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Online Master’s in Clinical and Mental Health Counseling Programs

Clinical counseling, or clinical mental health counseling, represents the core area of instruction and practice in professional counseling. Clinical mental health counselors (sometimes referred to as CMHCs) receive specific training in the accepted theories, methods, and ethics of counseling. This training consists of earning a master’s degree in counseling and completing a supervised clinical counseling internship or practicum. Clinical counselors must then pass a state certification exam in order to become a licensed professional counselor (LPC), a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), or a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC). These are largely equivalent designations that vary by state. While there are specializations and sub-specializations within the field of counseling, licensure in clinical mental health counseling is one of the primary requirement to work professionally in the field.

What is Clinical Counseling?

Clinical counseling is a widely recognized, clearly delineated mental health profession. While it does overlap with social work and psychology to some extent, it occupies its own niche in the larger realm of health and human services. Clinical counselors are trained to provide mental health care to a broad array of clients, including children, adults, and the elderly; individuals who have serious mental health issues; and otherwise healthy people seeking professional guidance to cope with everyday stress, situational anxiety, and personal challenges like divorce, career change, or the death of a loved one. Clinical counselors offer solution-oriented treatments, which can involve relatively brief crisis and trauma interventions, or more extensive, long-term assistance. They use the tools of psychotherapy and theories of human psychology and sociology to help people cope with and overcome emotional and behavioral problems. Clinical counseling may be offered in a variety of professional settings, including private and public health centers, clinics, and hospitals. Social service agencies, employee assistance programs, and colleges and universities are some of the institutions that typically offer professional counseling services. In addition, it is not uncommon for licensed clinical counselors to work in a private practice setting.

Online Master’s Degrees in Clinical and Mental Health Counseling

Online master’s in counseling, clinical counseling, and clinical mental health counseling programs are designed to provide students with the tools and training necessary to become an LPC or the equivalent. Students in these programs prepare for state licensure examinations by learning about counseling assessment and diagnosis protocols and studying the relevant ethical and legal concerns associated with mental health counseling. They also receive instruction in accepted forms of psychotherapeutic treatment and its use with individuals, families, and other social groups. In addition to courses in counseling theory, students in online master’s in counseling programs participate in supervised internships and practicums that provide practical clinical experience. While the coursework in an online counseling program is delivered online, the internship/practicum component requires students to be on site at a local counseling center approved by the program.

Identifying Master’s in Clinical and Mental Health Counseling Programs

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the main organization that sets curricular standards for master’s in clinical and mental health counseling programs and provides accreditation to schools offering these programs. CACREP accreditation is voluntary, and not all programs are CACREP accredited. Some programs are accredited by the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC), which is also voluntary. However, there is a fairly wide agreement on what constitutes proper training for clinical counselors, and what the core curriculum for master’s in clinical and mental health counseling programs should be. This curriculum is framed by the general standards set by CACREP and the typical requirements for state licensure. It includes coursework in the ethical practice of counseling, in theories and models of human development and cultural diversity, and in accepted methods for psychological evaluations and the psychotherapeutic treatment of individuals and groups. In addition, it includes internship and practicum requirements that add up to a minimum of 700 hours of supervised clinical experience.

While the master’s in counseling curriculum is fairly standardized, there is some variation in how these programs are named. The following are examples of typical counseling degree programs:

  • Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Master of Arts in Counseling
  • Master of Science in Professional Counseling
  • Master of Science in Clinical and Mental Health Counseling
  • Master of Arts in Clinical Counseling

How Categorizes Online Master’s in Clinical and Mental Health Counseling Programs conducts independent research of online master’s in clinical counseling programs and classifies them based on their curricula and the standards set by CACREP for training in clinical counseling. These programs, regardless of the name, provide coursework that covers the eight core areas of instruction mandated by CACREP’s Professional Counseling Identity standards. In addition, only online programs offered by non-profit colleges and universities are included on the site. Many of the programs on the site offer 100% online instruction, while others may require students to attend a limited number of on-campus sessions. At this time, only lists programs that require two or fewer campus visits per year.

The curricular criteria used by for online master’s in clinical counseling programs include the following:

  • At least four courses that cover assessment, testing, and counseling for adults, children, and other populations.
  • Coursework in the professional practice and ethics of counseling.
  • A combined minimum of 700 hours of supervised clinical counseling internship experience.

What Clinical Counseling Students Learn

The general curriculum for a master’s in clinical counseling has two primary components: coursework in theories and models of counseling, and a series of practicums and internships in clinical settings. There may be additional areas of study, including specializations like counseling for special populations, marriage and family counseling, or addictions counseling. But the primary focus of a master’s in clinical counseling program is providing students with the tools and training necessary to work as a LPC in a wide range of settings. The curriculum is designed to cover a broad spectrum of counseling applications, including individual counseling, group counseling, community counseling, trauma counseling, and career counseling. Students then have an opportunity to hone their counseling skills and gain experience in one or more of the types of counseling they intend to pursue during their clinical practicums.

