How to Get a Counseling Degree (and Why CACREP Matters)

Everyone needs help from time to time. But when it comes to facing life’s greatest challenges — like choosing the right college or coping with the loss of a loved one — it sometimes takes a trained professional to guide us on that journey. That’s where counselors come in. 

As a school or clinical mental health counselor, you can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives and in the community. If you enjoy helping others, counseling is a rewarding career with a wide range of in-demand opportunities. In fact, U.S. News & World Report recently ranked both school and mental health counselors among its Best Social Services Jobs and 100 Best Jobs1.

Read on to learn more about counseling careers, including job outlooks, what school and mental health counselors do and how to get a counseling degree to start your career.

Why Choose a Career in Counseling?

Counseling is the perfect career for those who enjoy listening to others and working with them to help process what they’re going through and find their path forward. It’s about building relationships with your clients or students — not just telling them what to do. It’s also a diverse field, with people from all backgrounds active in the profession. 

Perhaps you or someone you know has benefited from counseling, or maybe you’re interested in education, psychology or mental health. Whatever your reasons for pursuing a future in counseling, here are some things to consider before exploring how to get a counseling degree.

Counseling careers are growing fast

Mental health counseling is one the fastest-growing occupations in the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of mental health counselors is expected to grow 22% from 2021 to 20312 — far exceeding the average growth rate of 5% for all careers. Mental health counselors can expect a median salary of $48,520, with counselors in the government sector earning an average of $60,450, according to bureau data.

Likewise, school counselors are also in high demand. The BLS predicts 10% employment growth for school and career counselors over the next decade3, with a median salary of $60,510.

What is a clinical mental health counselor?

Clinical mental health counselors are highly skilled professionals who provide treatment and services for those struggling with mental, emotional or behavioral issues. They work alongside psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers in health care, private practice, education, government and other settings. Mental health counselors can work with individuals or groups, including couples and families, and can concentrate in specific areas such as youth, family, trauma, crisis or rehabilitation counseling. In the United States, a master’s degree, along with a license in the state you wish to practice, is typically required to practice as a mental health counselor.

What is a school counselor?

School counselors are trained practitioners who provide academic, social and emotional support to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. These counselors help students with a vast range of matters, including academic performance, college and job preparation, disabilities, bullying, low self-esteem, relationship troubles and much more. In addition to advocating for students, school counselors also work closely with parents, staff and the community. Like mental health counseling, school counseling careers often require a master’s degree as well as certification in the state you want to work.

“Canisius University provided me the opportunity to grow, think critically and enhance my knowledge, skills and abilities, preparing me to enter the field. I was able to engage in hands-on learning opportunities through my practicum and internship experiences. … The professors at Canisius are passionate about their work, professional and invested in helping their students become the best versions of themselves. I enjoyed the small classroom environment, where I worked closely with my colleagues, engaged in deep discussion about class material and felt encouraged to reach for my goals.”

-–Aileen Doyle
M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, 2021
Counselor, BestSelf Behavioral Health

School and Mental Health Counselors: What Do They Do and Where Do They Work?

Careers in school and clinical mental health counseling feature a broad array of responsibilities in diverse work environments. Before we talk about how to become a mental health counselor or school counselor, let’s take a closer look at what each does and consider which career might be the best fit for you.

Mental health counseling: A career full of possibilities

To better understand what a clinical mental health counselor is and does, let’s first consider the definition of a mental health counselor. According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, they are “highly skilled professionals who provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy” and “combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution.”
More specifically, this includes:

•    Evaluating clients’ mental health or problematic behavior based on all available information, including interaction and assessments
•    Developing and implementing treatment plans based on clinical experience and professional knowledge
•    Documenting and maintaining thorough records of clients’ counseling progress
•    Advocating for clients in emergency or crisis situations and coordinating any required services
•    Referring clients to additional resources and services, such psychiatric or addiction treatment, when necessary
•    Discharge planning and preparing clients for transition out of counseling

Another thing to consider when exploring how to get a counseling degree is the variety of potential work environments that mental health counseling has to offer. Some of the most common include:

•    Mental health clinics
•    Hospitals
•    Private practices
•    In- or out-patient treatment facilities
•    Residential care facilities
•    K–12 schools
•    Colleges and universities
•    Community health centers
•    Businesses
•    Social service and government agencies
•    Correctional facilities

