How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

At some point in life, most people experience significant trauma, such as the death of a loved one or a disability. Coping with the aftermath of such events can be difficult, and it’s not uncommon for individuals to develop negative habits or self-talk patterns that hinder their ability to heal. To overcome these negative coping strategies, many people turn to mental health counselors for help.

Mental health counselors must be licensed and recognized by the state, with thousands of hours of experience, to assist people using evidence-based treatment modalities.

Licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs) work in various fields, each with different guidelines, benefits, and starting salaries. In this guide, you’ll discover these differences and learn step-by-step how to become an LMHC.

Steps to Become A Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Before becoming a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), you must fulfill your state’s requirements for becoming licensed. Although each state differs on what its specific requirements are, they agree that one must have the following as a minimum :

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Master’s degree
  • Clinically supervised experience
  • Pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHC)

Some states also require a criminal background check and fingerprinting as part of the application process.

Complete a Bachelor’s Degree

To start a career as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), you need to obtain a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social services, or a related field. While some mental health professions only require a bachelor’s degree in psychology, to become licensed, you must pursue a master’s degree.

Earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling

This two-year program prepares students to treat clients with various psychological and behavioral issues. The coursework focuses on psychodynamic theory, ethical practices, cognitive behavioral theories, and mental health counseling.

Fulfill Postgraduate Supervised Clinical Hours

Supervised clinical hours provide graduates with hands-on experience and mentorship in psychology. Although each state has a different requirement for how many hours a graduate must complete, most states require roughly 3,000. Half of these hours are spent directly with patients, while the other half is spent fulfilling administrative and personal development tasks.

Pass the Licensing Examination

To become an LMHC, you must take the NCMHCE or an NCE examination, depending on the state. Though they are not identical, both permit an individual to work as a LMHC.

  • NCMHCE: The National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination tests individuals’ ability to develop treatment plans for clinical concerns. It also covers their ability to define, identify, analyze, and diagnose mental health conditions. According to the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), a minimally qualified candidate will have a counseling degree accredited by CACREP (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs).
  • NCE: The National Counselor Examination is a test that evaluates an individual’s comprehension of theoretical and skill-based principles required to work as an entry-level counselor. A candidate must have a degree from an institutionally accredited college or university to be considered as a minimally qualified applicant.

Apply for Licensure

After passing the exam, you can apply for a license to practice. Each state has application requirements and fees, so check your state’s behavior board for specific licensure information.

Maintain and Renew Licensure

Each state requires Licensed Mental Health Counselors to renew their licenses roughly every three years by taking 30 to 40 hours of continuing education.

Continuing education (CE) hours include topics related to the licensee’s professional practice.

They also include topics such as:

  • Medical errors
  • Laws and rules
  • Domestic violence
  • Suicide prevention

Some states, like New York, permit licensed therapists to teach a class or complete a self-study program to fulfill CE hours.

Depending on the issuing state, applicants must also pay a fee, typically ranging from $100 to $300, for renewing their license.

Why Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Becoming a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) is a fulfilling experience, both personally and professionally. It provides the opportunity to assist those in need while gaining insights that can be applied to improve one’s life. In addition to the satisfaction of helping others, there are numerous opportunities for career advancement, among other benefits.

Where do Licensed Mental Health Counselors Work?

LMHCs work across multiple sectors. To date, the largest employers of LMHCs are outpatient, mental health, and substance abuse centers.

Other top employing sectors include:

  • private practices
  • hospitals
  • schools and college
  • government organizations

Private Practice

Licensed Mental Health Counselors who work in private practices have more control over their fees and services. They also have a more flexible schedule and an opportunity to showcase their expertise in specific therapies such as DBT or CBT.


Working in a hospital allows an LMHC to help clients suffering from a variety of mental health conditions. It is a fast-paced environment where LMHCs work alongside a team of medical doctors, including psychiatrists, to help patients in immediate need of therapy or interventions.

Schools and Colleges

Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) who work in schools are responsible for diagnosing learning disabilities and providing evidence-based therapies for students who are struggling with mental health issues. They also play a critical role in helping families cope with sudden loss and offer classroom interventions.

Community Health Organizations

A Community Health Organization is a facility that offers mental health and medical services to people in their community. Depending on the organization, these services may be offered at a reduced cost or sometimes free. 

Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) employed at these organizations assist individuals and families dealing with issues such as drug addiction, anxiety, and grief. They also collaborate with public health officials to help the community during local and national emergencies.

