Online Mental Health Counseling Degrees

Mental health counseling is a niche counseling field dedicated to assisting and supporting individuals, couples, families, and groups affected by mental health issues. Mental health counselors commonly diagnose and treat patients with disorders like depression, anxiety, and stress. Some may specialize in certain areas of mental health, such as addiction and substance abuse, grief, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Treatment methods may also vary; some mental health counselors see patients on a strict one-on-one basis, while others also offer couples’, family and group, therapy options.

The demand for qualified mental health counselors is expected to grow in the coming years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for mental health counselors and marriage/family therapists are projected to increase by 19% — or more than 31,000 positions — between 2014 and 2024. Experts also forecast similar growth in fields related to mental health counseling; jobs for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors are predicted to rise by 22% between 2014 and 2024, and positions for rehabilitation counselors should grow by 9% during the same period. Many of today’s students are preparing themselves for this rewarding profession by completing online mental health counseling degree programs. Online mental health counseling degrees are affordable, and the flexible format of web-based learning allows you to balance schoolwork with employment, childcare, and other important commitments. Currently, online mental health counseling degrees are offered at dozens of colleges and universities nationwide.

Do you want to help change the lives of others as a mental health counselor? This in-depth guide will explore online mental health counseling degree programs and the professional requirements for mental health counselors, as well as degree expectations, licensing procedures, employment prospects, and other key variables. Our goal is to help you determine whether earning a mental health counseling degree online is the right educational choice for you.

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Online Mental Health Counseling Degree Overview

Degree Avg Degree Cost Avg Loan Default Rate Time Commitment Early Career Pay Mid-Career Pay Unemployment Rate
Master's $19,032 9.56% 2 years $39,390 $51,497 N/A
Whether you are new to the field, or looking to advance in your current career, you should weigh the costs and time of getting a new degree against its benefits. There is no one-size-fits-all degree. The best choice for you will depend on your current educational background, financial standing, employment history, and area of interest. For instance, those with no experience may want to consider an associate degree, due to its shorter time commitment and lower cost. If finances are tight for you, then you should prioritize the student loan debt and default categories, as you will want to choose a degree that offers you the best chance of improving your financial standing with minimal risk. If your employer or someone else is paying for your education, then you might want to consider the degree that will offer you the highest salary. All salary information is sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and/or PayScale

Online Mental Health Counseling Degrees


Online Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling

Students who earn a master’s-level mental health counseling degree online will learn how to diagnose a wide range of mental illnesses and disorders. They will also be exposed to different counseling strategies and therapy techniques. Many students choose to earn a degree specialization in niche areas of mental health counseling like clinical counseling, substance abuse counseling, or marriage and family counseling; these learners will complete concentration tracks specifically dedicated to their desired field of study. Most online mental health counseling degrees at the master’s level carry an internship or residency requirement, which can usually be completed at a site close to the student’s home. Some programs may also feature a capstone project or master’s thesis; these comprehensive projects allow students to showcase the skills and knowledge they have gained throughout their master’s curriculum.

A master’s degree is required in most states for mental health counselors who wish to earn a license. In addition to the degree, licensure candidates must complete between 2,000 and 4,000 post-degree hours of supervised training (such as an internship or residency) and pass their state’s licensing exam.


    Fundamentals of Therapeutic Interaction, Theories of Psychotherapy, Ethics and Legal Issues of Counseling, Career and Lifestyle Counseling, Research Methodology and Program Evaluation


    Addiction counseling, Career counseling, Rehabilitation counseling, Clinical counseling, Child and adolescent counseling


    Mental health counselor, Marriage and family therapist, School and career counselor, Rehabilitation counselor, Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor


    $43,190 for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists, $34,390 for rehabilitation counselors, $53,660 for school and career counselors, and $39,980 for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors.


    From 2014-2024: 19% increase for mental health counselors/marriage and family therapists, 9% increase for rehabilitation counselors, 8% increase for school and career counselors, and 22% increase for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors.

Online Doctorate Degree in Mental Health Counseling

Most careers in mental health counseling (including licensed counselors) are attainable with a master’s degree — and as a result, very few students earn a PhD or doctorate in mental health counseling. According to the most recent data, the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that roughly 15 doctoral degrees in mental health counseling were conferred during the 2011-12 academic year; by comparison, more than 3,000 master’s degrees in this subject were conferred during the same period.

Students may earn a doctorate in mental health counseling if they plan to pursue careers in mental health counseling leadership or administration. Academic roles (such as professors) and research-oriented positions in counseling may also require a PhD. Doctoral degree programs are heavily ingrained in academic research, and involve less classroom-based instruction than a bachelor’s or master’s. An internship or residency will be a standard requirement, as well. PhD programs culminate in a dissertation, a comprehensive research paper that is typically 100 to 200 pages in length; in many cases, students will be required to defend their submission before a dissertation committee made up of school faculty members. The doctoral degree is conferred once a student’s dissertation has been reviewed and approved.


    Theories and Methods of Counselor Education, Applied Psychology, Doctoral Dissertation


    PhD in Counseling


    Mental health counselor/marriage and family therapist, Clinical supervisor, Postsecondary psychology or counseling teacher


    $43,190 for mental health counselors/marriage and family therapists, $94,500 for medical and health services managers, and $72,470 for postsecondary psychology or counseling teachers.


    From 2014-24: 19% increase for mental health counselors/marriage and family therapists, 17% increase for medical and health services managers, and 13% increase for postsecondary psychology or counseling teachers.

