Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) & Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) – Career, Salary & State Licensure

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one out of every five people in the US have a mental illness. Severe mental illnesses that functionally impair everyday life affect 4.5 percent of Americans. Living with these all-too-prevalent mental illnesses comes with numerous challenges which is why mental health counselors are critical both for individual well being but also for a more balanced society. Licensed professional counselors have received education and training to help clients overcome or cope with these illnesses to live a more regulated life.

Currently, there are 283,540 mental health counselors in the US—including those in substance abuse and behavior analysis—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (May BLS 2019). On average, these mental health counselors earned $49,950 per year. They are employed in clinics, hospitals, inpatient centers, government agencies, and businesses. They use a variety of psychotherapy techniques to help clients identify problems, set goals, and develop skills to live a more balanced life.

Mental health counselors have earned at least a master’s degree in counseling and have passed national counseling exams. They have also completed supervised work experience where they provide client care under the guidance of a fully licensed counselor. These years of experience allow counselors to develop the necessary skills to provide thoughtful, targeted, and informed counseling to individuals facing a variety of mental health illnesses.

Becoming a mental health counselor can seem daunting but the steps are straightforward. Continue reading to learn what it takes to become a licensed mental health counselor and discover state licensure requirements.

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) – Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

Education, supervised work experience, and examinations are all essential steps towards a career as a mental health counselor. While official titles and requirements vary by state here is a general outline of the steps needed to enter this field.

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

The first step in a career as a mental health counselor is to complete high school or earn a GED. Students can take classes to prepare them to be counselors such as psychology, math, English, and social sciences. Also, students can gain work experience through volunteer work or internships. Counseling degree programs can be competitive so students should strive to take advanced classes and maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher.

Step 2: Complete a Bachelors’ Degree (Four Years)

A bachelor’s degree is a necessary step for a career as a mental health counselor. These four-year programs provide the foundation for further studies. Typical majors for this career include psychology, education, sociology, counseling, social work, or even anthropology. Internships and work experience can give students a boost on their graduate school applications as well.

Step 3: Obtain an Advanced Degree (Two to Eight Years)

All states require mental health counselors to have earned a master’s degree or higher in counseling or a closely related field. Students should ensure that the program they attend is accredited as most states require it. Attending a program accredited nationally by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the easiest way to meet state coursework, internship, and practicum requirements.

The number of credits required varies by state but, at a minimum, students should complete 48 semester credits, with 60 credits being the most common amount required.

Doctorate programs are also accepted for licensure. Many states reduce the work experience hours required for applicants who have earned a doctorate degree.

Step 4: Apply for Initial State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

Some states require mental health counselors to be licensed while they are completing their required supervised work experience. In those states, graduates must submit transcripts, applications, related fees, recommendations, and background checks in order to earn an intern, provisional, associate, or similar license.

Step 5: Complete Supervised Practice (Two to Three Years)

All states require mental health counselors to complete supervised work experience. The number of hours varies based on the state, ranging from 1,500 to 4,000.

Requirements also vary based on the degree earned as many states have lower requirements for those holding doctorates. Most states have requirements about the type of hours earned, specifying a set number of hours in direct client contact and direct supervision. There can even be a required number of individual supervision versus group supervision hours

Step 6: Pass State Licensing Exam (Timeline Varies)

All states require mental health counselors to pass an exam. Some states allow candidates to choose which exam they complete, while others list which one they require. The most common tests are:

  • National Counselor Examination (NCE) from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) from the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC)

Jurisprudence exams are required in several states as well. These exams test candidates’ knowledge of the state’s laws and rules regarding mental health counseling.

Step 7: Apply for State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

Once all of the education, testing, and work experience requirements have been met, candidates can apply for licensure as a mental health counselor. As requirements vary by state, applicants should familiarize themselves with the process for the state in which they are applying.

What Does a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Do?

Mental health counselors are employed at private clinics, hospitals, inpatient clinics, hospice centers, schools, government agencies, the military, and even businesses. While work responsibilities may vary based on place of employment and title, typical duties include:

  • Meeting with clients to assess mental health issues
  • Determining the client’s goals for treatment
  • Identifying problems or behaviors that are impeding a client’s goals
  • Assisting with strategies to overcome identified problems
  • Diagnosing mental illnesses
  • Collaborating with other healthcare providers for holistic client care
  • Providing education to clients and their families on how to manage mental health disorders
  • Conducting group therapy sessions
  • Maintaining client records
  • Completing insurance billings

How Much Do Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) or Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) Make?

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019), the 283,540 mental health counselors (including those in substance abuse and behavioral disorders) earned $49,950 per year on average. Earnings vary based on education, industry, state of employment, and job duties. The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $29,520
  • 25th percentile: $35,960
  • 50th percentile (median): $46,240
  • 75th percentile: $59,650
  • 90th percentile: $76,080

Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Professional Associations & Resources

  • American Counseling Association (ACA)
  • Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD)
  • American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA)
  • National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
  • Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC)

Licensing & Certification Requirements By State for Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) – Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

State Licensing Authority Eligibility & Details Renewal Requirements
Alabama Alabama Board of Examiners in Counseling (ABEC)

Alabama credentials Associate Licensed Counselors (ALCs) and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC).

To be licensed as an ALC, candidates must:

  • Have completed a master’s degree from a CACREP or CORE accredited school of at least 48 semester hours or 72 quarter hours. The program must include a 100-hour practicum, 40 of those hours must be direct client contact as well as one hour of direct supervision and 1.5 hours of group supervision per week, and a 600-hour internship with 240 hours of direct client contact along with 2.5 hours of supervision a week and at least one hour of individual supervision per week.
  • Submit three letters of recommendation, two of which must be from supervisors.
  • Provide official school transcripts to the ABEC board.
  • Submit a proposed plan of supervision for work experience including names of supervising counselors, goals for the supervision, and strategies to meet those goals.
  • Complete an application for an ALC license.
  • Pay the $200 application fee.

In order to progress from an ALC to LPC, candidates must:

  • Complete 3,000 hours of supervised work experience, Of those 3,000 hours, 2,250 hours must be direct service hours and 750 of indirect service hours. All hours must be under the supervision of a supervising counselor.
  • Pass a national counselor exam such as the NCE.
  • Submit three recommendations, two from supervisors from the work experience.
  • Complete and submit an application to the ABEC board.
  • Pay $200 application fee

If graduate coursework beyond the master’s is completed, candidates may subtract 1,000 hours of supervised work experience for every 15 graduate semester hours or 22.5 quarter hours of coursework directly related to counseling. (A minimum of 1,000 hours of work experience is required, regardless of the number of credits earned.)

In Alabama, ALC or LPC licenses expire every two years. In order to renew a license, counselors must:

  • Complete continuing education units through approved providers such as the NBCC or CRCC. ALCs must complete 10 hours, two of which must be in ethics, and LPCs must complete 40, six of which must be in ethics.
  • Pay a $300 renewal fee
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about counseling careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.