School counselors: Helping students from kindergarten to college

School counselors work in public and private elementary, middle and high schools, and are a vital part of the education system. They assist in every step of the student journey, from helping children adjust to kindergarten to preparing high school students for college or jobs. While responsibilities vary by students’ ages, some of the most common include:

•    Helping students overcome academic, behavioral or social challenges in school or at home
•    Meeting with school staff, parents and guardians to discuss students’ situations or needs
•    Working alongside teachers and administrators to ensure classwork meets students’ needs, especially those with learning or other disabilities 
•    Identifying and working to correct issues that negatively affect students’ academic performance
•    Aiding students in their academic and social transitions between K–12 schools
•    Evaluating students’ academic and career interests through assessments and interviews, and providing options for students to pursue after graduation
•    Helping students with applications for college, jobs, financial aid and internships

The Battle Against Addiction: Making a Difference Through Mental Health Education

Hilary White graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology from Canisius University in 2012. She was pursuing a master’s in mental health counseling when she lost her fight to opioid addiction, a growing national epidemic with devastating consequences. 

To honor their daughter, Dr. Thomas and Sandra White established the Hilary Grace White Scholarship Fund at Canisius University. The $15,000 scholarship is awarded annually to students who have been accepted into Canisius’ M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program after completing their undergraduate degree. 

Recipient Rue Robinson ’17, M.S. ’20, a clinical therapist at Genesee County Mental Health, said the scholarship offered much more than financial assistance:

“Connecting with the White family deepened my personal awareness and connection to the devastation of this opioid crisis. At a professional level, this motivated me to explore substance use counseling and treatment programs in greater detail to truly understand where the structural changes need to happen.”

Take the First Step to Becoming a School or Clinical Mental Health Counselor With a Master’s Degree From Canisius University

Now that you know more about careers in school and mental health counseling, let’s talk about how to get a counseling degree. The Canisius University School of Education and Human Services offers Master of Science degrees in both school and clinical mental health counseling, which are both accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Through these CACREP-accredited programs, you’ll develop the foundational knowledge and practical skills you need to be a successful counselor. Along the way, you’ll also learn from expert faculty in hands-on, lab-based courses and build professional know-how with field experiences, which include an internship.

Canisius also offers a Mental Health Bridge Program for candidates who already have a master’s in counseling but do not meet the required coursework and experience for the New York State license.

Students who are looking to get professional certification in school counseling can enroll in our School Counseling Advanced Certificate program. Note that the new state regulations now use the term professional certification rather than permanent certification.

Learn more about Canisius University’s graduate counseling programs:

•    View the Master of Science in School Counseling
•    View the Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Why a CACREP-accredited program is important

CACREP accreditation means that the quality of Canisius University’s programs has been thoroughly evaluated and that they meet the standards set by the counseling profession.

With a degree from one of Canisius’ CACREP-accredited programs, you’ll earn greater recognition as you enter the job market or pursue additional educational opportunities. A degree from an institution that meets CACREP standards will also prepare you to meet the education requirement for New York State certification and licensure.

As you explore how to get a counseling degree, it’s highly recommended that you consider a counseling master’s from an institution that meets CACREP standards so you can become as marketable as possible in your future career.

Professional Licensure and Certification Requirements

Before you start your counseling career, you’ll need the right credentials. With a CACREP-accredited master’s in school or clinical mental health counseling from Canisius University, you’ll meet the education requirements to be a licensed professional counselor.

In addition, you’ll need to meet additional provisions required by the state in which you want to practice. Those who are in the bridge program and already working under the supervision of a licensed counselor may be able to use their current position toward the hours required for internships.

State certification for school counseling

In most cases, school counselors must be certified for employment by the education department of the state in which they want to work. In New York, certification is a two-stage process of initial certification, consisting of an educational background and a state examination, followed by three years of work experience as a school counselor to be eligible for continuing professional certification. 

Certification requirements for other states are available from the American School Counselor Association. If you’re not sure whether you meet the requirements, you can reach out to the state to get an evaluation.

Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Licensed Mental Health Counselor, or LMHC, licensure is essential for mental health counselors. In addition to educational requirements, New York requires 3,000 hours of post-master’s supervised mental health counseling experience — including 1,500 hours of direct client contact — in an approved setting. New York also requires an exam and two years of professional experience to practice psychotherapy. Requirements for other states are provided by the American Association of State Counseling Boards.