Types of Counseling Certifications

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), roughly 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness every year. The issues may range from depression to anxiety to trauma, from struggles with addiction to difficulties with marriage, parenting, or grief.

No matter the type of mental health struggle, help is available in the form of certified counselors. For those who are passionate about mental wellness or who are looking for a fulfilling way to help people in need, becoming a counselor may be a promising career path. As you consider the options for becoming a mental health counselor, keep in mind that several counseling certification options are available, each providing a unique way to be an advocate, ally, and interventionist for patients during their time of need.

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What Is Counseling?

According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), “Professional counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”

The organization goes on to clarify that professional counselors help their clients develop and execute strategies to overcome obstacles or to achieve personal growth. More specifically, the role of the counselor may involve:

  • Helping patients develop coping skills
  • Working with patients to improve self-esteem
  • Providing strategies to manage the effects of mental illness
  • Promoting behavioral changes that can improve mental health
  • Counseling is a collaborative field, not only because counselors often work closely with other psychiatric health professionals (particularly when a clinical diagnosis or pharmaceutical intervention is required), but also because counselors work in conjunction with their clients to identify problems, solutions, and goals.

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    Do Counselors Have to Be Certified?

    Every U.S. state, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, has established standards for counseling certification. While specific requirements vary by state, the intention is always the same: Counseling certification is an important way to protect public health and ensure that clients only seek mental health services from reputable professionals who’ve been properly trained and assessed. Each state has its own board that oversees the licensing process and that also manages any ethical complaints made with regard to practicing counselors.

    Exemption From Certification Requirements

    Counselors may be exempt from certification requirements in a few select instances. These may include the following:

  • Students who are in graduate-level counseling degree programs and who are practicing under the supervision of a certified counselor
  • Members of the clergy who provide counseling services in connection with their religious duties and who are tied to a credible denomination
  • What Are the Types of Counseling Certifications?

    As you weigh your options within the counseling profession, you should be aware of a few primary types of counseling certifications. Each of these certifications will allow you to play a direct role in helping clients identify and achieve goals, manage the effects of mental illness, and optimize mental health. However, these certifications can vary greatly in the types of clients you get to work with, the types of issues you address, and more.

    Licensed Clinical Social Worker

    If you choose to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you’ll first receive extensive training in how to identify and diagnose different mental health disorders, as well as behavioral disorders. Your training will also equip you to develop plans for treating and preventing these disorders.

    Social workers who have the LCSW designation have far greater clinical training than other professional social workers, enabling them to not only counsel but also potentially diagnose.

    When you become an LCSW, you’ll have the opportunity to provide treatment for individuals, families, or even groups. Counselors with the LCSW designation typically have the goal of helping their patients improve their mental health as well as their social function.

    Becoming an LCSW requires you to obtain a master’s or doctorate in social work, and then complete an internship, gain supervised clinical hours, and pass a licensing exam.

    Licensed Mental Health Counselor

    Another option is to become a counselor who focuses specifically on assisting clients who have mental health disorders. Licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs) receive extensive education in the clinical assessment and treatment of mental health disorders, as well as in providing psychotherapy.

    The specific job description of an LMHC may include the following:

  • Assessing and diagnosing patients who have mental health disorders
  • Helping clients identify their goals for personal change and development
  • Providing psychotherapy
  • Working with clients who have alcohol or substance use issues
  • Providing crisis management for clients whose mental health issues have intensified
  • Sharing strategies and general education for maintaining mental health
  • As an LMHC, you may choose to focus your practice on individuals or couples, on adult patients, on children, or all of the above. In addition to helping clients navigate the effects of mental illness, you may help them address everyday life issues, which can include professional anxiety, relational dysfunction, and grief.

    The requirements for becoming an LMHC include earning a master’s degree in counseling or a related field, as well as completing a minimum of two years of supervised clinical practice. You’ll also need to pass a state licensing examination.

    Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

    If you’re passionate about helping your clients manage healthy relationships, you may consider becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). In this role, you’ll focus your practice on resolving relational, marriage, or family issues, often due to underlying mental health problems.

    LMFTs receive rigorous education in identifying and addressing different kinds of mental illness. However, LMFT training also includes an intense focus on interpersonal and family dynamics.

    The LMFT’s role is to understand how so many individual or personal issues can be understood in the context of family or social structures and to acknowledge the ways in which an individual problem may impact a marriage or other important relationships. As a counselor in this field, you may work with your clients individually and as families or couples, providing solutions for identifying, resolving, and preventing cyclical problems or repetitive patterns of damaging behavior.

    To become a counselor with this certification, you’ll need a master’s-level education, supervised clinical hours, and a passing score on your state’s licensing exam. Specific guidelines can vary by state.

    Compared with other types of counselors, LMFTs are known for offering relatively short-term and cost-effective solutions, making these counselors especially popular among patients.

    Substance Abuse Counseling Certifications

    Some mental health professionals work with clients who are dealing with addiction issues, particularly problems with substance use. If this is something that you’re passionate about, you should know about a couple of substance abuse counseling certifications.

    The two options are to become a licensed alcohol and drug counselor (LADC) or a certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC). Both certifications will allow you to work in inpatient rehabilitation centers and other care facilities, where you can help clients develop and implement strategies for controlling the symptoms of their addiction.

    An LADC can practice and make diagnoses independently. A CADC must practice under the supervision of an LADC and can help implement treatments, but may not make formal diagnoses.

    In either case, you’ll need to earn a master’s-level counseling degree from an accredited program, and then work a certain number of supervised clinical hours. (The specific number can vary by state.) Becoming an LADC typically requires a higher level of education and a greater level of clinical experience — though again, this varies by state.

    Career Counseling Certifications

    You may decide that although you’re interested in a counseling-related profession, you’re not as passionate about working in mental health care. A good alternative is to pursue career counseling certifications in which your role will be to help clients navigate educational and career decisions, as opposed to issues pertaining to their mental well-being.

    The most widely recognized certification in this field is the Certified Career Counselor (CCC) designation. In this role, you’ll spend time talking with clients, getting to know their objectives, their strengths, and their personal limitations. Based on your assessment, you’ll suggest career paths or develop strategies to help them obtain their professional objectives.

    To obtain this certification, you’ll need a master’s degree or higher in a field related to counseling. You’ll also need to get a certain number of hours of supervised experience and/or complete a training course that the National Career Development Center (NCDC) administers.

    Clinical Psychologist

    Clinical psychologists are mental health professionals who’ve obtained a doctoral-level degree. It’s important to note that clinical psychologists aren’t the same as psychiatrists; the former involves a doctorate and the latter involves a medical degree. As such, psychiatrists can prescribe medication, while clinical psychologists can’t.

    What then can a clinical psychologist do? Clinical psychologists are well trained in diagnosing, assessing, treating, and preventing mental health conditions, as well as in guiding clients to make important life changes that can improve their mental well-being. Clinical psychologists have an especially advanced level of education that may help them obtain more prestigious roles, including positions as mental health educators or practice leaders.


    Among the different types of counseling certifications, becoming a psychiatrist takes the longest. Because this is a medical degree, becoming a psychiatrist requires you to complete an undergraduate degree, complete a full medical school degree, and hone your skills in a residency program. Many psychiatrists go on to complete fellowships, which allow them to further develop their mental health knowledge. Medical licensure is also required for psychiatrists to practice.

    Due to this more advanced level of education, psychiatrists can provide clinical interventions that other types of counselors can’t, including prescribing medications. If you become a psychiatrist, your role will likely focus on managing different psychotropic medication treatments. You may also refer patients to other counselors, allowing them to work on their basic life skills and coping strategies in addition to pharmaceutical intervention.

