Are you passionate about helping those who are struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction and other mental and emotional disorders? The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 43.8 million American adults experience mental illness issues each year, and a online Master’s in Mental Health Counseling can help you in supporting and advocating for clients as they strive for mental wellness and stability.
If you want to practice as a mental health counselor, the first step is to enroll in a graduate degree program. Licensure requirements for counselors vary by state, but a master’s degree is generally the minimum education requirement. According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), state licensure requirements for professional counselors typically include possession of a master’s degree in mental health counseling. Some states limit the definition of “licensure qualifying programs” to master’s programs in mental health counseling or a related field.
You will also need a master’s degree in mental health counseling if you wish to become board certified. For example, a requirement of the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) is completion of graduate-level coursework covering at least three of the following six content areas:
- Advanced clinical skills
- Family or couples counseling
- Addictions or substance abuse counseling
- Human sexuality counseling
- Counseling for trauma, violence or abuse
- Clinical counseling for special populations
Online education is a growing field, and mental health counseling is just one of the many graduate degrees available through a distance learning program. But is an online Master of Mental Health Counseling degree right for you? If you’re asking yourself that question, it might be helpful to start with some of the traits and characteristics of online students:
- Self-motivated learners capable of studying in a non-traditional online classroom setting
- Comfortable working independently
- Organized and good at meeting deadlines
- Prefers flexible class schedules
- Has a computer and Internet access
Does this sound like you? If so, you may enjoy an online Master of Mental Health Counseling degree program.
As reported in The Professional Counselor—the official, peer-reviewed electronic journal of the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC)—accreditation was the second most influential factor in a survey assessing counseling students’ enrollment decisions. Accreditation was also something students attending non-accredited programs wished they had considered more prior to enrollment.
The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the official accreditation body for counseling degree programs. As of 2016, there are 753 CACREP-accredited counseling programs, which accounts for 75 percent of all counseling programs in the United States. From 2014 to 2016, CACREP-accredited masters programs produced 35,380 graduates.
*Statistics come from the 2016 CACREP Annual Report
Course titles and descriptions vary by program. When comparing Master of Mental Health Counseling degrees, be sure to look at the required and elective coursework and consider how the curriculum will prepare you to become an effective mental health practitioner. Does the curriculum integrate theory, philosophy and technical skills that are consistent with the competencies of professional counselors.
You might also evaluate a graduate program’s curriculum on how well it aligns with education requirements for licensure in the state you wish to practice as a mental health counselor. For example, the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Allied Mental Health and Human Services Professions requires mental health counselors to complete graduate level courses in the following content areas:
- Counseling Theory
- Human Growth and Development
- Social and Cultural Foundations
- Clinical Skills
- Group Work
- Special Treatment Issues
- Research and Evaluation
- Professional Orientation
Practicum and/or internship
Online Master of Mental Health Counseling programs may include a practicum and/or internship component. In CACREP-accredited programs, this consists of a minimum of a 100-hour practicum (minimum 40 hours of Direct Service) and a 600-hour internship (minimum 240 hours of Direct Service). CACREP defines Direct Service as “the supervised use of counseling, consultation or related professional skills with actual clients for the purpose of fostering social, cognitive, behavioral and/or affective change.”
The practicum and internship portion of a graduate mental health counseling program may satisfy fieldwork requirements for entry to professional practice; additional hours may be needed depending on your state’s licensure requirements.
Because the clinical experience portion of an online Master of Counseling program is time and effort intensive, prospective students should plan accordingly before enrolling. Some questions to ask regarding the clinical component include:
- What are the practicum and/or internship requirements?
- What is the weekly expected time commitment for fieldwork?
- Does the program help you identify suitable clinical sites?
- Are there any required on-campus residencies or intensives?
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