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How to Become a Therapist: Career Roadmap and Education

Majors Overview January 29, 2013

There are many types of therapists including recreational, occupational, and physical therapists. Therapists are also commonly called mental health therapists or mental health counselors. People are assisted by this type of therapist with understanding and coping with emotional and mental illnesses. These professionals may work with groups or individuals afflicted by various mental conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, addiction or stress. The following table showcases the requirements needed to become a therapist:

Common Requirements

Degree Level

Master Degree

Area of Concentration

Counseling

Licensure

Licensure needed; includes continued education, state approved examination, and clinical experience

Experience

Between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience needed

Key Skills

People and organizational skills, verbal and written communication, and strong listening

Computer Skills

Microsoft Office (Excel, Word, Access, Powerpoint) and medical software

Technical Skills

Ability to use flatbed scanners, blood pressure cuff kits, and electronic medical thermometers

Stage One: Completing Undergraduate Degrees

A bachelor degree by itself is not sufficient to launch an aspiring mental health therapist on their career path. However, without a bachelor degree, an aspiring therapist will not get admission into a master degree program. While prospective mental health professionals are not expected to maintain a degree in any specific area of concentration, they may benefit by choosing to graduate in related areas such as human services or psychology.

Stage Two: Earning a Graduate Degree

Employers generally require aspiring mental health counselors to have completed a master degree program in counseling. Students can choose from various programs such as the Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling or Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling; completing such programs will prepare them for clinical practice in the field. Coursework in these master degree programs can include legal issues, substance abuse, evaluation, research, treatment techniques, and family and group therapy. Master degree programs in mental health counseling usually include clinical practicums and internship programs where students can gain hands on experience.

Stage Three: Gaining Clinical Experience

At least two years of professional, clinical experience will be required before aspiring therapists are ready to become licensed practitioners. Such experience must be gained during the postgraduate period and must be supervised by a licensed mental health counselor. Each state can add its own specific conditions to such mandatory experience in a clinical setting. For instance, the state of Florida requires mental health counselors to have 1,500 hours of one-on-one psychotherapy provided to clients over a 100-week period as part of the licensure norms.

Stage Four: Becoming Licensed

There can be significantly different licensure requirements for mental health counselors from state to state. Other than a graduate degree and clinical experience, majority of states need prospective candidates to take a licensing exam such as the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification conducted by the National Board for Certified Counselors. This examination is aimed at evaluating an aspiring professional therapist’s understanding of general counseling and skills. Continued education has to be undertaken annually by mental health counselors in order to earn continued education credits that will help maintain licensure. Such continuing education opportunities are offered by academic institutions or professional organizations.

Stage Five: Obtaining Employment

Mental health counselors may find employment in community health centers, private practices and other healthcare facilities; private practices and community health centers are the most common employers of mental health counselors. In 2011, counselors working in group practices preferred to work as self-employed practitioners (source: BLS). This is due to legislation, which allows counselors to receive payment from insurance groups along with increased respect for counselors as experienced mental health professionals.

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