Online Master’s Degree Programs in Professional & Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Mental health is a crisis in the United States. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20 percent of adult Americans experience some form of mental illness, but only 42 percent of diagnosed adults received care. Of those who have received care, nearly 40 percent have had to wait longer than a week to see a counselor.

That’s part of the reason why, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019), the need for mental health counselors is set to grow 22 percent nationally between 2018 and 2028—a rate that’s over quadruple the national average for all professions.

Through diagnosis, treatment, and preventative care, clinical mental health counselors work with both individuals and groups to promote optimum mental and emotional health. They can specialize in a particular area, such as substance abuse, family therapy, couples therapy, child therapy, or stress management.

This is a field that requires strict educational and licensing requirements, many of which can be met by earning a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. While specific licensure requirements vary from state to state, all states require clinical mental health counselors to have a master’s degree in a relevant subject. An advanced degree like a master’s in clinical mental health counseling equips one with the foundational knowledge and hands-on skill necessary to treat a wide variety of mental health issues in a wide variety of settings.

Clinical mental health counselors are an integral part of fighting back against the mental health crisis in America. Earning a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling can get you started on this in-demand career path. Furthermore, the online delivery of these advanced degrees makes it more convenient than attending a traditional brick-and-mortar campus. These programs generally match you with supervised clinical experiences in your area.

If you’re ready to join the fight for compassionate and equitable mental health care in the United States, read on to get a comprehensive look at online master’s degrees in clinical mental health counseling.

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Typical Admissions Requirements for Online Master’s Degrees in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Admissions requirements for online master’s programs in clinical mental health counseling will vary from school to school, but typically include a combination of the following: a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited program; a competitive undergraduate GPA (2.7 or greater); GRE and/or GMAT scores; letter(s) of recommendation; a phone or in-person interview; and a personal statement.

Note that some programs may request that applicants have completed specific undergraduate coursework in areas such as statistics, research methods, and/or psychology.

Courses in Online Master’s Degrees in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Online master’s programs in clinical mental health counseling will include core classes and elective options that prepare a student to understand and treat the wide spectrum of mental health issues they’ll encounter in the field.

Some common courses include:

  • Abnormal psychology
  • Addiction counseling
  • Advanced counseling skills and crisis management
  • Assessment of counseling (adult/child)
  • Classification of mental & emotional disorders
  • Cross-cultural counseling
  • Ethics and legal issues in counseling
  • Foundations of family, marital, and couples counseling
  • Human growth and development
  • Psychopathology in counseling
  • Research and evaluation in behavioral sciences
  • Theory & technique of substance abuse
  • Trauma and crisis counseling

Supervised Clinical Hour Requirements & Internships – Online Master’s Degrees in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

In addition to academic coursework, most online master’s programs in clinical mental health counseling include supervised hands-on experiences in the form of practicums (100 to 150 hours) and internships (600 to 700 hours).

These experiences give students a chance to put learning into practice, and also prepare them for state licensure and further certification. Despite the physical nature of these practicums and internships, the online learning modality is not a hindrance to completing them: most online master’s programs in clinical mental health counseling have faculty members work with students to select practicums and internships that match a student’s location and career goals.

Program Accreditation for Online Master’s Degrees in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Accreditation ensures that the content and quality of an educational program has been evaluated and meets the standards set by the profession. For online master’s degrees in clinical mental health counseling, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) are the two primary authorities.

While regional accreditations through the Center for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) are important at the undergraduate level, only CACREP- and MPCAC-accredited master’s programs have been vetted specifically for their mental health offerings.

Featured Online Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Programs

New York University – Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development

NYU offers an online master of arts (MA) in counseling for mental health and wellness that equips graduates with the skills necessary to help people from all backgrounds in living lives of health, wellness, and meaning. The curriculum consists of 60 graduate credits, an in-person immersion, a counseling lab, a 100-hour practicum, and a 600-hour internship.

During the last term of the program, students will complete the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE). The online program has been registered by the State of New York as a license-qualifying program in mental health counseling, and the university maintains a list of how its curriculum aligns with other states’ licensing requirements as well.

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Duration: 21 to 30 months
  • Accreditation: MPCAC
  • Tuition: $107,700 in total

Northwestern University – The Family Institute

Counseling@Northwestern, the online master of arts (MA) in counseling program at Northwestern University, prepares its graduates to work as mental health, behavioral, and substance abuse counselors. The curriculum for the standard program includes 24 graduate-level courses, a 200-hour practicum, a 600-hour internship, and two in-person immersions in Chicago. Students may add a child and adolescent emphasis for their degree by completing two specialization courses in the subject.

