WCU’s Guide to a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Male counselor putting hand on patient's shoulder.

Considering becoming a mental health counselor? If so, you’ll join a profession of profound importance and impact.

Before we dive into what the career of a mental health counselor entails and what the typical educational path looks like for this role, let’s gain some understanding of how the counseling industry as we know it today came to be.

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History of the Mental Health Counseling Profession

The history of so-called “non-medical” treatment of mental health is fairly recent. Its earliest known application was in 1793 in Paris where a physician named Phillipe Pinel forbade corporal punishment of asylum inmates and demanded their release from chains and inhumane confinement. Pinel pioneered new thinking that gave rise to the modern definitions of mental illness as byproducts of social and psychological stresses, as well as genetics, rather than “demonic possession.”

Later, psychiatrists Carl Rogers and Fritz Perls promoted a client-centered approach in which the client is treated as a partner in the process, as opposed to a patient solely on the receiving end of treatment. As of the early 1970s, however, the profession of mental health “counselor” remained loosely defined against its professional cousins: psychologist and social worker. Mental health counselors finally received recognition and definition in 1796, with the formations of the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) and the American Counseling Association (ACA).

In the time since Phillipe Pinel redefined the way we view mental health, we have seen a healthcare profession emerge that addresses the mental health needs not just of individuals, but of couples, families, groups, and even entire populations. Through this now firmly entrenched and recognized profession, counselors provide critical clinical care that serves the mental health of individuals and communities.

Why Are Mental Health Counselors Needed?

There is an urgent need for qualified, educated mental health professionals. A few mental health statistics help put this into perspective.

Despite this alarming need, more than 150 million people currently live in designated mental health professional shortage areas.

Additional need for mental health counselors is largely driven by spikes in mental health conditions as a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), anxiety and depression have become 25% more prevalent since the pandemic. In the years to come, public health officials expect a long-tail effect that will require a robust mental healthcare workforce to address.

Other concurrent factors like social unrest have compounded the mental health crisis in the U.S. This means licensed clinical mental health counselors are needed now and well into the future.

What Does a Clinical Mental Health Counselor Do?

Mental health counselors are trained to treat individuals struggling with mental health issues, but they also treat couples, families, and groups. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ description of the role of a mental health counselor, treating patients involves evaluation (both of a patient’s mental health and readiness for counseling), education of patients on the issues that are affecting their mental health, as well as the coping strategies they can use to overcome challenges in day-to-day life.

These professionals treat a range of mental health issues and conditions, including but not limited to:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Grief
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Addiction
  • Relationship conflicts

Where Do Clinical Mental Health Counselors Work?

The need for mental health counselors is widespread, and the environments in which they work are diverse. In addition to traditional health settings like clinics, mental health counselors may opt to treat clients through nonprofits or even private practice. The most common settings in which a clinical mental health counselor may work include:

  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse centers
  • Individual and family service agencies
  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs)
  • Private practice
  • Prisons
  • Community organizations
  • Nonprofits
  • Private practice
  • Telemedicine

(Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, MedicalNewsToday, Healthline)

What Type of Degree Do You Need to Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

While educational requirements vary by state and the specific type of counseling role, mental health counselors usually need a master’s degree and an internship followed by licensure. To apply to a clinical mental health counseling master’s program, you first need a completed bachelor’s degree. Some programs require your undergraduate degree be in a related field such as psychology. WCU’s Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program does not require a specific type of bachelor’s degree for admission.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

Once you enroll in clinical mental health counseling school, most programs take 2.5 to 3 years to complete. The length of the program depends upon the school (WCU’s comprehensive MS In Clinical Mental Health Counseling program can be completed in less than 2.5 years).

Once you graduate, you’ll typically need to complete a certain number of supervised hours as a licensed professional counseling intern (LPCI), with the requirements varying by state. You’ll then need to pass your licensure exam(s) before you can begin independent practice (more on licensure below).

What Subjects Are Covered in a Mental Health Counseling Master’s Program?

Curriculums vary by program, but a clinical mental health counseling program will typically include coursework in counseling research and methodology, clinical practice, culture and population counseling, research, and psychopathology. We invite you to view WCU’s MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling curriculum for a comprehensive look at the courses that are offered in our program.

Here is a sampling of the topic you will study in our program:

  • Counseling theories and interventions
  • Multicultural counseling
  • Tests and clinical assessments
  • Crisis and trauma response and intervention
  • Psychopathology and psychopharmacology
  • Group counseling
  • Addictions counseling
  • Couples and family counseling
  • Human sexuality
  • Methodologies of research design and statistics
  • Clinical practicum

What Are the Clinical Mental Health Counselor Licensure Requirements?

The National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) is the specialty licensure test for clinical mental health counselors. It is administered by the National Board of Clinical Counselors (NBCC) and is required for clinical mental health licensure in most states. In addition to the NCMHCE, the NBCC administers the National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification for counselors of all types. These exams are designed to test the skills and knowledge needed to provide effective counseling.

Many states have unique or additional certification requirements, so it’s important to do your research and prepare for each test that you will need to pass as well as the requirements you need to complete in order to begin practice.

About Our MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program

West Coast University’s Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program offers flexibility as you can choose to earn your degree online or in a blended format (a mix of online and on-campus study). We do not require your bachelor’s degree to be in a related field, and with the program taking 29 months to complete (less than 2.5 years), you’ll be able to streamline your path to graduation and build the knowledge and skills you need to go out and make a difference.

An education at WCU is always student-centric, and our mental health counseling master’s program is designed for comprehensive, versatile learning that emphasizes intersectionality and mental health advocacy.

As a student in WCU’s clinical mental health counseling master’s program, you will benefit from:

  • A combination of classroom (virtual or in-person) learning and clinical practicum experiences
  • Engaging educational content that leverages innovative learning tools such as original video content and virtual simulations
  • A curriculum that prioritizes relationship, both in counselor training and in relationship-building with classmates and faculty
  • Opportunities for online and blended program students alike to experience hands-on, in-person learning through weekend-long, on-site intensives (OSIs) that occur on campus, as well as local events (such as seminars and roundtable discussions) that occur in or near student’s local communities. 
  • Job placement assistance and a full scope of career support services that are available for life

How to Get Started

Mental health counseling is a meaningful career path that can have a profound effect on the people and populations you serve. If you’re ready to take the first step, we invite you to learn more about our mental health counseling master’s program.

You can also complete the form on this page to request further information and connect with our admissions team. A representative will help you get started on your path to making a difference!

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.