Becoming a mental health professional in New York: What are your options?

In times gone by, mental health was a sensitive subject that was taboo in many societies. People did not discuss their mental health for fear of being stigmatized, and relatives with severe mental disorders were locked away somewhere safe and were never mentioned. Fortunately, times have changed as the need for open discussions around mental health issues has become increasingly difficult to ignore, and mental healthcare has a direct or indirect effect on most of us at some stage of our lives.

A 2021 study found that mental health illness affected just over 14 million adults in the US, with the largest percentage being in the 18-25 age group. 20% of adolescents in the age group 12 to 17 experienced high levels of major depressive episodes, and 12.7% of adolescents had suicidal thoughts and behavior. The fact that this study was done in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 should mean that we have seen an improvement as the world has opened up again, but the fact remains that mental illness and depression are still widespread and a major concern.

Statistics show that people with mental health issues are more likely to interact with police and are often arrested multiple times. The facilities for dealing with these people in prisons are inadequate, and their issues just compound; they should be in mental health institutions rather than in prisons.

Mental health in New York City

New York City is a vibrant city that is home to 8.4 million people. People flock from around the world to visit its iconic landmarks or just to experience the vibe that emanates from the Big Apple.

Over the decades people from countries across the globe have been attracted to this metropolis, which holds the promise of new beginnings and fortune. Today, the cosmopolitan population collectively speaks over 200 languages, but for many, the fortunes have not materialized, and New York (NY) is dealing with issues such as unemployment, poverty, and mental illness.

To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the closure of businesses, job losses, food and housing insecurity, and thousands of people mourning the loss of loved ones while they struggle to make ends meet. With increasing mental health problems such as teenage and adult depression and the ongoing opioid epidemic, the need for licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs) in New York is only increasing.

As a resident in NY with a bachelor’s degree to your name and a passion for helping people in need, you may be considering how to become a licensed mental care counselor in NY.

With our step-by-step guide on both the academic and legal requirements and how you can find suitable, supervised counseling training, you need look no further. By studying for your counseling qualification at an accredited institution, such as St Bonaventure University, you will set yourself up for a success career, and follow a clear pathway for the next steps in your professional development.

To complete your master’s degree in counseling, you are required to have completed a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Your degree should preferably be related to behavioral sciences, with some research and statistics subjects in the mix, but it is not essential.

Once you have completed your master’s degree, you can apply for licensure as a mental health counselor and begin work. The New York State Education Department stipulates a practicum of 3000 hours (just over three years) of supervised learning in a practical environment.

You can specialize in a number of fields, such as clinical mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, school counseling, community counseling, and more.

Another consideration is whether the institution prepares you for licensure as a mental health counselor specifically in accordance with the regulations for practice in New York, as their requirements for licensure in mental health counseling are quite specific.

How to become a licensed counselor in New York

Briefly, you need to obtain a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. On completion of your degree, you can begin with the required 3,000 hours of supervised practice. These hours cannot run concurrently with your degree studies. However, if you study online you will still be able to work in your field of your study, but not as a licensed counselor.

Once obtained, the license to practice as a mental health counselor lasts a lifetime unless revoked for misconduct.

Upon completion of your degree, your application for licensure follows, accompanied by a first-time registration to practice as a counselor. This is done on the same form, with an additional amount added to the fees. Registration to practice needs to be renewed every three years thereafter, and each time you renew your registration, you will be required to attend a 36-hour continued training session. Organizations that offer continued training include higher education facilities, psychology institutes, and national mental health organizations.

Here are the steps to follow as you strive toward a career as a licensed mental health counselor in New York.

Step 1: Master’s or doctorate degree in counseling

Your degree must be obtained from an accredited institution, as per the requirements of the New York State Education Department. This includes at least 60 hours of semester work at an institution that is recognized by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or another acceptable agency.

Your master’s degree should include subjects in human growth and development, counseling theory and practice, psychopathology, group dynamics and theory of group counseling, as well as individual counseling theory and practice. Important in this day and age is the subject of social and cultural foundations, as issues with LGBTQ, ethnic, and racial inequity affect people’s mental health on an ever-increasing scale. LMHCs also deal with lifestyle and career advice and how to assess and appraise individuals, couples, families, and groups. Other subjects necessary for the completion of your degree include research and program evaluation, professional attitude and ethics, the foundations of mental health counseling and consultation, and clinical instruction.

In addition, you need a minimum of one year’s supervised internship or practicum as a mental health counselor.

And, while we’re on the subject of mental healthcare and study, your wellbeing is important too. Here is some important advice on how to balance your working life while you study online.

Step 2: Submission of the application for licensure

Complete the application form, which can be found on the NYSED website, and submit the necessary documentation. This application will include the application for first registration as a mental health counselor, as discussed.

Step 3: Obtain a limited permit

A limited permit will allow you to practice as a mental health counselor while under supervision. Make sure that all forms regarding your supervised work have been completed and submitted. It’s a good idea to apply for the limited permit before starting your supervised experience so that the hours worked can count toward your 3,000 hours.

