Counselors

Students of psychology have many career options to choose from when it comes to treating matters of the mind. One area in particular – counseling – can open doors to several diverse specialties in the mental health field, including educational, rehabilitation, mental health, substance abuse, marriage, family, and career counseling. But no matter the focus, these professions involve advanced education and specific credentials. The exact requirements for both will depend on the state you plan on practicing in and your specialty, though counselors can usually expect to need a master's degree in counseling or a related field, such as psychology or social work, as well as supervised clinical experience before they can qualify for licensing and certification exams.

Getting Counseling Licensure and Certification

Would you go to a doctor who's not licensed, or get in a car with someone who doesn't have a driver's license? Chances are you wouldn't – these licenses tell you that the person is qualified and has met set standards. Similarly, most practicing counselors need a license to show that they have met, and continue to meet, standards regarding ethics and the best practices of the profession. Additionally, counselors can get national certification, which is often a voluntary credential that can further represent competency in the field, enhance job opportunities, and sometimes lead to more pay.

Licensing is always to protect the public. If someone holds a license and is in good standing with that license, it’s a guarantee of some quality of experience that’s going to be available to you.

Walter HillSpokesman for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy

Regardless of the area of expertise, all counselors can become certified through the National Board of Certified Counselors, the largest national counselor certification program in the world. Typically, becoming a National Certified Counselor is optional – certification isn't needed to practice, so a counselor may choose to become certified to show that he or she meets the organization's high standards and is current with the profession's best practices. To become certified by the National Board of Certified Counselors, a counselor must have a master's degree in counseling from a regionally accredited institution; have completed 3,000 hours of counseling experience and 100 hours of supervision over a two year post-master's period; and passed an the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification.

The National Board of Certified Counselors also offers specialty certification, such as clinical mental health and school counseling, which requires counselors to pass the examination and have a master's degree in counseling from a regionally accredited institution. For rehabilitation counselors, there is also the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, which offers voluntary national certification, though many state and local governments and employers may require these counselors to have this certification anyway. To obtain it, prospective counselors must graduate from an accredited program, complete an internship, and pass a written exam.

But while certification is a helpful professional tool, it alone typically won't let you practice as a counselor. That ability comes from a license, which counselors obtain through their state's board. Licensure shows that a counselor has "met a variety of educational and experiential requirements designed to enhance their clinical skills," said Erin T. Martz, the director of Ethics and Professional Standards for the American Counseling Association. "This ensures that licensees have been trained in areas such as counseling theory, multiculturalism/diversity, and ethics." These standards also uphold the ideals of the counseling profession, added Martz, and protect clients and graduate counseling.

"Licensing is always to protect the public," said Walter Hill, a spokesman for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. "If someone holds a license and is in good standing with that license, it's a guarantee of some quality of experience that's going to be available to you."

Licensure requirements vary by state, though can be very similar to those for certification, including some combination of a master's degree in the area of study; clinical counseling experience and supervision (usually about two years) beyond the master's degree level; and a passing score on a state licensing exam or national exams, such as the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification. There are also specialty exams for mental health counselors (the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination) and marriage and family counselors, which is conducted by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

State licensure is the general standard across counseling: 49 states and the District of Columbia have some licensure requirement for counselors based outside of schools, and all 50 states and the District of Columbia have some licensure requirement for marriage and family therapists, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not all counselors may need to be licensed, though. Those who work in a college career center, for instance, may not need a license to practice, though a career counselor working in private practice most likely will. Substance abuse and behavior disorder counselors also may only need a high school diploma and certification to practice. To find out what your state board requires, we recommend using the National Board of Certified Counselors' directory.

Maintaining Counseling Licensure and Certification

Much like a driver's license, counseling licenses and certifications expire after a set period of time. For both state licenses and national certification, renewal requires a counselor to take continuing education courses. This ensures that counselors are up to date on all current practices and regulations in their field, continue to grow as professionals, and can help meet demands for emerging specialties. For example, in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, there's a need for disaster relief counseling. Likewise, with more female soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, there are new challenges for military members and families.

"Just as it is important for physicians to stay up-to-date on medications, diagnoses, and procedures, it is similarly important that counselors are knowledgeable about timely ethical issues, clinical treatment approaches, and emerging specialties," said Martz. "A counselor who has the most current training will be better able to meet the needs of his or her clients and provide the most effective and appropriate level of care."

Since counselors can lose their license or certification by not following ethical practices, renewal also can help protect customers from disreputable counselors and monitor practicing counselors. "The renewal process … provides the licensee an opportunity to alert the licensure board to any impending complaints or similar areas of concern," said Martz. "Essentially, it’s a way to monitor the effectiveness and professional standards of credentialed counselors."

A counselor who has the most current training will be better able to meet the needs of his or her clients and provide the most effective and appropriate level of care.

Erin T. MartzDirector of Ethics and Professional Standards for the American Counseling Association

Renewing certification often requires counselors to adhere to the principles and duties set by their certification board. Recertification typically mandates that counselors complete a set number of continuing education hours. For example, the certification granted by the National Board of Certified Counselors expires every five years, and counselors must have been adhering to the board's "Code of Ethics" and have accrued a minimum of 100 hours of board-approved continuing education. Other renewals may require re-examination. For example, to maintain credentials through the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, which expires every five years, counselors need to retake and pass the certification exam, or have earned 100 hours of continuing education, 10 of which must be in ethics.

Similar steps can be found for counselors renewing their licenses. Requirements vary by state, though licenses need to be renewed every two to three years by obtaining a certain number of continuing education hours. In Ohio, counselors need to complete 30 hours of continuing education and renew their license every three years. Renewal also may require additional testing. In Texas, for instance, renewal of a professional counselor license is done every two years and requires 24 hours of continuing education, four hours of which are required in ethics, and one hour being the completion of the online Texas Jurisprudence Exam, which will show that the licensee is familiar with board rules.

Overall, courses in ethics are a major requirement of continuing education for renewal of certification and licensure as a means to uphold the standards of the profession. Topics that are generally covered include updates or changes to the current code of ethics, confidentiality issues, the appropriate use of technology, and mandatory reporting concerns, said Martz. Beyond ethics, though, approved courses can widely vary based on interest and specialty. "There is such a gamut of what's offered in continuing education," said Hill. "As long as it's germane to the field, it can be in almost any facet of psychotherapeutic care."

Continuing education is a necessary part of certification and license renewal, but because of demanding professional and personal responsibilities, finding the time to meet the requirements can be challenging. That's why we recommend online education as a flexible, and often more affordable, way for counselors to meet requirements for license or certificate renewal. Counselors would have to confirm with their licensure board or certification body about which credits are accepted, but courses can be found through organizations such as the American Counseling Association. Specialty professional associations, including the American School Counselor Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and the American Mental Health Counselors Association, also offer professional development through accredited online continuing education credits and workshops.

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