Mental Health Counseling Degrees: Master, PhD & Online Course Info

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What kind of job can you get with a master's degree or Ph.D. in mental health counseling? Find out degree program requirements, online options and info on courses and mental health counseling programs.
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Studying Mental Health Counseling: Degrees at a Glance

If you're interested in using counseling techniques to evaluate and treat substance abusers, criminals or people suffering from mental disorders, a master's or Ph.D. degree in mental health counseling could be the right decision for you. Master's and Ph.D. programs in mental health counseling can provide the necessary training and skills to pursue a counseling career. While researching programs, look for schools that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), because it can make licensing easier.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that jobs for mental health counselors would increase 36% from 2010-2020, which is much faster than average. However, the requirements to become a counselor are extensive. Mental health counselors must be licensed, which requires graduating from a master's degree program in counseling, completing 2,000-4,000 hours of clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed counselor and passing a state exam.

Master's Ph.D.
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in working in counseling positions in the private or public sector. - People who seek to work in academia as mental health professors or researchers.
- Professional mental health counselors looking to further their education and expand their skills.
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Mental health counselor ($39,000)*
- Marriage/family therapist ($46,000)*
- Substance abuse or behavioral disorder counselor ($39,000)*
- Rehabilitation counselor ($34,000)*
- Social worker ($54,000)*
- Social and community service manager ($59,000 - typically requires a few years of experience in social work or a related profession)
- University professor ($64,000 - based on salary across all subjects)*
- Clinical, counseling or school psychologist ($68,000 - typically requires a doctoral degree in psychology)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-5 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Master's exams
- Master's thesis
- Residency or internship
Most (or all) of the master's degree requirements, plus:
- Roughly 4-6 more graduate level courses
- Ph.D. qualifier exams
- Dissertation prospectus (proposal)
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in psychology or related field; or a bachelor's degree in an unrelated area and completion of prerequisite courses in psychology - Bachelor's or master's degree in psychology or related field
- Professional work experience in related field preferred for some programs
Online Availability Yes None currently available

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling

When pursuing your master's degree in mental health counseling, you have the opportunity to choose a specialization or study general mental health counseling. Each school has a different set of specializations available, and some sample specializations include trauma and crisis counseling and forensic counseling. Individuals seeking to focus on a particular specialty area should carefully research schools to determine whether or not they offer a particular specialization.

If you're unsure which type of mental health counseling you're interested in pursuing, consider a general studies program, which can provide you with exposure to the various sub-fields. This exposure can give you the experience you need to later choose a specialization during your master's internship/residency or provide foundational knowledge in the event you decide to continue your education and obtain a Ph.D.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The BLS predicted that the mental health counseling field will grow by 36% between 2010-2020*
  • Mental health counselors have a wide variety of settings (e.g., the public or private sector at locations such as hospitals, clinics or your own practice)*
  • Earning a master's degree is required to obtain state licensure and practice counseling
  • You have the opportunity to specialize in a particular area of interest, such as rehabilitation counseling or substance abuse counseling

Cons

  • Program costs can be relatively high (some schools cost as much as $27,000 per year, excluding living costs)**
  • Admission to master's degree programs in mental health counseling can be competitive, with some schools admitting only 40 students annually
  • Therapy can be very demanding, and your own mental health may suffer from the stress of working with clients
  • If you choose to specialize in forensic mental health counseling and work with criminals in a jail, prison or rehabilitation setting, your safety could be endangered

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **The University of Iowa.

Courses and Requirements

Master's level mental health counseling programs prepare you to enter a career in a variety of mental health settings. As a result, you can expect to take a diverse set of courses, such as:

  • Developmental psychology
  • Experiential approaches of counseling
  • Cultural foundations of counseling
  • Counseling techniques
  • Ethics in counseling
  • Theories in counseling and psychotherapy

These courses can provide you with a strong foundation of knowledge in the realm of mental health counseling to carry with you as you enter a career as a counselor. If you are working on a master's degree with a specialization or area of emphasis, your program will likely offer additional courses relevant to the specific areas of mental health counseling you want to work. Additionally, many programs incorporate clinical internships, which may count towards the hours of supervised experience you need to obtain licensure. After completing the required coursework, master's degree programs generally culminate in a research-based thesis.

Online Availability

If you're considering entering an online master's program in mental health counseling, you have the option to complete an online program or a hybrid program that combines campus and online learning. Online programs give working adults the ability to plan their coursework around their busy schedules. Some hybrid programs require as little as two weeks of on-campus study, while others offer online coursework throughout the duration of the program.

