Licensed professional counselors play a pivotal role in America’s mental health system. The counseling they provide covers a wide range of social, personal and mental health issues, from post-traumatic stress disorder to alcohol and drug addiction to marriage counseling. To become a licensed professional counselor, you must complete years of education and training, and obtain a license. Once you succeed, you can enjoy a career with a diverse range of job opportunities.
What Is a Licensed Professional Counselor?
Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) help people with behavioral issues, psychological difficulties and substance abuse issues overcome their illnesses to lead happier, healthier, more productive lives. Nearly 44 million Americans experience some sort of mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. LPCs work with people from all walks of life, including homeless clients, as well as the elderly, immigrant, student and military clients.
Licensed professional counselors also counsel families to help them heal from domestic violence or marital difficulties. Some LPCs work with individuals or groups who have suffered traumas such as mass shootings, sexual assaults or armed robberies. Other LPCs work with military veterans and active duty military personnel to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse problems or difficulties adjusting to civilian life.
Licensed professional counselors work for colleges and universities, and help students adjust to family separation or to deal with the social and academic pressures of campus life. LPCs who work for corporations often oversee employee assistance programs or they counsel workers who suffer from job-related anxiety or the stress of balancing a career and personal life.
LPC Job Duties and Responsibilities
Licensed professional counselors focus on each client’s individual needs. They diagnose substance abuse problems, plus emotional disorders and mental illnesses, and they also devise treatment plans. Treatments can include individual counseling, couples’ counseling, group therapy, psychodynamic therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy.
LPCs assess clients’ strengths and weaknesses and help them move past life barriers that have limited their lives. This can involve visualization therapy to heal past traumas or behavioral exercises to conquer fears. Throughout treatment, the LPC must keep detailed notes of progress or setbacks, and adjust treatment plans when necessary.
At times, licensed professional counselors must intervene through court action to prevent clients from hurting other people or themselves. LPCs sometimes make recommendation to court officers for actions such as court-ordered drug and alcohol treatment.
LPCs teach their clients behavioral management techniques and coping skills, and help clients take responsibility for the root causes of issues such as substance abuse, marital difficulties or emotional problems.
LPCs and Mental Health Doctors
Although some licensed professional counselors have Ph.D.s, most of them are not doctors. Psychologists and psychiatrists also treat people with emotional issues and mental illnesses, but certain differences distinguish them from LPCs.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors. Their career paths require them to graduate from medical school, complete internship and residency programs, and then to obtain a state-issued medical license so that they may set up a psychiatric practice. Psychiatrists can prescribe drugs to patients and some also counsel patients. They often treat patients who need medications for conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar illness or chronic depression.
Many psychologists have Ph.D.s in clinical psychology. In most states, they must obtain a license to use the term “psychologist” in their title or practice. Some psychologists practice psychotherapy with patients, while others conduct research.
Licensed professional counselors cannot prescribe drugs or call themselves as doctors. However, some psychiatrists open practices with LPCs. In such practices, the psychiatrist typically deals with patients’ medication needs, while the LPC handles issues best resolved through counseling.
Licensed Professional Counselor Education Requirements
Most licensed professional counselors have at least a master’s degree in clinical psychology or counseling. Before earning a master’s degree, you must complete a bachelor’s degree program, which usually takes about four years. Many aspiring LPCs create a foundation for their career by earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Undergraduate psychology programs typically include coursework in subjects such as psychology, behavioral neuroscience, abnormal psychology and cognitive psychology.
Master’s degree programs in counseling or clinical psychology typically take one or two year to complete and provide training in counseling and therapy techniques. Master’s degree clinical psychology programs enable you explore specific areas of interest. For instance, you might choose to specialize in substance abuse counseling or developmental psychology. Master’s counseling programs provide well-rounded coursework that corresponds with the essential aspects of a counseling practice, including assessment, intervention and consultation.
Many college and universities offer counseling and clinical psychology degree programs, which you can earn in a classroom setting or online, as a full- or part-time student.
LPC License Requirements
All states require licensed professional counselors to obtain a license before they can work in private practice. Licensing requirements vary by state, but most states require LPC candidates to have at least a master’s degree. They also must have worked at least 2,000 hours in a clinical setting, supervised by a licensed counselor, and pass a state licensing examination. Typically, licensed professional counselors must attend annual continuing education courses to retain their licenses.
In Texas, for example, licensed professional counselors can qualify for licensing if they hold a master’s degree or doctoral degree in counseling. An applicant’s graduate program must have included at least 60 hours of counseling-related coursework in subjects such as counseling methods, abnormal human behavior, lifestyle and career development, family issues and assessment techniques, to name a few. Texas applicants also must have completed a minimum of 100 clock hours of direct client counseling, and pass the National Counselor Exam and the Texas Jurisprudence Exam. Upon passing the examination, Texas issues LPCs a temporary license, after which they must complete a 3,000-hour internship, under the supervision of a licensed counselor, in under 18 months.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), mental health counselors earned a median salary of around $43,000 in 2017. The median salary represents the center of the mental health counselor pay scale. High earners took home more than $70,000, while counselors at the bottom of the pay scale earned around $27,000. Government counselors earned the highest salaries, followed by those working for hospitals and individual and family services organizations.
An online search for licensed professional counselor job opportunities returns a variety of counseling areas and salary ranges. A private substance abuse clinic in the Midwest seeks an LPC, offering a $70,000 annual salary. A state government offers an LPC position for a sex offender treatment program, which pays around $3,400 to $6,700 per month. A state university in the Southwest offers an LPC job serving as a diversity coordinator, which pays around $4,300 per month.
LPC Job Outlook
According to a BLS survey, around 140,000 mental health counselors worked in the United States in 2016, including 30,000 in individual and family services and 16,000 in mental health and substance abuse facilities. From now until 2026, the Bureau projects a 23 percent increase in mental health counselor jobs.
Much of the increase is rooted in a shift in public policy, from incarceration to mental health counseling for people with behavioral disorders and substance abuse problems. Additionally, veterans’ services will experience an increased need for LPCs to treat veterans with substance abuse problems and mental health issues.