How to Become a Therapist

A therapist talks to a family in a home setting.

Fueled in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for mental health services is on the rise. The American Psychological Association (APA) reported in 2022 that the U.S. needs to expand its workforce of mental health professionals to properly treat the growing number of people facing challenges such as depression, anxiety, trauma, stress, and substance use disorder. 

Individuals seeking a fulfilling career can help meet the growing need for mental health services by working as a therapist. The first step on that career path is learning how to become a therapist. Anyone considering enrolling in a counseling degree program can benefit from exploring what it takes to work as a therapist. 

What Do Therapists Do?

Therapists help their clients address challenges in areas such as mental health, relationships, or addiction. They typically start by evaluating their clients and determining whether treatment can help them. After conducting the initial assessment, therapists work with their clients to create objectives for their treatment. Then, they develop and implement a treatment plan to reach those objectives. 

A therapist’s treatment plan can feature items such as providing individual and group therapy and introducing clients to new behaviors and actions that can help them address their challenges. Therapists also teach their clients about strategies they can use to change their behavior, prepare them for their lives after treatment, and refer them to other resources that can benefit them. 

The types of therapists that clients can see include the following:

  • Licensed Professional Counselor: Therapists who work as licensed professional counselors (LPCs) work with clients who face behavioral, emotional, or mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. They typically complete master’s degree programs in counseling with a concentration in an area such as mental health counseling
  • Licensed Marital and Family Therapist: When working as licensed marital and family therapists (LMFTs), individuals concentrate on helping clients address issues they face in the context of their relationships. For example, they can help clients address marital conflicts, issues involving children’s conduct, or challenges that arise in connection with a divorce. Completing a master’s degree program in counseling with a concentration in marriage and family counseling helps prepare individuals for this role.
  • Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor: An individual can also become a therapist and focus on treating people with addictions. Specifically, the clients that licensed alcohol and drug counselors (LADCs) treat face challenges associated with drugs and alcohol and are working to recover from their addictions. To gain the expertise to work as LADCs, individuals can complete a master’s degree program in counseling with an emphasis in addiction and substance abuse.

How to Become a Licensed Therapist

Knowing how to become a licensed therapist involves becoming familiar with the steps in that process. Those steps are outlined below.

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program

Becoming an LPC, LMFT, or LADC starts with earning a bachelor’s degree. For example, completing a bachelor’s degree program in psychology or social work can establish a solid foundation for becoming a therapist.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree

The next step in becoming a therapist is to earn a master’s degree in counseling. This enables individuals who want to become LPCs, LMFTs, or LADCs to acquire valuable expertise and skills in areas such as:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Counseling treatment and techniques
  • Client assessment
  • Counseling interventions
  • Psychopathology

By completing a master’s degree in counseling, individuals who want to become LPCs can gain knowledge and skills in areas such as clinical psychopharmacology and community counseling. Aspiring LMFTs can acquire expertise and skills in areas such as marital and family treatment, as well as child and adolescent psychopathology. Individuals who want to become LADCs can build expertise and skills in areas such as alcohol and drug addiction and the pharmacology of abuse.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

Individuals who are new to working as therapists typically need to work under supervision for a minimum amount of time before they can gain full licensure and work independently. The amount of time they must receive supervision varies across states and across different types of therapy, so aspiring therapists need to research the requirements of the states where they intend to practice. In some states, a state license is required before working as a therapist under supervision. Broadly speaking, supervised work experience requirements can range from one to three years. 

Step 4: Receive Full Licensure

The next step in becoming a therapist is to obtain full state licensure to be qualified to work as a therapist without supervision. The requirements for full licensure differ across states, so individuals need to research the requirements of the states where they intend to practice. 

Obtaining full licensure typically involves passing one or more exams. Licensure exams include the following:

  • National Counselor Examination (NCE) offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors
  • Marital and Family Therapy National Examination (MFT National Examination) offered by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards
  • Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC) exam offered by the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium

Therapist Salary Levels and Employment Prospects

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2022:

  • Mental health and substance abuse counselors earned a median annual salary of $49,710
  • Marriage and family therapists earned a median annual salary of $56,570

Salaries can vary based on factors such as experience, educational level, additional certifications earned, employer, and geographic location.

The employment outlook for therapists is attractive. The BLS projects that through 2032:

  • Mental health and substance abuse counselors will see 18% employment growth
  • Marriage and family therapists will see 15% employment growth

Those growth rates significantly exceed the projected 3% job growth across all occupations. The BLS attributes the strong job growth projections to the growing demand for counseling and therapy services.

More therapists are also needed in particular geographic locations that face a shortage of mental health professionals. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), as of March 2024, a total of 122 million people in the U.S. lived in areas that were experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals.

Entering the Field of Therapy Can Be a Fulfilling Career Move

Meeting the qualifications to become a therapist enables an individual to enter a growing profession and make a real difference in the lives of their clients. Becoming a compassionate guide for those facing life’s challenges can be meaningful work. 

If you’re interested in becoming a therapist, explore Mid-America Christian University’s online counseling degree programs to learn how they can help you achieve your ambitions. The Master of Science (MS) in Counseling program allows you to choose an emphasis in Licensed Professional Counseling; Addiction and Substance Abuse Counseling; Marital, Couples, and Family Counseling; or Applied Behavioral Science, each of which provides critical expertise that can aid in helping others find a path forward.