How to Become a Mental Health Therapist

A mental health therapist, also known as a mental health counselor, is a mental health professional who have the capacity to diagnose mental illnesses as well as treat them. A mental health therapist is someone who has been trained in various forms of therapy and knows the signs of mental health issues. While mental health therapists do talk to their patients, and may opt to talk them through their problems, they’re not limited to just talking as a treatment option. A mental health therapist has a wide variety of roles they can be called on to perform, such as functioning as an emotional counselor. They may comfort people in the wake of a loved one’s death, relationship troubles, or temporary periods of cognitive and emotional difficulty. Mental health counselors can also treat patients with long-term illness, such as bipolar disorder or post traumatic stress disorder.

Mental health therapists, like other health professionals, may choose to specialize in their patients and treatment options. Some therapists work exclusively with the elderly or very young, but it isn’t necessary for a therapist to focus in this way. Therapists often employ cognitive therapy as their most prominent tool, but they may use other techniques such as group therapy. Mental health counselors are required to know how to recommend additional treatment options for their patients, they must be able to recommend which specialists those under their care should see. Mental health therapists are also required to assess their patient’s mental state during sessions and watch out for any looming signs of suicide or destructive behavior.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective tool in the therapist’s kit, and it works to help patients handle dangerous thoughts. Patients are gradually given the ability to recognize their destructive thoughts and actions, which allows them to replace them with more constructive or beneficial ones. Other forms of therapy can include emotional therapy, which focuses more on the impact of feelings on a patient’s everyday life. This emotional therapy allows patients to understand how situations and events can influence their thinking, something that may have eluded them. As they grow to understand how they react to stimuli their counselor works with them to develop healthier ways of handling stressful situations. Some mental health therapists may choose to focus more on problem-solving skills, be enabling their patients to proactively resolve situations before they ever become dangerous. Mental health therapists are adaptable and tailor treatment to each patient. Mental counseling requires trust from both the therapist and the patient, so therapists must learn to cultivate the trust of their patients.

Those looking to become mental health therapists should consider themselves to be a “people person.” Therapists require a keen sense of empathy, to better help them treat their patients. Being able to understand and effectively communicate is the first building block to a successful relationship between the patient and therapist. Communication skills are paramount, and therapists must be masters of communication. A mental health counselor must possess an in-depth understanding of not just verbal communication, but non-verbal communication as well. Body language, tone of voice, pose, bearing and various other subtleties must be understood by the therapist. These small quirks and cues can be the key to understanding a patient’s needs and developing a working relationship. Therapists must be able to communicate effectively face-to-face and through phone calls or over the web.

Becoming a mental health counselor is a process that requires years of study and work; people with a high drive to help others and a dedicated work ethic will flourish as mental health therapists. In the United States anyone seeking to become a licensed mental health therapist is required to possess a masters or doctoral degree, and its recommended that the degree be in mental health therapy. Those with a bachelor’s degree can become licensed mental counseling aides and social service workers. In some states a degree is not enough; once a potential therapist has their degree, they’re required to complete an internship. This internship includes at least 3,000 hours of supervised work in a clinical setting, similar to a rotation for doctors and pharmacists. Mental health therapists may also attempt to be certified through the National Board of Certified Counselors, which may exempt them from some state-level requirements. In all cases though, becoming certified through the NBCC is voluntary.

Once a mental health counselor has been certified and licensed they can begin to look for work, and there are a variety of positions available to them. Clinical practices, whether self-started or through joining another therapist’s office, are an obvious option. Alternative places of work include schools, whether collegiate or formative require counselors for their students. Large organizations may include positions for counselors to help settle workplace disputes, or to improve employee productivity. The judicial system requires counselors as well. This may include working in the prison system to help inmates adjust to the realities of entering, living in, or leaving prison. Counselors may work to help prisoners transition back to life outside of jail through providing emotional support. Mental health therapists may also find work at hospitals or hospice care facilities, where they’ll work with patients.

Regardless of where they work, all mental health therapists require at least a master’s degree but preferably a doctorate in mental health therapy. Mental counseling aides and social service workers can become certified with a bachelor’s degree. Mental health counselors utilize a variety of techniques to help their patients heal, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Therapists must be expert communicators and hone their empathy. Being able to build a trusting relationship with a patient is the first step towards an effective treatment plan.

Michelle Heldcareer, therapist