Common Courses in Online Clinical Counseling Programs

The following example courses are drawn from actual online master’s in clinical and mental health counseling programs. They offer a representative sampling of the types of courses that one typically finds in one of these programs.

Course TitleCourse Description
Ethics of Professional Practice in Mental Health CounselingAn overview of the best practices and ethical standards that govern the professional practice of clinical and mental health counseling.
Theories and Techniques of CounselingAn introduction to counseling and psychotherapeutic theories and principles, their history, and their current use.
Foundations of Mental Health Counseling An orientation to psychological theories of human development and behavior and their application in the field of mental health counseling.
Diagnosis and PsychopathologyAn exploration of the testing and assessment techniques used in counseling to diagnose and treat various emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues.
Social/Cultural Dimensions in Counseling An examination of the cultural and social factors that influence human behavior and impact the delivery of counseling services.
Group Dynamics and CounselingAn introduction to theories of group behavior and the specialized techniques used in counseling groups.

Admissions Requirements for Online Master’s in Clinical Counseling Programs

Admissions requirements for online master’s programs in clinical and mental health counseling vary by school, so prospective students should visit program websites for the most current and specific information. There are, however, several general requirements that apply to most programs. The primary prerequisite is a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited four-year undergraduate program or the equivalent. Some programs may also require or prefer that applicants have completed undergraduate coursework in psychology, sociology, or another behavioral science. In addition, programs may take into consideration an applicant’s GPA or require the submission of standardized test scores (usually the GRE).

Online Master’s in Clinical Counseling Program Formats

There is some variance in the way online counseling programs are structured. In general, these programs are designed to accommodate a wide range of students, including those who cannot attend or would prefer not to attend a campus-based program for practical reasons, like family and/or work obligations. Online programs are also a good option for students who may not be able to commute to a campus-based program, or who do not live near a college or university that offers a master’s in clinical counseling program. For these reasons, online master’s programs are thought to be more flexible and accommodating than their campus-based equivalents. However, some programs offer more flexibility than others in terms of course load and class scheduling. The main areas of consideration in this regard are: synchronous vs. asynchronous instruction; part-time vs. full-time enrollment; and whether or not the program requires any campus visits.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: There are two primary methods of delivery for online instruction: synchronous and asynchronous. Both have advantages, and some programs use a combination of the two. Understanding the difference can be important when choosing an online program.

  • Synchronous Instruction: Synchronous instruction mirrors a traditional classroom setting in that lectures and discussions are held in real time and students are required to be logged in to participate in these learning activities. While this offers less scheduling flexibility, it can encourage more peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student interaction. It may also be preferable for students who are concerned about keeping up with the coursework without weekly lectures. Programs that use synchronous instruction may provide access to an archive of course lectures and discussions for supplemental review and for students who miss a session.
  • Asynchronous Instruction: Asynchronous instruction is often considered to be the most convenient and flexible form of online instruction. It involves the use of an online learning platform that allows students to access lectures and other interactive course materials on-demand, 24-7. Students in programs that utilize asynchronous instruction must still meet course deadlines, follow course syllabi, and are often required to post regularly on class discussion boards. However, students in these programs have the freedom to view lectures at their own convenience.

Part-time vs. Full-time Enrollment: Many online master’s programs are designed for part-time enrollment. This gives students flexibility in terms of the number of courses they enroll in each term or semester, which may help accommodate those who have significant work or family commitments outside of school. The number of courses taken per term or semester does impact the time to graduation for a master’s degree. A typical two-year master’s program may take three or more years for part-time students to complete. It is also not uncommon for master’s programs to put a cap on the number of years a part-time student can take to graduate, or on the minimum number of credits a student must complete each term or semester. In contrast, students enrolled full-time in online master’s in counseling programs can usually complete their degree in 18 to 24 months of year-round instruction. There are also online counseling programs that give students the option of part-time or full-time enrollment.

Practicums, Internships, and Campus Visits: It is important to distinguish between practicum/internship requirements in online master’s in clinical counseling programs and required campus visits. The supervised practicum/internship experience is a necessary and required part of an online master’s in counseling program. The relevant accrediting bodies for these programs require it, as do state licensing boards. How these practicums and internships are structured varies by program. Students typically complete these requirements locally at a site approved by their program. However, if a local site cannot be found, students may have to travel 1-2 hours to complete the requirements.

Campus visits, which are sometimes referred to as immersions or on-campus intensives, are an instructional technique used by some online programs. These sessions require students to be on campus or at a designated location for a specified period of time, often on a specific date or dates, to receive in-person instruction. These sessions usually include demonstrations and networking events as well, and are typically two to three days long, but could be up to a week long. For students who would like the opportunity to meet instructors and classmates face-to-face, but who still want the flexibility of online education, these programs may be ideal. (Note: students should be aware that typically travel expenses for on-campus sessions are not included in tuition costs and fees.)