Preparing for a Career in Counseling

The employment of mental health counselors, who aid clients in managing and overcoming psychological and emotional disorders, is projected to increase 20 percent by 2024, according to the [Bureau of Labor Statistics]( That’s almost three times faster than the average for all occupations.

The startling growth is partially attributed to the mental health care needs of veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 11 to 20 percent of service members deployed under Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom will require treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The VA currently employs only 21,000 mental health professionals to treat 22.3 million veterans, and despite the department’s efforts to hire more staff, the vacancy rates for mental health specialists stands at 20 percent throughout much of the country, suggesting a lack of qualified candidates.

Even positions that have been filled continue to present problems, as veterans sometimes find it difficult to connect with their counselors who have never enlisted. After serving with the Navy in the Northern Arabian Gulf and Cuba, Daniel Brautigam was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. “They had no idea how to respond,” Brautigam says of trying to discuss his experiences at Guantanamo Bay with his civilian therapist.

Thankfully the tide is beginning to turn, as exemplified by Douglas Pearce. Diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and depression after serving in Afghanistan, Pearce underwent months of therapy, which not only helped him overcome his thoughts of suicide but inspired him to become a counselor himself. He now operates his own practice where he focuses on helping veterans. “I saw people who were in the same dark place I was,” Pearce says of his experiences working with other service members. “I was able to enter that darkness with them and help, because I was in that place for so long.”

While becoming a counselor is an excellent way to give back to the military community, it is also a stable career path. The demand for counselors is already high and only growing. Accordingly, wages are also outpacing the average for all occupations: The median annual salary in May of 2014 for mental health counselors was $40,850, while the average for all occupations was only $35,540. Mental health counselors typically work full time at individual and family services agencies, outpatient centers and residential facilities, which also offer benefits like health insurance, retirement plans and paid time off.

Becoming a mental health counselor typically begins with earning a master’s degree in counseling or a related field, such as psychology, therapy or mental health. Such programs provide students with the extensive clinical training and theoretical foundations in clinical practice, human growth and development, and psychopathology necessary to diagnose and treat psychological and emotional disorders. When considering master’s programs, it is advisable to search for one accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Education Programs, as many employers prefer these. It may also be beneficial to search for schools that provide support for their students and graduates looking for internships and work.

The next step to becoming a counselor is obtaining your state-issued license. While licensure requirements vary from state to state, the criteria normally includesinclude the aforementioned master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of post-degree supervised clinical experience, sometimes referred to as an internship or residency. To learn more about your state’s specific requirements, visit the website of your local licensure board. Once you have received your license you will be able to begin practicing.

The value of counseling, as a profession and a service, is often unrecognized by those who don’t require it, but the dire circumstances of veterans in the United States underscores its importance. Counseling offers you, as a veteran, the unique chance to establish yourself on a promising career path while also giving back to your community. Learn more about this opportunity at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American Counseling Association and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Education Programs.

**About the Author:**
Roslyn Tate is an editor on the 2U Inc. website. A recent Goddard College MFA she enjoys helping people achieve their goals through academics and art. 2U partners with leading colleges and universities to offer online master's degree programs to students around the world.