There are many mental health settings where a person with prior personal experience and modest training can work as a counselor in a particular setting. For example, a recovered alcoholic might draw on his or her life experience to become a counselor for individuals who are being treated for substance abuse. Or someone who overcame an eating disorder might professionally help those struggling with the illness. Counselors such as these often join a diverse treatment team that is made up of psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers. All players work together to provide treatment in an interdisciplinary setting.
If you are interested in being a counselor, and passionate about helping people who have recently experienced tragedy or trauma, becoming a grief counselor might be an excellent career to pursue. Your journey to becoming a grief counselor will depend, however, on your training, credentials, and experience. Read on to learn more about being a grief counselor, the different levels at which you can practice, and the levels of licensing you will need.
Because training varies from counselor to counselor, there are tiered levels of responsibility and duty that accompany each level of education and licensing in the profession. This applies to grief counselors as well. Counselors such as the ones described above, who are drawing from their own personal experiences for their work, often have fewer credentials than others in the field. They generally deliver services more on the order of peer-to-peer counseling, and may be limited in the duties they perform and the salary they can earn — even if they are very knowledgeable and experienced.
Holding a master’s or doctorate degree, however, opens many career paths for counselors. In particular, licensed mental health professionals working as counselors are eligible for reimbursement by insurance and Medicaid, and can thus serve very needy populations. In many organizations, budgets are so tight that a staff that is eligible for reimbursement is essential to the business model. Further, many state and federal agencies must meet strict mandates requiring that they hire licensed workers. In the majority of states, an individual must hold a master’s or doctorate degree in order to obtain a license.
So do you need an advanced degree to be a grief counselor? There are many paths that lead to a career in grief counseling. The job level and workplace setting in which an individual wants to practice will dictate the road that should be taken. But whether one wants to pursue this profession with just a bachelor’s degree or would prefer to earn a master’s, there is no specific degree required for a job in grief counseling; any counseling or social work degree should prepare you to start out in this role. Expertise will be developed through rigorous training and certification.
Though not required, one of the more common tracks that leads to becoming a grief counselor is a master’s degree. There are many master’s in counseling programs available, such as those in Counseling and Mental Health, Counseling and Guidance, and Marriage and Family Therapy.
Many counselors will also choose to earn a Master’s in Social Work (MSW). One of the advantages of pursuing an MSW is that this degree can be earned in two years or less, which provides opportunities to build specific expertise in grief counseling through fieldwork assignments. In addition, MSWs are in a licensed, regulated profession that is favored by employers. In fact, the MSW is a highly in-demand degree on the job market. According the to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, job growth for social work is expected to rise by 16 percent over the next ten years. By comparison, all other professions are projected to grow by only 6 percent.
The best way to become an expert in grief counseling during MSW study is to orient internships and fieldwork assignments to this practice area. If you’ve investigated MSW programs, you know that the signature differentiator in graduate social work is the two year back–to-back fieldwork experience. This is the portion of an MSW degree where students build their specializations. If your interest lies in grief counseling, the fieldwork experience is the perfect opportunity to develop your skills in a supervised educational setting.
In order to build a specialization in grief counseling, an MSW student should elect to do his or her fieldwork assignment in a setting where helping people overcome tragedy and loss is integral to the work being performed. Some of these areas include aging and eldercare, dementia and Alzheimer’s, and hospice mental health. Another newly emerging field for social workers is providing grief counseling in veterinary settings, for people who have recently lost (or are about to lose) their animal companions. The fieldwork component of the MSW can provide rigorous clinical experiences in any of these areas.
Another way to build a specialty in grief counseling is to seek certification as a post-grad. The American Academy of Grief Counseling provides certification and fellowships for qualified professionals. The process begins with earning what’s called a Certification of Grief Counselors. The next step is to advance to Fellowship status. This program is open to social workers, clergy, nurses, physicians and other professional providers in the field of grief counseling.
If you are passionate about helping people recover from challenging experiences and painful losses, a career as a grief counselor will be a fulfilling path. Whether you get there through an MSW degree or a grief counseling certification, you will be glad you went after this meaningful and important job.