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How to Become a Counselor

Alternate Career Titles:

Mental Health Counselor, Behavioral Disorder Counselor, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

Counselor Job Description: Counselors provide assistance and support to improve mental health conditions and outcomes.

Counselor Salary (Annual): $42,840

Counselor Salary Range: $26,950 to $70,100

How Long To Become a Counselor : 4 years

Counselor Requirements: Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling/Psychology

Counselor Medical Career

Become a Counselor

Career Description

A Counselor is responsible for providing treatment and support to patients experiencing a variety of mental or behavioral conditions. To improve upon these conditions, Counselors will first complete thorough initial evaluations and then determine goals, develop treatment plans and engage with patients to put these plans into action. These professionals may choose to provide counseling services within individual, family, couple or group settings.

Often Mental Health Counselors will specialize in working with a particular type of patient, such as those who suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse and those with developmental delays, eating disorders,or mental health issues, etc. In most cases Counselors will periodically assess the effectiveness of a treatment plan while at the same time, continue to educate patients and families about coping mechanisms, ways to progress towards recovery and behavior modification strategies. Counselors also refer patients to other healthcare professionals, such as Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Music Therapists or support groups as needed.

“I love what I do,” Mark Brana, MS, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor practicing in Nevada, shared. “I help clients everyday to overcome mental obstacles which have kept them from living a full life. While I counsel a variety of clients, I primarily work with trauma victims, including those who have experienced abuse.”

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Education & Training

To become a Counselor students must pursue a Bachelor’s Degree, ideally in counseling or psychology. In addition, many Counselors obtain a Master’s Degree which includes many hours of supervised clinical experience. Internships are also available. With this advanced degree Mental Health Counselors are able to conduct private one-on-one therapy sessions without supervision.

Depending on the state of employment, practitioners may also need to become licensed. This is especially likely in the case of Mental Health Counselors who focus on behavioral disorders or substance abuse. Continuing education is also required every year to maintain one’s credentials.

“I chose to complete my Masters Degree in mental health counseling at the University of Phoenix in Las Vegas. I started my Masters program in 2011, completed the program in 2014, and took an additional two years to achieve licensing, ” Brana explained. “Training wise, I also have certification as an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapist.”

Brana added that his education was time consuming and challenging. He stressed that enrolling in a counseling program can often mean sacrificing free time, but that in the end this career is totally worth it.

“Nothing in this program will be handed to you,” Brana stated. “However, if you can handle the time commitments and the workload then you can complete the schooling.”


The best ways to advance in a career as a Behavioral Disorder Counselor is to: acquire an advanced degree, gain additional certifications, and to complete continued education courses. An example of a specialization is the Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor certification. Other areas of specialization include marriage and family counselling, school counseling and rehabilitation counseling. Learn about a career as a Rehabilitation Counselor.

Once employed, building a strong connection with patients can help you maintain clientele while expanding your base of patients. Networking with other industry professionals can also pave the way to advancement opportunities within this field. Of course, these professionals can also advance by pursuing an academic career.

“Advancing your career in counseling requires that you continue to study. Attend training seminars constantly that provide you with new information,” Brana, who is currently working toward his doctoral degree in general psychology with an emphasis in performance psychology from Grand Canyon University, said. “Never believe you know everything, because you don’t.”

Experience & Skills

Strong interpersonal skills are a key characteristic of successful counselors. This crucial skill enables providers to work with a wide variety of patients each with unique situations and circumstances. Mental Health Counselors need to establish trust-based relationships with their patients to best support them with guidance and treatments. In establishing dialogues with patients, Behavioral Disorder Counselors must also have effective listening and speaking skills. Establishing this two-way communication requires these professionals to know how to best express complicated ideas in ways patients without training can easily understand. Learn about other careers in mental health.

“Experience and skills result from a mixture of education and on-site learning,” Brana explained. “As you advance through schooling, school internships, state internships and your career, you will be faced with different situations all of which will teach you many new lessons. Learn from these experiences and you will become a better counselor.”


Patience and empathy are two of the most important traits a Behavioral Disorder Counselor should possess. This is because Counselors need to be approachable and understanding, prompting patients to share their thoughts and concerns. Often, these thoughts can provide insight into what is troubling a particular patient, or inhibiting them from overcoming the obstacles they are facing.

“Having patience and being a good listener is important,” Brana conveyed. “A person needs to be willing to let go of themselves and allow their clients to guide which direction the therapy goes. Sometimes as trained therapists we believe we know best, but that is not always the case.” Guiding the patient to their own recovery is the ultimate goal.

Offering compassion is another quality Behavioral Disorder Counselors should strive to provide, as patients frequently seek understanding. These mental health professionals should further refrain from exemplifying judgement of any sort to or on behalf of their clients.