The coursework required for online degree programs is similar to the coursework completed at an on-campus program. You will need to complete independent research and a thesis to graduate, just as you would at a campus-based program.

When pursuing a master's degree through an online program, it is important to note that most online programs still require a face-to-face residency or internship to obtain a degree, and this portion of the program cannot be completed online.

Stand out with this Degree

Participate in research projects alongside faculty while working on earning your degree. Not only will this give you valuable experience for your resume, it will also provide you with additional opportunities to gain knowledge related to your specialty of mental health counseling.

Find out if your school offers an assistantship program, and, if it does, apply for it. Assistantship programs involve working as a professor's assistant for a term, and, in exchange, your school may provide you with a stipend for living expenses or partial tuition reimbursement. This is similar to work-study programs offered at many undergraduate schools.

Ph.D. in Mental Health Counseling

Ph.D. programs in mental health counseling expand on the knowledge obtained in master's programs, though some programs allow you to complete a master's degree during the first phase of study. You'll have the opportunity to take advanced courses in psychology, ethics and counseling techniques, as well as study research methods and practices.

When pursuing your Ph.D. in mental health counseling, you will focus on contributing new knowledge to the field of mental health through research and on developing new counseling methods to assist other counselors in working with patients. People who hold doctoral degrees in mental health counseling are often leaders in the field, and a Ph.D. program will prepare you to take on a leadership role, regardless of whether you choose to work in research, academia or a private practice.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You could be considered an innovator and a leading authority on the subject of your dissertation upon graduating (this may qualify you for a variety of research-based positions)
  • If you earn a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in psychology, you'll have the option to start your own practice as a psychologist and can charge hourly for your services
  • A Ph.D. in mental health counseling can enable you to teach at higher than the junior college level, if you're interested in becoming an educator

Cons

  • Many jobs in the counseling field do not require a doctoral degree, especially if your interest lies in substance abuse counseling or social work
  • Therapy is time consuming and demanding, which may take a toll on your own mental health
  • Obtaining a Ph.D. can require up to seven years of study beyond a bachelor's degree (two years for master's degree completion and up to five years to obtain a Ph.D.)

Courses and Requirements

The bulk of your coursework while pursuing a Ph.D. in mental health counseling is often determined by your area of specialization and typically requires a large amount of independent research when writing your dissertation. Some general studies courses you could take in a Ph.D. program include:

  • Principles of epidemiology
  • Psychiatric genetics
  • Prevention and control of mental disorders
  • Approaches to psychopathology
  • Ethics in counseling
  • Statistical methods
  • Research in psychology

These courses can provide you with valuable knowledge on research methods and major themes of mental health counseling to make choosing a topic for your dissertation easier.

Seminars and internships are common additional requirements to obtain a Ph.D. in mental health counseling. Schools are often affiliated with local hospitals, outpatient mental health clinics, in-patient mental health facilities, public schools and rehabilitation centers, giving you the ability to find an internship that fits your specialization area. An internship provides the opportunity for you to work alongside professional psychologists and counselors and to learn valuable skills that can only be obtained from hands-on experience. Internships are typically completed after all coursework is finished, but prior to the defense of your dissertation.

Online Availability

At this time, no accredited online Ph.D. programs in mental health counseling are available. There are, however, similar degrees offered online, such as a hybrid Ph.D. in Counseling and an online Doctor of Education in Counseling Psychology. The hybrid Ph.D. requires that you attend on-campus classes twice each quarter, while the online Ph.D. requires that you participate in two residencies.

Stand out with this Degree

When conducting independent research toward your dissertation, choose a sub-field within your area of specialization that you feel is overlooked or understudied. For example, substance abuse has long been acknowledged as a common addiction, but recent research on sex, shopping, hoarding and gambling addiction has helped raise public awareness of these addictions. This has led to more accessible treatment for individuals suffering from them. Studying a long overlooked sub-field can turn you into an authority on the subject once you have completed your Ph.D. program and could help bring the subject to the attention of the public.

Degree Alternatives

If you're interested learning about the anatomy of the brain, as well as providing both psychotherapy and prescription medicines to treat mental illness, a psychiatry program may be better suited for you. Psychiatrists are required to complete four years of medical school and then go on to complete a 3-8 year residency in a mental health setting. Psychiatrists have a far higher median annual wage than psychologists; as of 2011, the median annual salary for psychiatrists was $170,000, according to the BLS.

Popular Schools

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Featured Schools

Northcentral University

  • PhD in Psychology - Mental Health Policy and Practice
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology - Trauma and Disaster Relief
  • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Therapy with Military Families

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Colorado Technical University

  • Doctor of Management - Health Care Management and Leadership

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University of Toledo

Lesley University