The Washington State Department of Health, Mental Health Credentialing issues the main credential that you must acquire if you want to work as a professional counselor in the state: the Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC).
If you want to become an LMHC you’ll need to first become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate (LMHCA), which allows you to gain the experience you need to apply for full licensure as an LMHC.
Steps Towards Counseling Licensure in Washington
You’ll need to complete three basic steps and start out as an LMHCA on your way to becoming fully licensed as an LMHC:
- Earn a qualifying graduate degree in Counseling or a related field that includes a practicum or internship
- Complete a period of supervised counseling experience
- Pass an exam sponsored by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate (LMHCA)
- Fulfill the education requirement by earning a qualifying graduate degree in Counseling that includes an internship or practicum. Have your school send your official transcripts to Mental Health Credentialing when you apply for licensure.
- Complete four hours of AIDS education and training. This can be self-study, formal training, direct patient care, or part of a course you took in your graduate program. You’ll need to attest to completing this on your application for licensure.
- Find a qualified supervisor. To obtain the LMHCA license you must attest that you’re working towards becoming an LMHC, and that means fulfilling the LMHC supervised experience requirement. Your supervisor will need to complete a Declaration of Supervision that you submit with your application for licensure so Mental Health Credentialing can officially establish your relationship.
- Submit an application for LMHCA licensure to Mental Health Credentialing. You can also apply online. The application fee is $35. Once Mental Health Credentialing approves your application you can start accruing hours to fulfill the supervised experience requirement for becoming an LMHC.
Renewing your LMHCA license:
You must renew your license every year, and it expires one year after its date of issue. The renewal fee is $25. You can renew the LMHCA license a maximum of six times, after which point you must become fully licensed as an LMHC. To be eligible for renewal you must complete 18 hours of continuing education each year.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
- Fulfill the education requirement. This is the same requirement for the LMHCA license, and as an LMHCA you don’t need to re-submit your education transcripts.
- Fulfill the supervised experience requirement. You need 36 months of full-time counseling experience or 3,000 hours of supervised post-graduate mental health counseling experience. 1,200 of the 3,000 hours must be in direct counseling, and 100 must be conducted under immediate supervision. This is completed when you’re an LMHCA. Once you’ve fulfilled this requirement your supervisor will submit a Supervision and Experience Verification Form or a Verification of Mental Health Counselor Supervised Post-Graduate Experience Form to Mental Health Counseling.
- As an LMHCA engaged in fulfilling the LMHC supervised experience requirement, you will have renewed your license. As part of the LMHC license application, you must attest to having completed 36 hours of continuing education, including six hours in ethics.
- Fulfill the examination requirement. The NBCC sponsors the exam you must pass to fulfill this. You can register for an exam at any point; you don’t need prior approval from Mental Health Credentialing. You must pass either one of the following NBCC exams, and have the NBCC send your official results to Mental Health Credentialing: 1.) National Counselor Examination (NCE) 2.) National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE)
- Submit an application for LMHC licensure, including a $191 fee, to Mental Health Credentialing. You can also apply online. Once Mental Health Credentialing approves your application it will issue your LMHC license.
Renewing your LMHC license:
Your LMHC license expires every year on your birthday. There is a $106 renewal fee. You must complete 36 hours of continuing education every two years to be eligible to renew your license. Six hours must be in ethics and law.
Qualifying to be a supervisor:
Once you’ve earned the LMHC license you can choose to become an approved supervisor for LMHCAs in training. To qualify you need to have been an LMHC in good standing for at least two years and meet the following conditions:
- Complete 15 hours of training in clinical supervision
- Obtain 25 hours of experience in supervision of clinical practice
Once you’ve met these conditions you can complete a Declaration of Supervision for LMHCAs who are applying for licensure.
Required Education and Degrees
To fulfill the education requirement for the LMHCA and LMHC licenses you must earn a graduate degree from a school that’s accredited by an organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
Your degree must be in Mental Health Counseling or in a related behavioral sciences field such as:
- Social Work
- Pastoral Counseling
- Rehabilitation Counseling
- Social Sciences
The core content of your program must be related to counseling philosophy and theories. Mental Health Credentialing defines 17 core content areas, and your degree program must include at least seven of these. Five must be from the following eight core content areas:
- Assessment and diagnosis
- Ethics and law
- Counseling individuals
- Counseling groups
- Counseling couples and families
- Developmental psychology (child, adolescent, adult, or life span)
- Abnormal psychology/psychopathology
- Research and evaluation
The core content of your program must also include a counseling internship, practicum, or both.
The Council on the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) specializes in accrediting graduate counseling programs of exceptional quality. In recognition of this, when it comes to fulfilling the supervised work experience requirement for LMHC licensure, Mental Health Credentialing will award you 50 hours of supervision and 500 hours of post-graduate work experience if you earn your qualifying graduate degree from a CACREP-accredited program.
Right now in Washington there are eight schools offering 15 CACREP-accredited graduate programs, including:
- Eight Master of Arts (MA) programs
- Four Master of Science (MS) programs
- Three Master of Education programs
How Long Does it Take to Become a Counselor in Washington?
You can expect to invest at least six years into fulfilling the education requirement to become licensed as an LMHCA and subsequently as an LMHC: four years in a bachelor’s program and two additional years for a master’s degree in Counseling. Beyond that you’ll need to invest either 36 months or 3,000 hours into qualifying supervised work experience to become an LMHC, adding around three more years to your time investment for a total of nine years. With two additional years of experience as an LMHC you can qualify to become a supervisor.