    Grief Counseling Certification

    Another option to consider is a grief counseling certification. This designation shows that you’re specially trained to help clients navigate loss and bereavement.

    Typically, you’ll earn this credential in addition to your other counseling certifications. In fact, there are many different vocations in which it might make sense to become a certified grief counselor. Some examples are:

  • Religious officiant or member of the clergy
  • Social worker, including social workers with LCSW credentialing
  • Psychologist
  • Marriage and family therapist
  • Funeral director
  • Indeed, because death is such an inescapable fact of life, anyone who works in the counseling profession may benefit from gaining this added level of certification. To do so, you’ll need to complete an educational course in grief counseling. Many courses are available online, most notably from the American Academy of Grief Counseling (AAGC).

    School Counselor

    Another career path indirectly related to mental health is school counselor. In this profession, you’ll work in a public or private school setting counseling students through major academic decisions (including postgraduation plans) while also aiding in the development of social skills.

    School counselors may also analyze data to help students identify and address behavioral issues or academic performance issues. Examples can include poor attendance or chronic tardiness. The specific role of the school counselor varies with the age of the students.

    Becoming a school counselor requires a master’s degree in psychology or counseling (some school systems may prefer counseling). Different states have different systems for licensure, certification, or endorsement. Usually, these systems require a master’s degree and a certain number of hours of internship or practicum experience.

    How Much Do Certified Counselors Make?

    Salaries can vary considerably depending on which counseling certification you choose.

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides a few illustrative examples. As of 2020:

    • Marriage and family therapists made a median annual salary of $51,340. This field is projected to grow by 16% between 2021 and 2031, much faster than the projected average for all professions.
    • Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors made a median annual salary of $47,660. This field is projected to grow by 23% between 2021 and 2031, much faster than the projected average for all professions.
    • School and career counselors made a median annual salary of $58,120. This field is expected to grow by 11% between 2021 and 2031, slightly faster than the projected average.
    • Psychologists made a median annual salary of $82,180. The field is projected to grow by 8% between 2021 and 2031, roughly the projected average for all professions.

    Although these examples aren’t comprehensive, they do show the range of salary expectations and job growth in each field.

    How to Prepare for a Counseling Certification

    If you’re interested in taking the next steps toward certification in a counseling profession, you might consider a few preliminary steps. Of course, the specifics can vary, but some basic guidelines include the following:

    • Look for an accredited degree program. No matter which type of counseling you’re interested in, you’ll need to obtain a formal education, including undergraduate and graduate-level degrees in counseling, psychology, or a closely related field. Note that you’ll want a program that the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the most prestigious body in the field of counselor education, has accredited.
    • Don’t overlook online programs. Numerous online degree opportunities are available in each counseling field, allowing you to learn at your own pace and allowing you to choose the right program without being confined by geography. Many online programs are CACREP approved.
    • Explore different options. Even if you feel locked in with a specific type of counseling, it’s always wise to consider all the options and review the basic duties and educational requirements for each counseling certification. You may even wish to talk to students or professionals in various fields as you seek the path that’s right for you.

    By following these simple strategies, you should be well on your way to making a truly informed decision about your career in the counseling profession.

    Consider Your Options for a Career in Counseling

    Counseling can be an incredibly rewarding field, enabling you to get to know clients at a deep level, to help them address the areas they’d like to see change, and ultimately to make a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

    Whatever type of counseling you choose, you’ll need to start with the right academic background. Countless options for learning on-campus and online are available. Start browsing the different degree opportunities right here at Counseling Degrees Online.

    American Counseling Association, State Licensing of Professional Counselors
    American Counseling Association, What Is Professional Counseling?
    Better Help, “A Guide to the Different Types of Counselors”
    Indeed, How to Get a Grief Counselor Certification in 6 Steps
    National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health by the Numbers
    National Career Development Association, Certified Career Counselor (CCC)
    U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists
    U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists
    U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors and Advisors
    U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

    Counseling Career Guide

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