How to Become a Mental Health Counsellor (With Steps)

Updated January 22, 2023

The field of mental health is a quickly growing sector as public awareness of mental health issues and the desire to treat them grows. There continues to be a higher demand for these services to support an ageing population and children and teenagers. If you're interested in working in the field of mental health, becoming a licensed mental health counsellor can increase your credibility and your job prospects.

In this article, we outline how to become a mental health counsellor, explain what a mental health counsellor does, discuss where mental health counsellors work, and list the skills used in this field.

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What is a mental health counsellor?

A mental health counsellor is a professional who uses their training to diagnose and treat mental, behavioural, and emotional disorders. As a mental health professional, you assess treatment planning, study education and prevention programs, and offer crisis management. Mental health counsellors also work with psychiatrists if they have a patient with a serious chronic mental illness to aid in ongoing treatment or provide a referral to a more specialized professional.

There's a wide variety of mental health challenges you might encounter in this career. They range from typically healthy people dealing with stress or traumatic incidents in their lives to those with severe mental disorders. You might work one-on-one with patients or with members of their family. Sometimes you might work with a client for a short period and sometimes over a longer time that might span many years. Mental health professionals treat illnesses such as:

  • Addiction

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Depression

  • Eating disorders

  • Generalized anxiety disorder

  • Grief

  • Panic disorder

  • Phobias

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Suicidal thoughts and tendencies

Related: How to Become a Psychological Therapist (With Steps)

How to become a mental health counsellor

Learning how to become a mental health counsellor is the first step toward finding a rewarding career in the mental health field. The Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) is the governing body that offers licensing and asks that those seeking accreditation hold a master's degree in counselling or a related field to meet their certification criteria. The main reasons for the existence of an accreditation program are to:

  • Uphold industry standards for those still in their training phase

  • Help those in educational roles outline and improve their resources and teaching programs

  • Encourage reevaluation and improvements to existing programs in the field of counsellor education

You can follow the steps below to become a licensed mental health counsellor:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field

First, earn a bachelor's degree to prepare you for graduate studies. Your undergraduate courses typically comprise a mixture of science and liberal arts classes in psychology and human development. This helps build a foundation for your education and introduces you to various aspects of mental health to help you decide what branch you want to focus on in your master's programs. Some core psychology courses may include:

  • General psychology

  • History of psychology

  • Human development

  • Abnormal psychology

Related: How Much Do Psychologists Make in Canada? (With Primary Duties)

2. Earn a Master of Mental Health Counselling

After obtaining your undergraduate degree, you may move on to getting your master's degree. This degree typically takes two to three years to finish. The courses during your master's program include classroom learning and direct counselling experience in simulated situations. The requirements for applying for a master's program in Canada are:

  • 16 years of education and a bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field

  • 75% to 80% in your bachelor's degree grades

  • B+ or a better grade in your major

  • A clean criminal record

  • Completion of the general record examination (GRE)

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3. Complete an internship and other necessary post-graduate experience per certification or licensure requirements

To better prepare yourself for a role as a licensed professional mental health counsellor, gain experience through supervised counselling. You can get this experience by applying for an internship or by volunteering in your community. Your school can typically help you find these opportunities.

Related: Top 15 Careers in Therapy (With Duties, Salaries, and FAQs)

4. Get your licence

It's important to note the difference between membership and certification with the CCPA. Certification means you've successfully completed their evaluation and passed their qualifications to practise as a licensed professional. To obtain certification, known as the Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC) designation with the CCPA, it's necessary for applicants to meet the following criteria:

  • Hold a professional membership with the CCPA

  • Hold a graduate degree in a related field of study from an accredited university

  • Demonstrate evidence of a minimum of eight graduate-level courses in specific areas of study that include counselling theories, counselling and communication skills, professional ethics, a supervised counselling practicum, and four elective courses that meet CCPA's coursework areas

  • Demonstrate recent and relevant professional counselling experience that includes 150 hours for those who graduated less than five years ago from their master's program and 800 hours for those who graduated more than five years ago from their master's program

  • Proof of supervision by a primary clinical supervisor who satisfies CCPA requirements

  • Two CCC reference forms completed by graduate-level counsellors, counsellor educators, or counselling supervisors

  • A criminal record check

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Graduates from the following schools and programs are eligible to fast-track the certification process:

  • University of British Columbia, M.A. Counselling Psychology

  • University of British Columbia, M.Ed Counselling Psychology

  • Acadia University, M.Ed in Counselling

  • Trinity Western University, M.A. Counselling Psychology

  • University of Victoria, MA Counselling Psychology

Related: Psychology Certifications: Definitions and Tips to Succeed

5. Continue learning

It's important to pursue additional education to maintain your license and keep updated on new developments in the field. This can help make you a better counsellor. A doctorate isn't mandatory to work as a certified mental health counsellor, but pursuing one can expand your knowledge and offer more job opportunities for your career. The CCC certification credential is valid for three years, during which you accrue 36 Continuing Education Credits (CECs) to show professional development and to renew your certification for another three-year period.

Related: 17 Psychology Careers to Consider with Your Degree

Where do mental health counsellors work?

Mental health counsellors can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals and clinics, drug misuse treatment programs, and inside residential mental health institutions. Certified professional counsellors often work in government positions, private practices, schools, and employee help programs offered by organizations and businesses. The majority of mental health counsellors are full-time employees. Some inpatient facility employees work a variety of shifts, including evenings, nights, and weekends. These mental health professionals can work in many settings, including:

  • Adoption agencies

  • Branches of the military

  • Detention centers, such as jails and prisons

  • Home health care

  • Hospice care

  • Law enforcement agencies

  • Mental health clinics

  • Regular and psychiatric hospitals

  • Private practices

  • Schools

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Skills for mental health counsellors

Mental health counsellors, through their education and training, build essential skills that allow them to practise their trade effectively, ethically, and safely. Some of these skills include:

  • Communication skills: Mental health practitioners speak with and educate patients about therapy using their communication skills.

  • Critical thinking skills: They have the ability to assess and evaluate a patient's situation and devise successful treatment programs.

  • Interpersonal skills: A counsellor's ability to manage connections and maintain a professional tone, among other qualities, is a foundation of the counsellor-patient relationship.

  • Listening skills: Mental health counsellors recognize that the first step in assisting their clients is to listen to both what they say and what they don't say actively.

  • Research skills: To solve problems and stay informed about the latest research in mental health, counsellors use these skills to expand their knowledge.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions, or organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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