What is an LMHC
LMHCs are mental health professionals who typically work in specific fields of mental health or with specific populations. Each LMHC has undergone training to obtain an LMHC degree, be it through traditional or online LMHC programs.
Following that LMHC degree, an aspiring counselor can take the examination to receive an LMHC license. These programs teach potential counselors their counseling philosophy, which will dictate how they will approach and treat clients. Common philosophies that make up the practice methods of an LMHC 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.
What Does LMHC Stand for in Counseling
As mentioned, LMHC stands for Licensed Mental Health Counselor. But what are some of the specifics that make up the LMHC definition and responsibilities? While the LMHC meaning is to be an expert in mental illness and mental health, LMHCs are not psychiatrists, and therefore cannot prescribe medication. However, many have extensive knowledge about medication and can recommend that patients be prescribed medication. They also take a behavioral approach to counseling, meaning LMHCs focus on how patient behaviors affect their everyday lives.
Typical Education Requirements for Mental Health Counseling
The first step toward certification as a 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 mental health counseling degree is generally followed by completing a graduate LHMC program that focuses on counseling, specifically a Master of Counseling or Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling.
Each of these programs can include curricula outlining 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 licensing, most graduates begin their careers after obtaining their master’s. However, doctoral programs in 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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Length of a Mental Health Counseling Program
The time it takes to complete all the requirements for an LMHC license may vary based on the LMHC program itself and your engagement with coursework. Bachelor's degree programs can be completed in around four years, where master's programs can be completed in 2-3 years. Doctoral programs may require an additional 2-3 years beyond the master's level.
The total educational component to become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor can take anywhere from 5-8 years, depending on the school you choose and the time you can commit to studying. LMHC licensing also requires you work in a clinical setting under supervision for a period of two years, which can add additional educational time if you do not fulfill this requirement during your studies.
Clinical experience can be vital to your integration into the professional counseling field. Some students begin this experience during their master's program, while others may begin after they have obtained their degree. In some degree programs, students are given the option to attend conferences and workshops to use as credit toward their overall clinical experience requirement.
State requirements for clinical experience may vary. Most states require that students complete two years of supervised clinical experience, which should include approximately 1,000 on-site clinical hours.
Different Types of LMHCs
Since mental illness can affect people in different locations, age groups, and social groups, 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
- Behavior Therapists
- Group Therapists
- Trauma Therapists
- Grief Therapists
- Child Therapists
Path to Becoming an LMHC
1. Bachelor’s in Counseling or Psychology
The journey to success in the field of mental health counseling begins with an undergraduate LMHC degree. Choosing a bachelor’s program that best fits into your mission can be a great first step toward overall satisfaction in your career. At this stage, the bachelor’s in counseling or psychology could be an excellent choice.
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 mental health counselors requires that you first 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. Both degrees should be accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).
3. Doctorate in Counseling
In some cases, moving into a doctorate program in counseling may be more fitting. 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
Doctoral 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 being allowed to take the counselor’s examination for licensing. During this experience, you can work with clients in a mental health setting and receive constructive feedback and teaching from a supervisor who is licensed in mental health counseling.
6. Licensure Application and Examination
Once you have successfully submitted documentation of your 2-year supervised clinical experience, 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.
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 requirement in your practice state.
Employment and Salary for LMHCs
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 off into private practice once you’ve received all of your practice credentials. This can be a beneficial way for you to manage your client base and salary over the life of your career.
Whether you choose to partner with hospitals, 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 Tend to Have
Great counselors have historically used social skills and empathy to build trust and an open rapport with their clients. If you have natural social skills, you may be at an advantage for pursuing a career as a mental health counselor.
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.
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), which is an organization specifically focused on the needs of counselors in your field.
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.
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