Online Mental Health Counseling Choose Your Career

Average Mental Health Counseling Salaries


School and Career Counselors

Salary: $53,660
Growth Rate 2014-2024 Number of Jobs: 2014 Degree Certifications
8% 273,400 Masters State licensure may be required

School and career counselors can be found at public and private learning institutions across the country, although their day-to-day duties will vary based on the age of their students. At the pre-K and elementary levels, counselors primarily evaluate children for learning disabilities, behavioral or social issues, and other areas of concern for teachers and parents. Middle and high school counselors help students cope with the pressures and emotional concerns of adolescence; they also help them explore college and career options. College counselors are generally more focused on academic and professional concerns, such as major fields of study and post-degree job placement.

Public school counselors at all grade levels must earn a state-issued credential to practice. According to the BLS, credential options include a certification, license, or an endorsement; specific requirements will vary by state. Licensure for private school counselors is required in some (but not all) states.

Rehabilitation Counselors

Salary: $34,390
Growth Rate 2014-2024 Number of Jobs: 2014 Degree Certifications
9% 120,100 Masters State licensure may be required

Rehabilitation counselors work with individuals living with physical, mental, cognitive, and/or emotional disabilities. Their primary goal is to help clients cope with or recover from the various effects of a permanent or temporary disability. Rehabilitation counselors also assist and support clients who are attempting to secure employment, receive an education, acquire assets (such as a car or property), and perform other undertakings associated with independent living. Many rehabilitation counselors work with niche populations, such as minors, athletes, or military veterans.

Rehabilitation counselors who provide services to clients and/or patients must receive state licensure. Other roles may be exempt from licensing requirements. Specific criteria varies by state.

Mental Health Counselors

Salary: $43,190
Growth Rate 2014-2024 Number of Jobs: 2014 Degree Certifications
19% 168,200 Masters State licensure is required

Mental health and behavioral disorder counselors work directly with clients who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other significant mental health issues. These counselors may also assist spouses, children, and other family members with loved ones who have a mental illness or behavioral disorder. Many online mental health counseling degree programs specialize in cognitive therapy, a counseling method that helps patients identify destructive behaviors and thought patterns; once these problematic tendencies have been pinpointed, then the individual can potentially work to replace them with more positive ones and lead a more productive, fulfilling life.

Mental health counselors (including marriage and family therapists) must receive licensure to practice in all 50 states. Additionally, they must complete annual continuing education requirements.

Online Mental Health Counseling Professional Requirements

National Counselor Certification

The National Certified Counselor (NCC) is available through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). This credential reflects national standards for the counseling profession. The NCC is not equivalent to a state-issued license, and mental health counselors who earn the NCC must still pursue licensure in the state where they plan to practice. However, the NCC and most state-issued licenses carry the same requirements — and candidates who earn an NCC will be well-positioned to meet the demands of their state’s licensing criteria. The NCE exam contains 200 multiple-choice questions. Test-takers have four hours to complete the exam.

Requirements for earning the NCC include:

  • A master’s degree or equivalent graduate-level certificate with at least 48 semester or 72 quarter credit hours and coursework in nine core areas of study
  • At least 100 post-degree hours of supervised clinical training
  • At least 3,000 hours of relevant work experience
  • Post-education requirements may be waived for students who complete a graduate degree program that has received accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)

If all criteria is met, then candidates will be able to sit for the National Counselor Examination for Licensing and Certification (NCE). This exam features 200 multiple-choice questions designed to evaluate the test-taker’s skills and knowledge in core areas of counseling like human growth and development, social and cultural diversity, and research and program evaluation. The maximum score for the NCE exam is 160 points. Candidates who pass the exam and meet all other applicable criteria will receive NCC status.

The NCC is not required. However, those who obtain an NCC will also satisfy many state licensure requirements in the process.

Is it required?


How long will it take?

4 hours

State Licensure

Mental health counselors who offer services to clients or patients must receive official licensure in all 50 states. Although specific requirements vary by state, general licensing criteria include the following:

  • A master’s degree in counseling
  • Supervised training and work experience in counseling

If all state-specific criteria have been met, then candidates will be able to sit for a licensing exam. Two exam options are available: the NCE (profiled above) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Both exams are offered through the NBCC, and each one will be sufficient on its own to obtain licensure in all 50 states; however, the NCMHCE cannot be used to earn national certification.

Unlike the NCE — which features a multiple-choice question format — the NCMHCE consists of 10 clinical simulations designed to evaluate test-takers in three core areas: assessment and diagnosis; counseling and psychotherapy; and administration, consultation, and supervision. The simulations feature subsections that fall into one of two categories: ‘information gathering’ or ‘decision making’ Each simulation carries a score range of +3 to -3, and the final score is accumulative. To pass the exam, test-takers must match or exceed the minimum scores for both the ‘information gathering’ and ‘decision making’ subsections.

For more information about state-specific licensing requirements, please visit NBCC’s national directory and interactive map.

Is it required?


How long will it take?

3 hours

Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC)

The CCMHC is an optional credential offered through the NBCC for counselors who demonstrate an extensive understanding of national counseling standards. Requirements for earning a CCMHC include the following:

  • A master’s degree in counseling with at least 60 semester or 90 quarter credit hours and a coursework in 10 core areas
  • At least 100 hours of supervised clinical training
  • At least 3,000 hours of ‘clinical client contact’

Candidates who meet this criteria must also earn a passing score on the NCMHCE exam, which is detailed in the previous table.

Is it required?


How long will it take?

3 hours