You like helping people. Your friends think you’re a great listener. You’ve been called empathetic and compassionate. Maybe you’ve gone through your own traumatic experiences and know how much a great therapist can assist with recovery. Perhaps you’ve been told – more than once – that you’d make an excellent mental health therapist.
The thing is, you have no idea where to start. Do all these amazing skills translate into a career in mental health? What would you need to do to start your path toward becoming a therapist? Moreover, exactly how long does it take to become a mental health therapist? Advekit is an online therapy platform that can provide you with the resources and knowledge needed to get a therapist career started. Let’s go over the basics of how to become a therapist, and why doing so isn’t an overnight journey.
Therapists are licensed professionals who have a background in psychology, psychiatry, counseling, or social work. A therapist is a very broad term, as there are many different types of therapy careers available. A mental health counselor, psychotherapist, social worker, substance abuse counselor, school psychologist, and psychiatrist all fall under the umbrella of therapy.
You may have an image of a therapist sitting on a couch talking to patients sitting across from them on a couch. However, therapists also work in schools at all levels, along with rehabilitation centers, hospitals, city or federal programs, and social service nonprofits. Therapists work not just with individuals, but also with couples, families, and groups. Private practice is one option, but so is working directly with another organization or through an online therapy group.
Regardless of what fields you choose to work in as a therapist, you’ll need a certain amount of education. Now, this is where it can be tricky. Unlike say, going to law school, there isn’t one easy answer to becoming a therapist, since so many different types of mental health professionals require specific educational backgrounds. Plus, requirements vary by state, which means the first place to start is to check your state (or the state you want to have a job in) and their specific licensing requirements.
Generally speaking, becoming a licensed therapist requires a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college. If you’re a college student and you’re not sure if you want to pursue being a mental health professional as a full-time career, it might make sense to start by taking psychology classes and taking on sociology, communication, and biology courses. Given that it usually takes around four years to complete a bachelor’s degree, you’re now looking at a minimum of four years to become a therapist.
However, it is common for a licensed therapist to also have a master’s degree on top of their bachelor’s degree, per state requirements and what’s necessary to obtain licensure in their state. If you were wondering how much do therapists make, having a higher level of education can lead to a higher salary. Going to graduate school to obtain a master’s degree usually takes two to three years on average, depending on the program.
Some therapists opt for a PhD or MD. There are two types of doctorates you could pursue – a therapist with a PhD is likely to focus on research, whereas a therapist with a Doctorate in Psychology or PsyD is likely to turn their attention to clinical experience. Medical degrees take around seven years, while other doctorate programs range from four to six years on top of your master’s. And if you decide you want to become a psychiatrist, you have to get an MD, as psychiatrists are the only mental health professionals who can then prescribe medications.
Remember the idea of a private practice? In order to work with patients directly, you need supervised clinical hours in addition to your degrees. You can’t complete your licensure without it. A licensed professional counselor requires a master’s degree, and in most cases, you cannot get a job as a professional counselor, social worker, or psychotherapist without a master’s degree.
What does clinical supervision entail? To get your master’s, you have to complete supervised clinical work in psychology, which means having practice therapy sessions with clients before you can become certified by the licensing board in your state. Whatever master’s degree program you’re in will usually arrange these sessions. You may also end in an internship or a post-grad supervised clinical experience.
Either way, post-grad clinical supervision takes a couple of years. Depending on your state, you’ll need to have worked a minimum number of hours with patients as you’re completing your master’s. This means that before you can open up or work under someone else without supervision, those hours need to be completed. Many times, this means working directly with therapists as their employee, or working within higher education.
After you complete your clinical hours, you take a certifying exam (it varies by state). This amount of time depends on how much you study for the exam, but passing the exam is going to be necessary in order to apply for licensure to practice. And if you move or wish to practice therapy elsewhere, you’ll likely have to take another exam, or look into ways to make sure you’re licensed to practice within that state.
Once your license is approved by the board and arrives, you can finally set out to buy liability insurance, allowing you to begin taking on patients and searching for job opportunities! When it comes to the different types of therapy and social work licenses, you’re looking at having a license in one or more of the following:
Clinical or Master Social Work (LCSW or LMSW)
Independent Clinical Social Work (LICSW)
Mental Health Counselor (LMHC or MHC)
Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT or MFT)
So, how many years does it take to become a therapist in total? If you’ve been to college (or are currently in school), you’ll need another two to three years beyond your bachelor’s degree to attend graduate school and a master’s program. If you decide to pursue a doctorate, you’ll need an extra five to seven years beyond your bachelor’s. You’re looking at anywhere from three to seven – even eight if you’re getting a medical degree – extra years to practice.
Don’t let the amount of work and time it takes deter you, however, if you really want to become a mental health professional. The industry keeps growing, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a quarter increase in mental health jobs. So while the road to becoming a therapist may seem long, your time commitment can be shortened by being a full-time student. And, when you reach your destination of private practice, Advekit can help make it easier for you to spend more time doing what you love, and are trained to do. In the end, going forth with this exciting new career will be rewarding and make the time spent worth it.