I passed the National Clinical Mental Health Counselors Exam (NCMHCE), the last and final step of becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Well, short of Virginia actually mailing me the license, that is. Just add three to four weeks and stir.
I knew that I wanted to do this before I ever began a graduate degree in counseling in 2006. I actively sought out a school-counseling program that would not only give me experience in the schools, but that also had a community-counseling component. Why? I knew that I wanted to have career options throughout my life. I love school counseling, but who knows where I will be, mentally, emotionally, or even geographically in two, five, or ten years. I felt that being able to move from setting to setting would keep me marketable as well as prevent burnout. Further, I wanted to hone the art of counseling. My first passion and direction in life was as a musician: I have two performance degrees--one in voice and one in choral conducting. I have spent countless hours in practice rooms and rehearsals, becoming not only technically proficient but also an artist who can, either individually or with others, create musical pictures, evoke moods, and share deep emotions. I wanted to be able to do the same with counseling. One of my professors in my degree program used to always talk about how counseling is part art, part science, and I believe this to be true. There is definitely the theoretical and textbook knowledge behind assessing, planning, and designing treatments, whether it is pulling together a study-skills group in an elementary school or working with an adult with Major Depressive Disorder. However, there is also the "art" behind these interventions--how you develop the therapeutic relationship, how you decide what questions to ask and in what manner, and how you decide to best collaborate with your students or clients on moving forward in their lives. As you develop and study, there becomes a seamlessness to the craft of counseling, a harmony that grows between you, your students/clients, and the technical skills you have spent so much time honing.
Thinking of going beyond certification as a school counselor and going towards licensure in your state or jurisdiction as a therapist? I would recommend the following:
- Plan ahead. WAY ahead. If you are currently in your school-counseling degree, start to ask questions of your professors such as, "What would be the additional requirements beyond my degree to become an LPC or an LCPC or a LCMH?" (There are tons of acronyms for "Mental Health Counselor" out there that vary state-to-state.) Go to your state's licensure website and become familiar with the requirements (which also vary widely from state-to-state--ACA is working on this and licensure portability). Most states require around 60 graduate hours with certain topics covered as well as some type of supervised experience, everywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 hours. Many school counseling programs do not require 60 graduate hours, so you will need to plan whether you will get those additional classes in while you are in your degree program or sometime later. Further, you will need to look ahead to the paperwork and documentation necessary before you may be able to begin your post-graduate supervision.
- Find the right supervisor and make sure he/she fulfills state requirements. If you are planning to use your school-counseling job as your supervised hours, as I did, I would recommend finding someone who has either supervised school-counselors in the past, who is or has been a school-counselor that is also a state licensed therapist, or who currently works with school counselors in a graduate program. They will understand your world and be able to help you to utilize the educational system to best design interventions for your students. Oftentimes asking around your school district or your graduate program will yield some good leads, or at least some leads who will lead to other leads. You need to check your state requirements as to if your supervisor must also be a licensed therapist in your state. Some states require this for all of your hours, others require that at least part of your supervised experience be with a licensed counselor, but other hours may be with another certified or licensed mental health professional. Check your state requirements, as well, for how to register your supervisor--this must often be done before you can begin counting your hours.
- Money, money, money. While it is not the only factor, cost is another consideration--how much is the supervision going to cost you over the course of your hours? There are a lot of ways to go about "paying" for the hours--some of my colleagues started working one or two nights a week at a community-mental health agency in exchange for free supervision. Others may do part of their hours for free with a colleague in their school who qualifies in their state regulations. Further, some states allow you to have either all-group supervision or a mix of individual and group supervision--the group supervision is usually at a lower cost. Truly, there is usually some way to make it work out financially if you are dedicated, ask around enough, and have some flexibility. However, my caution is never compromise the quality of your supervision for a lower-cost alternative. This is your investment in your future, and you will need to be prepared for the world of community counseling as well as licensure exams once you are done--a good supervisor can prepare you for both. Additionally, many jurisdictions will allow you to count at least some of your hours from your internship experience. Don't forget to plan ahead for the additional costs of further coursework, application fees, and exam fees.
- Give yourself a realistic time-frame. Another friend of mine from my degree program finished the required supervision hours as well as the NCMHCE within about 2 1/2 years. She did this by sticking to a strict and rigorous schedule of supervision and study. I, on the other hand, needed longer--I had been in graduate school for two years and wanted to be able to once again dedicate time to my singing as well as personal life. Thus, I did my supervision on a slower pace for two years, and then increased it over the last year. I gave myself a few months to study for the exam. It has been a lot of time and work over the last 4 years, but I rarely felt like it was too much for me to handle and still felt like I had time for the rest of my life. You usually have flexibility with the time frame and can go through the process relatively quickly or take your time.
- Seek out resources and network with other counselors. If you are fortunate, there are organizations for therapists around you that can help you decide what are the best study materials for licensure exams, who can connect you with mentors, or who can help to set you up with supervision groups or study-groups for the exams. Go to conferences and meet people, ask around for counselors with good websites to jog your mind for what you might do in the future. Between your supervisor, your other colleagues if you are in a supervision group, and a network of support that you build, you should usually be able to pinpoint someone who can either answer a question, lend a kind ear to some frustrations, or help you to find the support that you need.
As a final note, I must offer my deepest thanks and gratitude to my supervisor (she knows who she is) as well as the wonderful colleagues that I was able to work with during my group supervision. It took the support of many, and I feel as if I was able to learn so much from all their varied perspectives.