For those without any background in psychology or counseling, Northwestern also offers a bridge program that brings students up to pace with prerequisite coursework in clinical interviewing and practice. Upon completing their degree at Northwestern, graduates are prepared and qualified for state licensure and employment as counselors.

  • Location: Evanston, IL
  • Duration: 18 to 36 months
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $112,128 (standard program); $126,144 (bridge program)

Wake Forest University – Department of Counseling

Wake Forest University’s master’s counseling program (MAC) offers a concentration in clinical mental health counseling that puts students on the fast-track to certification and industry expertise. Its graduates earn a 95 percent pass rate on the National Counselor Examination and a high acceptance rate in reputable doctoral programs.

The curriculum focuses on eight knowledge areas: human growth and development; social and cultural foundations; helping relationships; group work; career and lifestyle development; appraisal; research and program evaluation; and professional orientation. Wake Forest MAC students have worked in more than 60 different community agencies, mental facilities, and schools. The program consists of 60 credit hours, a 200-hour practicum and a 600-hour internship.

  • Location: Winston-Salem, NC
  • Duration: 24 to 36 months
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $87,900 in total

University of Massachusetts, Boston – College of Education and Human Development

The online master of science in mental health program at UMass Boston prepares students for careers as licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs). The program consists of 60 credits, a two-week residency at the Boston campus, and supervised clinical fieldwork. Upon graduation, students will have fulfilled all the academic requirements for state licensure in Massachusetts, as well as all necessary pre-graduation fieldwork. The UMass program also offers one of the most affordable tuition rates for an online, accredited, public research university.

  • Location: Boston, MA
  • Duration: 24 months
  • Accreditation: MPCAC
  • Tuition: $40,045 in total

Palo Alto University – Department of Counseling

The master of arts in counseling program at Palo Alto University includes an emphasis in clinical mental health counseling that prepares students for licensure as a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC). Upon graduation, students will have fulfilled all educational requirements for licensure in California.

The program, which focuses on culture, social justice, and families, consists of 93 quarter-credits, 700 hours of counseling-related experience, and a one-week summer residency on campus. In helping to connect students with hands-on practicum placements, the university works with agencies and practitioners in a student’s specific locale so that they obtain a high standard of culturally relevant mental health training.

  • Location: Palo Alto, CA
  • Duration: 27 to 36 months
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $52,917 in total

University of Louisiana, Monroe – College of Health Sciences

The University of Louisiana, Monroe offers an online master of science in counseling program with a clinical mental health focus. Students who complete the clinical mental health track may call themselves clinical mental health counselors and go on to qualify for LPC licensure.

Within the clinical mental health track, students may specialize even further, in one of four areas: pediatric, geriatric, addiction, or marriage and family. The curriculum is designed to train students in assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental and emotional disorders, and provide them with the skills to perform individual, group, couples, and family counseling. The program’s faculty operate under the scientist-practitioner model, wherein counseling interventions are taught based upon a theory of personality supported by research.

  • Location: Monroe, LA
  • Duration: 24 to 36 months
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $30,000 in total

North Carolina Central University – School of Education

NC Central University’s online master of arts (MA) in clinical mental health counseling program prepares students for work in a variety of mental health settings. Upon completion of the program, graduates are qualified to apply for licensure in North Carolina. The program is also recognized as a Criteria C school for licensure as a licensed clinical addiction specialist (LCAS). The program consists of 60 credits, and includes a practicum and internship.

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Duration: 24 to 36 months
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $920 per credit for non-residents

Montana State University, Billings – College of Health Professions and Science

MSU Billings offers an online master of science (MS) in rehabilitation and mental health counseling (MSCRMHC) that blends online coursework and hands-on fieldwork to get students prepared for state licensure and national certification.

Online students will need to make visits to campus on three occasions: for an in-person orientation, for a class in advanced group counseling, and for a pre-practicum. The orientation takes place at the beginning of the program, while the other two on-campus requirements are scheduled in the summer over three days to allow for maximum flexibility. The program consists of 60 credits and includes practicum and internship experiences within a student’s local community.

  • Location: Billings, MT
  • Duration: 30 to 36 months
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $45,000 in total (estimated)

Bellevue University

The online master of science in clinical mental health counseling (MSCMHC) program at Bellevue University is CACREP-accredited and modeled on national licensing standards. The program consists of 60 credits and includes a 100-hour practicum (with 40 hours of observation) and a 600-hour internship (60 percent of which involves direct client contact). Students will also need to complete two on-campus residency experiences. Graduates of the Bellevue program enjoy a 90 percent job placement rate.

