How to become a mental health therapist

If you want to help people overcome psychological challenges, becoming a mental health therapist might be the right career for you. Therapists can specialize in helping people with family communication, addiction, mental disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder, trauma recovery or the day-to-day challenges of life. Therapists encourage clients to explore their thoughts, feelings and experiences in order to better their lives.

Becoming a mental health therapist takes more than an interest in human psychology and a desire to help people. All therapists must earn a bachelor's and master’s degree in psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy or a related field. After graduating with an advanced degree, they complete supervised clinic hours and state licensing. 

Complete a bachelor’s degree

Before you go to graduate school, create a strong foundation in psychology as an undergrad. Most students planning to become therapists choose majors such as psychology, cognitive science, sociology or a related field. This exposes students to a complementary area of study that prepares them for advanced courses and increases their chance of acceptance into graduate programs. 

A bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field also allows students to fulfill prerequisite courses for graduate programs in psychology. Coursework should include personality psychology, psychopathology, psychobiology, legal and ethical issues in counseling, counseling techniques and statistics. 

Since graduate psychology programs are highly competitive, it's important to maintain a high undergraduate GPA. 

Complete a master’s degree 

After you complete a bachelor's degree with a focus in psychology, you need to complete a master's degree. In a master’s program, you will receive the specialized training you need to become a therapist. It is recommended that you choose a program that is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). 

Depending on the type of therapist you would like to become, you can choose an emphasis, or specialization, in general psychology, counseling, marriage and family therapy, social work, behavioral therapy, child psychology or other disciplines offered by your university. No matter your emphasis, you will take classes on clinical best practices, research methods and psychological theories. 

Complete supervised clinical hours

Depending on the state where you want to be licensed, you will need 1,200–4,000 supervised hours of clinical experience. In Florida, you need 1,500 supervised hours. This will take two to three years to complete. These hours allow you to apply knowledge gained from coursework to in-practice work. 

Most graduate programs will require you to complete a certain number of supervised clinical hours prior to graduation; these hours count toward your state’s licensing requirements. If your graduate program does not require you to complete supervised clinical work, you can work at a residency or internship during or after your master’s program. 

Take a therapist certification test

Once you graduate with an advanced degree and complete the required number of supervised hours, you need to pass a national board exam. 

  • Mental health counselor: take the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). 
  • Marriage and family therapist: pass the examination in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT).

Take advantage of career counselors and professors for guidance on what career path to choose.

Get started at Lynn

Lynn University’s master’s program in clinical mental health counseling gives you the jump start you need to meet your career goals. Courses include topics such as counseling techniques, personality theory, psychobiology, psychopathology, and legal and ethical issues in counseling. 

Apply your coursework to the real world and gain work experience through our internship programs. Under the supervision of a certified therapist, you can work with individuals, groups and families. 

Want to learn more about mental health counseling? Learn about the types of psychologists and their salaries.