To work in the field of mental health counseling, a master’s degree in often required. Students enrolling in a graduate program in counseling should expect to take courses in the theories, practices and techniques used in providing psychotherapy, behavioral therapy and other interventions. Gaining hands-on experience through an internship is an essential part of studying to become a professional counselor. Even before you reach the stage of applying for graduate school, there are certain classes you should take during your undergraduate studies that will help you meet master’s-level prerequisites later on in your education.

Core Curricula Areas in Counseling

One thing students should know as they investigate master’s degree programs in mental health counseling is that choosing an accredited degree program will help you achieve licensure and certification more easily. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredits more than 300 master’s degree programs in clinical mental health counseling across the United States. To be accredited, programs must include coursework that covers the eight core curricular areas as well as CACREP’s specialization-specific standards in the area of clinical mental health counseling.

Accredited master’s degree programs in clinical mental health counseling must integrate these standards into their curricula. For example, your school may develop a course in human development and counseling to satisfy the requirement for studies in human growth and development. Some courses are easy to match to CACREP standards, such as those in career development, assessment and testing, ethical and legal issues in mental health counseling and group counseling. You may see more varied course titles and offerings for the core curricular areas of social and cultural diversity, counseling and helping relationships and research and program evaluation.

Some degree programs divide their coursework requirements into professional counseling requirements, which encompass these general areas of study, and specialized coursework in clinical mental health counseling.

Coursework That Meets Mental Health-Specific CACREP Standards

As counseling degree programs go, mental health counseling is among the broadest. While a substance abuse counseling program would focus more narrowly on addiction and a marriage and family therapist program would emphasize work with couples and family units, this degree program prepares future counselors to work in both of these scenarios, plus many more. In fact, CACREP’s standards for mental health counseling programs include the interventions used in “a broad range of mental health issues.” As a result, graduate programs in clinical mental health counseling usually include coursework in all kinds of counseling techniques and theories, along with experiential coursework in addictions counseling, couples and family counseling and other forms of counseling.

Students in an accredited counseling program should understand all of the theories, models and principles used in the field as well as the principles involved in psychological assessments and treatment planning. Although they do not prescribe medications themselves, mental health counselors should understand the psychological, social and biological factors and mechanisms that affect mental health and addiction and the types of medications most commonly used to treat mental health issues. Coursework in the history of counseling, laws and policy relating to counseling and the roles of professional mental health counselors is also required. By the time they graduate, students of CACREP-accredited programs should know how to perform the activities used in professional practice, including performing mental status evaluations, intake interviews, psychological assessments and treatment planning, along with the use of several other strategies and interventions.

Master’s degree programs in counseling are often longer than the average master’s degree. Accredited master’s degree programs in clinical mental health counseling require 60 credits, which can take up to three years for students who study full-time.

Fieldwork in a Counseling Role

You will learn plenty of value in the classroom and will likely have the opportunity to practice what you learn through “laboratory” or other experiential programs. However, getting used to working with clients on a regular basis requires more extensive fieldwork.

In CACREP-accredited programs, students first complete a supervised counseling practicum that lasts 10 weeks or longer and includes at least 100 hours of experience. A minimum of 40 of those hours must be spent participating in direct client counseling services. After the practicum, students can advance to an internship in which they will work 600 hours, with a least 240 of those hours being in direct client service.

Graduate students completing their mental health counseling internship should get to work with a diverse population of clients in individual and group settings.

Best Undergraduate Degree Options for a Master’s in Counseling

If you haven’t yet chosen an undergraduate major, it’s important to think about which courses and programs will most benefit your future graduate studies. Most colleges don’t offer bachelor’s degree programs in counseling specifically, but graduate programs in counseling may favor candidates with relevant undergraduate programs of study, such as psychology, social work, behavioral science, education or other social sciences.

Don’t give up just because you didn’t study these subjects as an undergraduate. Many programs consider applicants from a variety of educational backgrounds. Some graduate counseling degree programs even offer special programs for students switching careers. 

Additional Resources

What Classes Will I Take for a Degree in Addiction Counseling?

What Classes Will I Take for a Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy?

What Classes Will I Take for a Degree in School Counseling?