Therapy FAQ

What Is an LMHC and Should You See One for Therapy?

Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) provide vital support for individuals facing mental health challenges or life changes. Their personalized therapy draws from diverse backgrounds and specialized paths. Consider their qualifications and approach when seeking therapy.

Author Generic Image By Ebony Bellamy

Updated on May 23, 2024

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We all deal with hardships in life. However, some of us are better at dealing with them than others. If you’re having a rough time and want extra support, a licensed mental health counselor might be able to help you.

Licensed mental health counselors, LMHC, support clients struggling with their mental health, coping with a life-changing event, developing healthy habits and behaviors or improving their overall well-being. They accomplish this by getting to know their clients and building a safe, positive relationship to suggest the best tools and techniques for each individual.

With approximately 310,000 mental health counselors, including substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, currently employed in the United States, there are several LMHCs to choose from. Before you search for a mental health counselor, there are a few things you should know such as their academic background, career path, specializations, and how they differentiate from other mental health professionals. Once you have this information, you can make an informed decision on whether or not you want to visit a licensed mental health counselor.

The Academic Background of an LMHC

Each state has different requirements to become a licensed mental health counselor. However, there are four that are the same.

The four state-wide requirements are:

The first step to becoming a licensed mental health counselor is to receive an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject such as psychology, human services, or sociology. Once that’s complete, a master’s degree in counseling is needed. Both a master’s degree in counseling and a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling is suitable degrees.

If an individual doesn’t have an undergraduate degree in a similar field, many graduate programs will allow students to take prerequisite classes before they begin their graduate-level coursework. When applying to graduate programs, they should know what coursework is needed to receive their licensure, especially if they plan to practice in a different state. Some of that coursework might include psychopathology and multicultural counseling. Once they find a graduate program that fulfills the state requirement, they’ll need to complete the necessary coursework, along with a set amount of clinical requirements or practicum. On average, it takes about two to three years to complete a master’s degree.

Although a master’s degree is the minimum requirement to become an LMHC, some people continue their studies and obtain a doctoral degree. Once a student graduates with their master’s degree, they’ll need to complete a certain number of post-graduate clinical work. Each state has different requirements for the number of clinical hours that need to be completed and what counts as supervised hours.

Most states require at least two years of supervised clinical experience. However, the exact amount varies. For example, New York requires an individual completes 3,000 hours of supervised counseling experience in an approved setting. Of those hours, at least 1,500 must be in direct contact with clients providing clinical services. Depending on the state, those hours must be supervised by a state-licensed professional who is authorized to provide mental health counseling. These hours are necessary because it allows an individual to work with clients in a mental health setting, receive constructive criticism and learn directly from their supervisor.

An individual must know all this before they apply for a license in a state. Before they can qualify for licensure, they’ll need to pass the exam their state licensing board requires. Two main tests are commonly used. The first is the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE), which consists of 200 multiple-choice questions. The second is the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), which tests an individual’s knowledge of mental health counseling through 10 clinical simulations.

After meeting the state’s requirements and passing the state-required exam, they can officially apply for licensure. Each state charges a different rate to obtain and renew a license. Once an individual receives their license, they can practice mental health counseling in their state. However, some states require licensed mental health counselors actively continue their education since the field is constantly advancing.

The Various Career Paths and Specializations of an LMHC

Within the United States, mental health counseling is one of the fastest-growing professions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “the employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is projected to grow 23 percent from 2020 to 2030.” This projection means that by 2030 more than 74,000 new jobs will be available for people pursuing a career in this field.

Between the effect the pandemic had on people’s mental health and states gravitating away from placing people with addiction and mental health disorders in jail, the demand for LMHCs has drastically increased. Mental health counselors are needed now more than ever as people are becoming more comfortable with reaching out for treatment and counseling.

Licensed mental health counselors can choose to work with a specific group of people or mental health concerns. Most LMHCs choose a specialization while they are in graduate school. Mental health can affect anyone of any age, sexual and gender identity, and location, so having a specialization allows mental health counselors across the country to help individuals and their precise needs.