  • Location: Bellevue, NE
  • Duration: 24-36 months
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $35,100 in total (estimated)

Lock Haven University – Department of Social Work and Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Lock Haven University’s online master of science (MS) in clinical mental health counseling program requires no campus visits or residencies. The program’s primary goal is to prepare graduates to function independently as a clinical mental health counselor in a variety of different settings.

Students may further specialize their education in one of two focus areas: counseling military/veterans and their families, or counseling children and adolescents. Specialty certificates are also available in trauma-informed care. The main program consists of 60 credits, a 100-hour practicum, and a 600-hour internship. Upon graduation, students will be license-eligible in many states.

  • Location: Lock Haven, PA
  • Duration: 24 to 36 months
  • Accreditation: CACREP
  • Tuition: $774 per credit

Professors to Know in Online Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Programs

Dr. Mary Sue Richardson

Mary Sue Richardson, PhD

New York University

Dr. Mary Sue Richardson is a professor of applied psychology at NYU’s Steinhardt, where she teaches and advises students in the school’s graduate mental health counseling program. In 2019, Dr. Richardson served as the course lead for the online sections of the foundations of counseling for mental health and wellness class, and she currently teaches the dynamics of vocational development course. She received her PhD in counseling psychology from Columbia University.

As both a licensed psychologist and a prolific academic researcher, Dr. Richardson’s work is heavily informed by social constructionist, feminist, and social justice perspectives. In recent years, she’s championed a counseling approach she calls “Counseling for Work and Relationship,” which places renewed emphasis on how one constructs their life with respect to social and vocational contexts.

Dr. Joy S. Whitman

Joy S. Whitman, PhD, LPC, LCPC, NCC

Northwestern University

Dr. Joy S. Whitman is a core faculty member for Northwestern University’s online mental health counseling program, Counseling@Northwestern. She received her PhD in counseling psychology from West Virginia University.

In addition to 20 years of work as a counselor educator, Dr. Whitman has made major contributions to the wider community having served as president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling and as an editorial board member for the Journal of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling. Dr. Whitman’s research focus is centered around LGBTQ counseling issues, particularly on training counselors to provide affirmative therapeutic treatment. She maintains a private practice in Missouri, where she counsels both adults and couples, with a priority on working with LGBTQ communities.

Dr. Sam Gladding

Sam Gladding, PhD

Wake Forest University

Dr. Sam Gladding is a professor at Wake Forest University, where he teaches classes in counseling both on-campus and online. He received his PhD in human development and family studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and he also holds a master’s degree in counseling from Wake Forest University, and a master’s degree in religion from Yale University.

Before joining the academic world as a professor, Dr. Gladding was the director of children’s services for Rockingham County in North Carolina for five years. Since then he’s become one of the most prolific academic contributors to the field of counseling, having authored 18 books, 32 book chapters, and 92 peer-reviewed articles. Dr. Gladding has taught and worked with universities in Sweden, Qatar, Singapore, South Africa, and Australia, among many others.

What Can I Do With a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling?

Mental Health Counselor

Those with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling often go on to work as a mental health counselor. As stipulated by the American Counseling Association, mental health counselors will work with individuals, families, and groups in diagnosing and treating mental, behavioral, and emotional problems and disorders. Within that scope of practice is a deep reservoir of varying specializations, where a mental health counselor can center their focus around a particular patient demographic or mental health condition.

No matter what they choose to specialize in, mental health counselors often take a holistic, person-centered approach that may involve connecting a client with other care providers, social workers, and professional networks as needed. To that end, mental health counselors will need to work in multidisciplinary teams and be comfortable treating clients who have a dual diagnosis. A master’s degree in mental health counseling is essential not just for meeting licensure requirements, but also in providing a comprehensive understanding of the varied and interconnected areas of mental health.

Substance Abuse Counselor

Mental health and substance abuse are heavily linked, and a master’s degree in mental health counseling can also prepare a graduate for work as a substance abuse counselor. Sometimes referred to as addiction counselors, substance abuse counselors guide clients through issues of substance abuse and dependency. They teach their clients healthy coping mechanisms, help them regain control over their lives, and aid them in re-establishing personal and professional relationships.

Within substance abuse counseling, there are further distinctions: some substance abuse counselors focus on crisis intervention, while others work in non-crisis settings. And like mental health counselors, they will need to work in multidisciplinary teams and be comfortable with clients who have a dual diagnosis. A master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling can provide the foundation for understanding the different elements that factor into substance abuse and effective strategies for mitigating them.

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California, and he believes a strong society demands a stronger mental health system. Since early 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in counseling, research, and healthcare education. Drawing upon interviews with hospital CEOs, healthcare professionals, professors, and advocacy groups, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best.