How to Become a Therapist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a therapist. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career as a therapist.

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Requirements for Becoming a Therapist

There are various types of therapists, such as physical, occupational, and recreational therapists; this article focuses on mental health therapists.

Therapists may be referred to as mental health counselors or mental health therapists. These types of therapists help people understand and cope with mental and emotional afflictions. They may work with individuals or groups who suffer from stress, addiction, depression, anxiety disorders or other conditions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov), mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists usually work in office settings within mental health centers, substance abuse treatment centers, hospitals, and colleges. Many choose to operate private practices. Therapists may work full- or part-time; those employed by an organization or business will generally do so full-time while private practice therapists have more control over their schedules. Some therapists choose to offer evening or weekend sessions to clients.

Job Requirements

Those who serve as mental health therapists or counselors usually hold a graduate degree in the field in addition to mandatory licensing. The following table outlines the requirements to become a therapist in this field:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree*
Degree Field Counseling*
Licensure Licensure is required; includes clinical experience, state-approved exam and continuing education *
Experience Between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience required*
Key Skills Strong listening, written and verbal communication, organizational and people skills*
Computer Skills Microsoft Office and spreadsheet and medical software**
Technical Skills Ability to use blood pressure cuff kits, flatbed scanners and electronic medical thermometers**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); **O*Net Online.

Step 1: Complete Undergraduate Studies

Having an undergraduate degree won't qualify students for careers as a mental health therapist; however, a bachelor's degree is necessary to be admitted into a graduate degree program. While generally no specific major is required at the undergraduate level, prospective mental health professionals may benefit from majoring in related areas, such as psychology or human services.

Step 2: Earn a Graduate Degree

Mental health counselors are typically required to have a master's degree in counseling. Students have a variety of counseling program options, such as the Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling or Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, which can prepare them for clinical practice in the mental health profession. Courses in these graduate programs may include family and group therapy, treatment techniques, research, evaluation and substance abuse and legal issues. Master's degree programs in mental health counseling usually require students to gain practical experience through internship programs and clinical practicums.

Step 3: Gain Clinical Experience

Before becoming licensed practitioners, prospective therapists are required to obtain at least two years of professional, clinical experience. This experience must be at the postgraduate level and supervised by a licensed mental health counselor. Specific conditions to the clinical experience requirement vary by state. For example, to be eligible for licensure in Florida mental health counselors must fulfill 1,500 hours of experience spread over at least 100 weeks in which they provide clients with one-on-one psychotherapy.

Step 4: Become Licensed

Licensure requirements for mental health counselors vary significantly by state. Aside from a master's degree and clinical experience, most states require candidates to pass a licensing exam. Many states use the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification, which is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors. This examination evaluates comprehension of and skills in general counseling.

Success Tip:

  • Take continuing education courses. Mental health counselors will need to maintain licensure annually by earning continuing education credits. Professional organizations or academic institutions may offer these continuing education opportunities.

Step 5: Obtain Employment

Mental health counselors may find employment in private practices, community health centers and other healthcare facilities. According to the BLS in 2011, an increasing number of counselors work in private or group practices as self-employed practitioners. This is due in part to legislation that permits individual counselors to collect payment from insurance groups, as well as increasing respect for counselors as skilled mental health professionals.

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