Since they work in various places such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, and private practices, the most common jobs licensed mental health counselors often pursue are:

As a substance abuse/addiction counselor, LMHCs focus on helping individuals stay on the road to recovery. Counselors do this by offering their patients the necessary support, coping mechanisms, and strategies they need to remain clean and resist any temptations they might face. In this line of work, LMHCs usually provide support through one-on-one sessions or group counseling. During these counseling services, counselors focus on treating the emotional, mental, and behavioral conditions that caused their patients to use a specific substance. Unfortunately, since 40 to 60 percent of people who suffer from substance abuse and addiction experience a relapse, counselors usually treat these clients regularly.

Military personnel counselors also help their patients work through substance abuse and addiction. However, they exclusively work with veterans and soldiers. LMHCs in this position don’t need to be enrolled in the military to assist service members with mental health support. They usually focus on helping war heroes and veterans, soldiers dealing with substance abuse, and soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They also help their patients deal with deployment anxiety and depression.

Similarly to substance abuse/addiction and military personnel counselors, residential counselors can also work with homeless veterans and individuals dealing with substance abuse. They work with a range of people since residential counselors are usually responsible for the care, support, and guidance of anyone who lives in shelters, rehabilitation centers, or assisted living facilities. Depending on where they work, counselors can conduct behavioral counseling, help individuals set and accomplish goals, oversee the day-to-day tasks of their facility, and ensure residents are safe and following the rules.

Unlike other LMHCs, geriatric counselors specialize in providing physical and psychological services to elderly individuals, usually 65 and older. Along with counseling, they provide their clients with direct care, treatment for mental health issues, and assistance with problems that might interfere with a senior’s quality of life. Geriatric counselors teach their clients how to cope and process the death of a loved one, the loss of their independence, their deteriorating health, and a massive change to their daily life such as retirement and no longer being allowed to drive. They also assess each person’s quality of life, mental state, and ability level, so they can work with the family members to create the best care plan for that individual.

Licensed mental health counselors, who focus on specific mental health illnesses, specialize in creating the perfect treatment plan for their patients and ensuring they can work through the trauma or life-changing events that trigger mental health episodes. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Studies suggest half of those people are receiving treatment for it. For those who are receiving treatment, seeing an LMHC is beneficial because their counselors teach them various coping mechanisms and solutions, so they understand how to deal with their mental health.

Some of the most common mental health illnesses LMHCs specialize in are:

How LMHCs Differentiate From Other Mental Health Professionals

Although licensed mental health counselors are experts in mental health, they can’t prescribe medication or conduct a full range of medical laboratory and psychological tests like psychiatrists can. However, many LMHCs have extensive knowledge about various medications that can be used to treat specific mental health concerns and can recommend ones their patients can ask a psychiatrist about.

While psychiatrists treat mental health illnesses, LMHCs help people gain personal insights, develop strategies and come up with solutions to the problems and challenges they face in their day-to-day life. They accomplish this by helping their patients strive for optimal mental health, meet wellness goals, adjust to having a chronic illness, and address relationship, academic, and career issues. Counselors usually address problems that are related to life transitions, traumatic events, and difficult situations.

The American Counseling Association states that “although counselors are versed in many research-based therapy types because counselors are client-focused when they suggest therapy techniques as part of the counseling process, they propose them based on their knowledge of clients and the belief that certain techniques will help them.” Compared to licensed marriage and family therapists, LMHCs focus primarily on their clients as an individual. Although they can help patients discover how their relationships and family directly affect them, licensed mental health counselors don’t make that the focus of their sessions. Their goal is to give individuals the necessary tools to heal and have a happy, fulfilling life.

All LMHCs implement the same three principles in their treatment and they are:

Counselors take into account their patient’s life experiences and unique cultures when designing a treatment plan for them. They do this by getting to know each client on a personal level. They will ask them about their hobbies, job, family, and relationships and by doing this licensed mental health counselors can see their patient’s hardships from the individual’s perspective. By creating a safe, non-judgmental environment, and actively listening, licensed mental health counselors can help their clients explore what’s truly bothering them and provide them a place to open up about topics they would never discuss with family or friends. Licensed mental health counselors understand that everyone is unique and brings their own level of diversity and experiences to their sessions. This understanding helps LMHCs prioritize their patient’s individuality, so no two people will have the same experience when working with the same licensed mental health counselor. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking to book an appointment with an LMHC. Your sessions will revolve around the things that are troubling you and only you.

Frequently Asked Questions

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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