mental health counseling.

6. Licensure Application and Examination

Once you have successfully submitted documentation of your 2-year supervised clinical experience and completed your master’s in counseling, you can apply for licensure and sit for your counselor’s examination. Completion of this exam can provide you with your license to practice in your state.

Make sure you check which license your state requires to practice mental health counseling, as it varies from state to state.

7. Continuing Education to Retain LMHC Licensure

Holding your LMHC license is not the final step to ensure your practice in the years to come. The field of counseling is constantly changing and improving, making continuing education a necessity for professional growth. State requirements for continuing education vary and are subject to change, so you should be aware of the requirements in your practice state.

LMHC Salary and Employment

The employment opportunities and fields of specialization for Licensed Mental Health Counselors can be broad depending on the state in which you practice. Most mental health agencies employ mental health counselors with different specialized certifications to provide their clients with the best portfolio of services.

As a mental health counselor, you may also branch into private practice once you’ve received all your practice credentials. This can be a beneficial way to manage your client base and salary over the life of your career.

Whether you choose to partner with hospitals, community mental health centers, mental health agencies, schools, or work on your own, there can be ample opportunity for growth within the field of mental health counseling. Take a look below at some of the average LMHC salaries.

Average Salary for LMHCs

Here are the latest salary figures for LMHCs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

  • Mental Health Counselors: $47,660 median salary per year
  • Rehabilitation Counselors: $37,530 median salary per year
  • School Counselors: $58,120 median salary per year

Intangibles and Skills LMHCs Should Have

Trustworthiness

Great counselors have historically used social skills and empathy to build trust and open rapport with their clients. If you have natural social skills, you may be at an advantage in pursuing a career as a mental health counselor.

Caring Communication

Empathetic communication and a caring nature may also give you a competitive edge when considering a career as an LMHC. Some counselors may also be good at parsing client’s issues to find a central component, proficient at finding solutions quickly, and creative in their implementation of mental health therapies.

Desire to Help

When considering the LMHC definition and whether the field is right for you, it is important to evaluate your own desire to help others. If you feel the need to help others working through the difficult symptoms of common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, this could be a productive and fulfilling field for you.

How to Maintain Your Mental Health Counseling License

To maintain your mental health counseling license, you must prove you are continuing your education. This is done by accruing continuing education (CE) credits. Your state licensure board determines the number of credits you need to achieve, as well as the timeframe you need to attain them. On average, most states require counselors to acquire 30-60 CE credits every two to three years. On top of this, you may be required to complete a set amount of supervised counseling hours as well.

To gain CE credits and further your learning, you can attend workshops and conferences, speak at professional events, write for a scientific journal or publication, and take online courses.

Mental Health Organizations to Know

Even after a high-quality LMHC program and in-person training, entering into a new field can be overwhelming. One way you can counteract this feeling is by joining professional organizations in your field. These organizations include professionals with a broad range of experience, providing you with access to support regardless of your level of expertise.

ACA and AMHCA

Some mental health counselors immediately join organizations, such as the American Counseling Association (ACA), to interact with counseling professionals in all fields. Your mental health specialization could make you a great candidate for the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), an organization specifically focused on the needs of counselors in your field.

ALGBTIC

If you would like to expand your horizons beyond just your specialization, you can consider other counseling organizations such as the Counselors for Social Justice and the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling (ALGBTIC).

Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Earning the proper education and licensure to become an LMHC could be the first step to establishing a successful and rewarding career. Explore counseling degrees online for more details about LMHCs and other mental health careers.

LMHC FAQs

Is a Mental Health Counseling Licensure Important?

Yes! Pursuing a mental health counseling license proves you have the minimum education requirements needed to properly deal with your client’s mental health needs. It is also illegal in most states to practice mental health counseling without being an LMHC or having an equivalent license (in some states, a clergyperson is allowed to practice counseling without a license).

The mental health counseling license exists to protect the public and uphold professional standards within counseling. It’s also a way to enhance your credibility, showing you care about the ethics and professional integrity of your position.

Do I need a License to Become a Mental Health Counselor?

Practicing mental health counseling or therapy without a license is illegal in the U.S., except in a few states where clergy and social workers have special permission to do so (often under the supervision of an LMHC). 

Each state will vary slightly on its requirements for obtaining your mental health counseling license, such as how many hours of supervised practice you need or how many CE credits you need to accrue to maintain your license, so make sure you are familiar with your state’s requirements.

Where do Licensed Mental Health Counselors Work?

Becoming an LMHC opens many career options for you. LMHCs may work in hospitals, schools, private practices, community health centers, nonprofit organizations, government, colleges, and more.

If you know where you would like to work before you pursue your master’s in counseling, it can help you choose a specialization to focus on. But even if you’re not sure, there are still plenty of career opportunities ahead for you.

Why Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor?

As we begin to recognize the significant impact of mental health on general well-being, counseling and therapy are more in demand than ever before. The APA believes that between 2020 and 2030, the need for mental health professionals will increase by 30%. With a license in mental health counseling, you can help people struggling with their mental health find better outcomes for their lives. It’s a fulfilling career path that improves the lives of millions of Americans every year. Not only does this career help many people, but it will provide you with job security, a competitive salary, and plenty of opportunities for career advancement.

So, if you’re someone who wants to work in mental health and make a difference in people’s lives, pursuing an LMHC is for you.

What States Have the Highest Mental Health Counselor Salary?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational employment, and wage statistics in May 2023, the five states with the highest average salary for mental health counselors are New Jersey, California, New York, the District of Columbia, and Connecticut. They range from $71,650 to $99,390.

Will I Need to Earn a Ph.D. to Be an LMHC?

To become an LMHC, you don’t need to earn a Ph.D., but you will need to complete an LMHC program, usually a master’s degree in counseling, as this is a requirement for the licensing exam in every state.

While you don’t need a Ph.D. to become a mental health counselor, you may still want to pursue one. A Ph.D. can help open the door to better salaries and more leadership opportunities, and it’s essential if you plan to go into university lecturing.

Does a Mental Health Counseling License Cost Money?

Although the price varies depending on state, you will be charged for your mental health counseling license. The four main charges are your application fee, examination fee, license fee, and renewal fee. You may also be charged for additional services, such as a background check or the cost of transcripts. There are some grants and funding for both students and professionals getting their licenses, so make sure to research your options before you apply.

Sources:

American Counseling Association, “Home Page”

American Counseling Association, “Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling”

American Mental Health Counselors Association, “Home Page”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Rehabilitation Counselors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors and Advisors

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