Prerequisites for the limited permit are completion of your master’s or doctorate degree and completion of an accredited course in the identification and reporting of child abuse. This course is mandatory for all mental health counselors.

The limited permit is valid for two years and can be renewed twice after that, for a period of one year per renewal.

If you have licensure in another state, you will need that state’s licensing authority to provide proof of licensure.

Step 4: Supervised practice

Your next step is to find supervised work and clock up the 3,000 hours you need in order to apply for your license. You can expect this to take up to three years or longer, and at least 1,500 of those hours need to be in direct client contact. The other 1,500 hours may be record keeping, documentation of patient needs, and other related work that can be signed off by your supervisor.

Step 5: Documentation

Organization is key to the successful tracking of your 3,000 hours. From day one, you will need to keep records of all your experience: type of work, institution where you worked, hours worked, Your supervisor’s details, and signatures where applicable.

Make sure that all forms regarding your supervised work have been completed and submitted on time. Where you have requested an organization or tutor to send in material as proof of your work, the onus is on you to make sure the documents have arrived.

Details regarding the steps to becoming a licensed mental health counselor can also be found on the New York State Education Department’s website.

Finding a suitable supervisor

The New York State Education Department requires you to have access to suitable supervision for the first three years of your professional practice. Three years is a long time, so it’s advisable to seek out work in an environment that you will be happy in and that adds value to your qualification by way of additional knowledge and skills.

There are a few ways to go about this. Many registered counselors offer mentorship in the form of personal training, either live, online, or sometimes both. The New York State Education Department has published a list of accredited training providers complete with addresses, phone numbers, and web addresses.

It’s important to make sure that your supervisor’s qualifications meet the requirements of the state and that your supervised practice takes place in an ethical and competent manner. Your supervisor needs to be registered and licensed in New York State in areas of either social work, psychology, or medicine, practicing as a physician or nurse practitioner.

Group supervision is sometimes available, with a maximum of five people being the ideal group size.

When entering into an agreement with your supervisor, it is a good idea to have a formal agreement drawn up detailing the scope of the supervision to be carried out and the type of work you need to practice in line with your intended career path. Ask for progress reports at regular intervals, the frequency of which will be decided upon by both of you.

Other items for discussion before entering into an agreement with a supervisor are the duration of the supervision contract, duration of each session, costs involved, responsibility for the costs, and purchase of any materials that may be required. A thorough analysis of these details will mean a smoother, happier relationship between you and your supervisor.

There are legal implications when counseling patients under supervision. The patient should be informed of the supervisory circumstances and asked for their consent in writing. If the patient is unable to give consent due to a physical or mental condition, a person authorized to deliver health care to the patient should give consent.

No payment may change hands. If there is a payment to be made, it will be done so by the educational program or the agency that employs the supervisor. Any payment that is made in lieu of credits will be seen as a conflict of interest.

Skills and professional conduct

Once you have completed your graduate-level coursework, an optional certification from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) is worth considering as it is an indication to future clients and employers of your high standards and professional intent. The National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification keeps its members updated with access to the latest industry news, research, and new developments in the form of webinars and newsletters. You will also have access to professional liability insurance, continued education, ethics information, and more.

The type of employment you find should ideally fit in with the specialization subjects you chose as part of your master’s degree, unless you intend to change directions. The types of work you may want to consider include behavioral therapist, mental health counselor, grief counselor, substance abuse counselor, school counselor, child, and women’s abuse counselor, and more. You can find work in hospitals and clinics, nursing homes for the elderly, special needs homes, private practices, schools and universities, and community centers.

You will need good communication skills and infinite patience. Good observational and listening skills, the ability to instill confidence in your patients, and knowing how to build their trust and respect are all factors that contribute to a successful career in counseling.

Job options in and around New York City

Besides private practice, New York State provides many different settings where people can go when experiencing mental health issues. In addition, there are prisons, homes for the mentally disabled, and hospitals. Working in large institutions should give you a wider range of experience, and you will no doubt work with people who have a lot of expertise in their field of counseling.

New York City Health promotes the wellness of its citizens. With a toll-free counseling line, help is at hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their short-term counseling service provides support and coping strategies while recipients wait for longer-term counseling. They have mobile call-out teams on standby for crisis intervention and suicide prevention as well as outpatient detox programs. Once contact has been made and first-line service has stabilized the situation, they will find longer-term solutions for their patients.

The New York State Office of Mental Health helps by providing a comprehensive list of behavioral health providers and application forms for counselor jobs, offering employment with generous benefits.

What the future holds

Compared to New York City, there are few places in the US where you are likely to experience the entire spectrum of mental issues relevant to your studies as you strive to obtain your license. The vibrant mix of people and their needs provides you with any number of reasons to get up in the morning as you face an array of problems that need your caring attention.

It’s not always an easy profession to be in, but if you focus on the results and don’t let the individual cases get you down, you will be able to look back with a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that you have made a difference within this large, diverse concentration of people.