The majority of Counselors work full-time schedules usually out of mental health centers, prisons, parole agencies, juvenile detention facilities, halfway houses, detox centers or in employee assistance programs (EAPs). Those who own and operate their own private practices can choose to work part time hours. Schedules will also depend on patient availability, meaning some Counselors will need to work evening and weekend hours.

“I would say I live a pretty normal life,” Brana said. “I have a family and spend time with friends.”

Important to note that for some, a career as a Counselor might be stressful; especially when working with multiple patients in a day. Insufficient resources or financial support can also hinder a Behavioral Disorder Counselors ability to optimize their schedules and meet the demand for their services. Some may need to be on call for crisis scenarios which could possibly add additional stress.


Now is a great time to become a Counselor! Why? This career in healthcare is projected to grow 19 percent over the next decade. The largest factor driving this growth is the increasing awareness surrounding mental health issues matched with a decreasing stigma surrounding the field. Growth in this occupation also derives from counseling services being used more frequently to treat substance addictions and deter incarceration. These professionals will continuously be needed to work with veterans as well, especially those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Currently, the largest employers of Behavioral Disorder Counselors include outpatient facilities, substance abuse centers, individual and family services, residential mental health facilities, hospitals and the government.

“When you are in school and doing your internships, remember that the opportunities are like year-long interviews,” Brana advised. “If the agency your interning with is impressed and you make a positive impression, they are more likely to want to keep you. Otherwise, network with colleagues because the field is quite competitive.”


Today, the median annual wage for a Counselor is $42,840. While the lowest 10 percent is recorded to earn less than $26,950 per year, the highest earning 10 percent makes over $70,100 annually. The highest paying employer within this occupation is the government, followed by hospitals, individual and family services, outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers and residential mental health facilities.

“No one gets into this field solely to become rich,” Brana stated. “Outside of agency work, if you end up in private practice you can make more, but building a case load takes time. You really need stability in place and a license before venturing out on your own.”

Unions, Groups and Associations

The American Counseling Association (ACA) is an organization representing professional counselors in various practice settings. The organization believes that every person should have access to quality professional counseling to thrive. To achieve this goal, the ACA promotes the professional development of counselors, advocates for the profession and ensures ethical, culturally-inclusive practices that protect those using counseling services.

The Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network (ATTC Network) is an international, multidisciplinary resource for professionals in the addictions treatment and recovery services field. To fulfill this mission, the ATTC Network seeks to unify science, education and service to transform lives through evidence-based and promising treatment and recovery practices in a recovery-oriented system of care.

The NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals is an organization representing the professional interests of more than 100,000 addiction counselors, educators and other addiction-focused health care professionals in the United States, Canada and abroad.

Getting Started

  • Start looking into the requirements to become a Counselor and decide whether or not you are willing to invest the time, money and dedication to achieving this goal
  • Ask professionals honest questions and listen to the honest answers
  • Ask to shadow a Counselor
  • Enroll in an accredited program
  • Apply to internships
  • Network with industry professionals

All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Counselor Mark BranaMeet the professional: Mark Brana, MS

Age: 40
Practice: Elaine Nelson, Marriage & Family Therapist
Location: Henderson, NV

What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?

“Take some time to make a plan to become a Counselor and reflect on why you are choosing this as a career. You are going to be spending a lot of time in school and money to get there. Make sure this career is what you really wish to pursue.”

What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?

”Many people want to get into this career field because they believe they give ‘good advice.’ This is a misguided reason to become a Counselor, because you do not give advice. You need to be a better listener, so you can help people make their own choices in life. Giving advice takes away the person’s autonomy to make their own life choices and creates a situation where they become dependent on the therapist. This is counterproductive and unethical. Your purpose as a counselor is to empower the client and help them reach a level of functioning in which they do not need you. This practice isn’t like the medical field where you need to see a doctor annually, counseling and therapy should be used to address specific problems in the person’s life and when the client has achieved the goals they set out to achieve, therapy should conclude. Things may come up in the future which necessitate further therapy, however, not every problem in life should necessitate it.”

What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?

People need to identify the real reason they wish to become a Counselor. Some get into the field to figure out what is going on in their own lives or family. Sometimes, people enter the field to diagnose and treat themselves because they are dealing with a significant mental health issue. This is problematic. You cannot help others if you have never dealt with your own problems. Self-reflection is powerful and in order to teach someone else to self-reflect, you must be good at this practice yourself.”

Why did you choose to become a Counselor?

“I honestly became a counselor by accident. I had completed a degree in criminal justice but my career path had changed due to life events. I was uncertain as to what I wanted to do when my friend, who was working toward her degree as a Marriage and Family Therapist, made the suggestion. I looked into the counseling career path and found that I was more interested in the mental health counseling aspect. Then I decided to enroll in a counseling program and here I am today.”

If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?


*Credentialing organization: National Board for Certified Counselors

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