Government Agencies

Licensed Mental Health Counselors who work in government agencies such as the Department of Veteran Affairs or the Department of Health and Human Services provide therapy to people with mental and emotional disorders, including addiction. They also perform mental health assessments for individuals, families, and groups.

Licensed Mental Health Counselor Salary

The salary of an LMHC is competitive and varies depending on the location and area of specialty. Individuals with several years of experience may apply to higher-level positions, increasing their earnings.

Average Salary

The median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is $49,710, according to the BLS. Those who work as general counselors, social workers, or social services specialists earn $49,330 annually. LMHCs who work full-time in hospitals earn a higher annual salary at $54,740, whereas those working in residential mental healthcare facilities earn the lowest salary at $44,150, according to the BLS.

The highest-paying states for an LMHC are:

  • Alaska: $68,770
  • Hawaii: $66,610
  • Utah: $65,180
  • New Jersey: $65,090
  • Nevada: $64,890

Licensed Mental Health Counselor Career and Job Growth

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings for LMHCs are projected to increase by 18 percent over the next decade. This will result in 71,500 new job openings annually.

Licensed Mental Health Counselor Degrees

To work as a mental health counselor, a master’s degree in mental health care (or equivalent) and a license from the state is required. Although some LMHCs hold a master’s degree, others obtain a doctorate to increase their career opportunities.

The following are commonly sought-after LMHC degrees.

Bachelor’s Degree

A Bachelor of Arts in Psychology (BA) covers behavioral psychology, clinical counseling, addiction counseling, and behavioral psychology. The benefits of this four-year degree include a broad understanding of psychology-related topics and the ability to explore career paths outside of psychology.

A Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology (BS) provides a comprehensive education on general psychology, human services, management, and leadership. The curriculum is focused on research methods and data analysis to develop critical thinking and analytical skills. A BS in psychology opens up numerous healthcare, organizational psychology, and research career opportunities.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree in mental health counseling provides the foundation for leadership positions in mental health care.

The curriculum covers a range of topics, including:

  • Counseling theory
  • Clinical settings
  • Behavioral science
  • Counseling skills
  • Therapeutic methods
  • Ethical responsibility
  • Research
  • Social and cultural diversity

It takes approximately two years of full-time or four years of part-time study to complete this program.

Doctoral Degrees

Individuals wanting to advance their mental health care career may pursue a doctorate. A counseling PhD allows LMHCs to specialize in different therapy areas, such as marital, childhood, and drug counseling.

The usual coursework for a doctorate in counseling may consist of:

  • Counselor education
  • Leadership and advocacy
  • Research models
  • Human development
  • Mental assessments
  • Psychology theory
  • Law and ethics

Licensed Mental Health Counselor FAQ

If you want to pursue a career as a licensed Mental Health Counselor, this list of common questions and answers will help you get started.

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor?

To work as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), you must have an on-campus or online master’s in counseling or a related field. The degree must also come from a school accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

It is worth noting that while a master’s degree is the minimum requirement, some therapists hold doctoral degrees, but this is not mandatory.

What Do Licensed Mental Health Counselors Do? What Skills Do I Need to Be a Licensed Mental Health Counselor?

Licensed Mental Health Counselors utilize evidence-based approaches like CBT to teach coping mechanisms and strategies to individuals with mental health concerns, behavioral challenges, or emotional disorders.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor?

Becoming a Licensed Mental Health Counselor is a lengthy process that can take between seven to nine years. To qualify, you need a four-year undergraduate degree in psychology, social services, or a related field; then, you need a master’s degree in counseling or a similar study area. Once you graduate, you must complete between 2,000 and 3,000 supervised clinical hours over three to five years before applying for a license.

How Much Do Licensed Mental Health Counselors Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2022, the median annual wage for an LMHC is $49,710.

What Skills Do I Need to Be a Licensed Mental Health Counselor?

To be a successful Licensed Mental Health Counselor, you must possess the following skills:

  • Active listening
  • Empathy and compassion
  • Critical thinking
  • Self-reflection
  • Problem-solving
  • Flexibility
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Self-regulation

Are There Internship Opportunities for Licensed Mental Health Counselors?

Licensed Mental Health Counselors can participate in internships that provide both payment and valuable experience, as well as a potential recommendation at the end of the internship. It’s also possible to intern for licensed therapists while working towards your counseling license. However, it’s important to note that certain degree programs may not permit paid internships.

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