The Washington State Department of Health, Mental Health Credentialing can work with you to establish an LMHC path towards licensure via reciprocity if you’ve held an active mental health counselor license that’s in good standing (no disciplinary record and disqualifying criminal history) in another state within the past 12 months. Your license needs to have an LMHC scope of practice that’s similar to Washington’s. Based on this you can immediately qualify for a probationary license.
Washington Mental Health Credentialing will review your record and qualifications and determine if there’s anything lacking that you can supplement with further education, supervised experience, or examination. If you’ve held a qualifying out-of-state mental health counselor license for the past five consecutive years then Mental Health Credentialing considers that as fulfilling Washington’s supervised experience requirement.
You can start this process by submitting an application for LMHC licensure as detailed in the step-by-step process above. You’ll need to have your out-of-state Board of Counseling submit a Credential Verification Form to Washington Mental Health Credentialing at a cost of $25.
Practicums and Internships
The core content of your program must include a counseling internship, practicum, or both.
To fulfill the exam requirement for LMHC licensure you must pass one of the following exams sponsored by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC):
Both exams are computer-based. The NCE is multiple choice and more basic, while the NCMHCE is more advanced and evaluates your responses to questions about simulations of clinical situations.
Both exams are administered by the NBCC’s partner organization, the Center for Credentialing and Education (CCE). The CCE manages the online ProCounselor portal that you can use to register for either of these exams.
The US Department of Labor reported the following average annual salaries for a range of counselor positions, specifically in Washington:
- Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors – $65,550
- Marriage and Family Therapists – $49,700
- Rehabilitation Counselors – $48,00
- Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor – $52,200
- Counselors, all others – $56,520
- Occupational Therapists – $84,150
- Therapists, all other – $74,720
Types of Counseling Careers
From the careers detailed above the US Department of Labor reports a total of 21,920 professionals employed throughout Washington. Of those:
- 43% are Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
- 24% are Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors
- 18% are Rehabilitation Counselors
- 12% are Occupational Therapists
- 2% are Counselors, all others
- 1% are Therapists, all others
- 1% are Marriage and Family Therapists
Washington Mental Health Counselors Association (WMHCA) – A proud local representative of its national affiliate, this organization strives to promote quality mental health services, influence public policy accordingly, and to work with other professional counseling organizations in the fulfillment of its objectives.
American Counseling Association (ACA) of Washington State – This not-for-profit organization represents professional counselors and students-in-training throughout the state. It stands on a tradition of excellence as the local representative of its national parent organization.
Seattle Counselors Association (SCA) – This vibrant non-profit community of mental health professionals has strategically positioned itself to be the leading organization of its kind in the greater Puget Sound region. In addition to connecting counselors with clients, this organization maintains an events calendar including its popular “cheers with peers” social occasions.
Washington Professional Counselors Association (WAPROCA) – This organization offers exam preparation help, professional events and training, and the latest updates regarding this field. It strives to set a high mark for the ethical standards of its members, and it assists members in attaining the highest levels of qualifications possible.
Washington School Counselor Association (WSCA) – This organization is proud to represent school counselors who work throughout the state in public and private settings. Members enjoy professional development and leadership opportunities, which together promote student outcomes and enhance their success.
Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) – Perhaps more than all other state-level organizations in Washington, counselors are most familiar with DSHS. That’s because there’s a significant overlap between the clients counselors serve and those the DSHS serves. Of particular note is the DSHS’s focus on mental health and addiction services.
King County Department of Community and Human Services – As the largest county in the state, this department is locally responsible for the largest number of Washingtonians in need of vital services addressing a wide range of issues. Its Behavioral Health and Recovery division helps residents tackle subjects like substance abuse, mental health, employment, and crises.
Cascade Behavioral Health – With a whole-person individualized approach, this organization offers of range of programs including detox for various addictive substances, mental health services, senior services, outpatient services, and options for people with dual-diagnoses like mental health and substance abuse issues.
Frontier Behavioral Health – This Spokane-based non-profit trauma-informed care organization provides culturally-appropriate clinically-based behavioral healthcare services to its clients. In addition to offering clients meeting opportunities for a range of specific issues, FBH also hosts walk-in services and community education.
Kaiser Permanente – One of the largest non-profit healthcare providers in the nation, Washington is home to numerous clinics, offices, and other care providers who are proud to fly the KP banner. Its mental health and wellness services offer whole-person mind-body care, and include treatments for things like depression, anxiety, ADHD, substance use, OCD, postpartum depression, and more.
Additional Options for Aspiring Counselors
Washington State is unique in providing opportunities for entry-level professionals who are interested in the counseling field but who have not yet invested themselves into earning a related graduate education. The Washington State Department of Health, Mental Health Credentialing offers opportunities for aspiring counselors who’ve earned an associate’s-level or bachelor’s-level of education to become credentialed as follows:
- Certified Advisor – requires an associate’s degree and a supervised internship in a counseling-related field
- Certified Counselor – requires a bachelor’s degree in a counseling-related field
While these certifications allow for limited scopes of practice at the entry-level, they nevertheless provide aspiring professionals who are counselor-curious with opportunities to gain real-life on-the-ground experience in this profession; something many states do not. You can find out more about becoming certified through the applications linked to above.