Become a Behavioral Counselor: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Oct 20, 2021

Learn how to become a behavioral counselor. Research the education requirements, training, licensure information and experience you will need to start a career in behavioral counseling.

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Should I Become a Behavioral Counselor?

Behavioral counselors help individuals identify detrimental or negative behavior patterns, such as mental health disorders or substance abuse issues, and work with them to alter those behaviors. A position as a behavioral counselor often consists of observing patients, recording patient interactions and progress, and participating in treatment plans. Sessions with patients may take place individually or in a group setting.

These professionals can be found working in a multitude of environments, including private practices, rehabilitation centers or hospitals. The work is often stressful, and most counselors see several different patients. Many jobs require professionals to work evenings and weekends.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; master's degree necessary for some jobs
Degree Fields Psychology, social work, counseling, or other behavioral health related field
Licensure and/or Certification Licensure varies by state; CPR/first aid certifications sometimes required
Key Skills Written/verbal communication, analytical, decision-making, problem solving, and multi-tasking skills; sensitivity and compassion
Median Annual Salary (2018) $44,630 (for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors)
Job Outlook (2018-2028) 22% (for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

To become a behavioral counselor, a bachelor's degree is required. A master's degree is necessary for some jobs. Degrees in psychology, social work, counseling or other behavioral health related field are useful in this field. Private practitioners must be licensed; requirements for those employed in private practices varies by state. CPR and first aid certifications are sometimes required.

Necessary skills include:

  • Written and verbal communication
  • Analytical skills
  • Decision- making
  • Problem-solving
  • Multi-tasking
  • Sensitivity and compassion

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $44,630 was the median annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors as of May 2018.

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Psychology, social work, and counseling degree programs provide a general understanding of the behavioral health field, including abnormal, cognitive and developmental behavior. Typically, students aspiring to become a behavioral counselor choose to major in psychology or social work.

A tip for success: participate in an internship. In addition to coursework, some colleges and universities offer internships in mental health agencies for credit while attending a bachelor's degree program. These programs provide college students with real-world experience and skills in their field that can be used after graduation.

Step 2: Complete a Graduate Program

Master's degree programs in clinical psychology or a similar discipline can prepare individuals for more advanced practice as a behavioral counselor and is sometimes a requirement for employment in the field. In addition to advanced-level courses in areas such as psychology methods, techniques and assessment models, students are expected to complete practicum work alongside clinicians.

Another tip for success: gain experience by volunteering. Gaining work experience is a vital component to becoming a behavioral counselor and is often a prerequisite for earning licensure. Clinical volunteer experiences can be found within local community organizations, teaching hospitals, medical centers and private practices.

Step 3: Become Licensed or Certified

State requirements vary for becoming a licensed counselor. Common requirements include completing a graduate program and acquiring a minimum number of professional hours of clinical work. Two of the most common licenses pursued by behavioral counselors are the Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) and the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).

Becoming licensed requires taking and passing the National Counselor Examination for Certification and Licensure (NCE), which is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and is accepted by most states.

A tip for success: complete continuing education. Maintaining licensure usually requires completing continuing education coursework. States vary on the minimum number of continuing education credit hours needed to maintain a license.

Step 4: Further Your Career

After gaining experience in an established practice and building connections in the community, many behavioral counselors choose to open a private practice. Starting a private business can be challenging and its success depends largely on the status of the economy. It is best to first develop a specialty within behavioral counseling, such as anxiety, divorce, or eating disorders, and then open a practice that caters to the chosen specialty.

Behavioral counselors need to have a bachelor's degree and benefit heavily from internships, volunteer work, and developing a specialty skill in helping others.

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