Mental Health Counselor

A mental health counselor is a medical professional who helps patients achieve emotional wellness. Counselors often see patients on an ongoing basis as one part of a treatment plan. These professionals work with a variety of patients and may specialize in areas such as trauma, addiction, or youth services. The specialty may determine where a mental health counselor works. For example, someone who specializes in helping children may work in a school. However, the work is often clinical, and many professionals operate in private practices, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and inpatient facilities.

Since one in five Americans struggles with mental health, most individuals enter the profession with a personal story. They may have overcome their own obstacles, lost loved ones to mental illness, or witnessed the impact on their communities. People may also pursue this career path because it is interesting and fulfilling. Mental health professionals work with many different types of clients and get to know the people they treat.

Students may also want to learn how to become a mental health counselor because it is a rapidly growing field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a growth rate of about 23%, which is significantly faster than most careers. Students can look forward to many job openings with an annual median income of about $43,300.

Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

Degree Requirements

Mental health counselor education requirements vary by state. While some states allow professionals with a bachelor's degree to work in psychology, clinical mental health counseling typically requires a master's degree. Since clinical professionals work directly with patients to provide a form of healthcare, they need the specialized education of a master's degree.

When researching degrees, students should look for accredited program. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the nation's primary authority on such programs. CACREP's search function helps students find the right school. Learners can narrow searches by institution, location, and accreditation status. Many of the accredited programs also offer online options. The flexibility helps those with undergraduate degrees earn master's degrees while gaining work experience. However, most of these programs require in-person internships. Online learners must check with their universities to see where they can complete these requirements.

Successful completion of a CACREP-certified graduate program qualifies students to sit for the licensing exam. After passing this exam, graduates can practice as a mental health counselor. In some cases, they may pursue a doctorate. These terminal degrees are best suited for professionals who want to become health administrators or work in a highly specialized area.

Clinical Experience Requirements

Some graduate programs require internship hours for credit before graduation. During these hours, the student works with patients under the supervision of a licensed counselor. At many institutions, this is one of the last credit hours students earn. Learners put their knowledge to work while applying theories in real life. Online degree candidates who must earn these credits can usually do so locally, even if the school is in another state. These learners should contact an academic adviser to learn what the school accepts as experience. Then, students can find a clinic or hospital nearby that offers internships and meets the school's requirements.

Every state in the U.S. has its own set of licensing requirements, which the local licensing board sets. However, licensure in any area takes some clinical experience. An internship may count toward this requirement, although many states want all the hours to be from post-graduate work. Generally, candidates must complete up to 3,000 supervised clinical hours. These hours must usually include frequent one-on-one patient contact. Other hours may consist of time leading group counseling, meeting with supervisors and peers, and reviewing notes. Candidates often complete these hours in two years or less and ideally in a facility much like where they eventually want to practice clinical counseling. Many of these internships offer pay, although unlicensed candidates usually will not earn a full mental health counselor salary.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

To legally practice as a mental health counselor, a professional must first earn a license from the state. Each state and territory has its own specifics, but many requirements are similar across the country. For example, most jurisdictions require applicants to have at least a master's degree from a CACREP-accredited program. The program must cover mental health counseling, not school counseling or counseling education. After graduation, many states require candidates to complete supervised clinical hours. Applicants must also pass one or more exams. The test requirements usually include a passing score on the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), which is the exam that the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) develops. Some jurisdictions also require applicants to pass state-specific exams. For example, Texas candidates must pass the Texas Jurisprudence Exam. Candidates should check their state's requirements before applying.

In addition to earning a license to practice, some counselors pursue a certification. While the law does not usually require these, some employers may only hire applicants with certain certifications. Sometimes, the certifications may be in general mental health counseling. The NBCC certifies licensed counselors who demonstrate high ethical standards. Some certifications indicate a professional's specialty. Counselors may specialize in areas such as community mental health, addiction, suicide, and depression. By pursuing these specialty certifications, mental health counselors learn about treating a particular subset of patients and help differentiate themselves during the job application process.

Master's Degree vs. Doctoral Degree in Mental Health Counseling

In most cases, a mental health counselor needs a master's degree to earn a license and practice. Professionals who choose to earn a doctoral degree as well open more doors and increase their earning potential. As the table below shows, a master's in counseling salary is significantly lower than what someone with a Ph.D. can make.

Average Reported Salary for Counselors by Degree Level

Degree Level Average Salary
Master of Addictions Counseling $64,100
Ph.D., Counseling $77,079

Source: PayScale

Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling

Depending on the student's prior education, enrollment status, and chosen program, it can take a learner between 18 months and three years to earn a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling. Most programs include an internship as a vital part of the curriculum. This often accounts for about 12 credit hours and takes place near the end of the program. While some programs may require thesis papers, these are typically reserved for doctoral programs.

Some universities allow students to declare specializations, which may include addictions, marriage and family, crisis intervention, and mood disorders. Many institutions do not offer formal concentrations. Instead, learners can choose internships that reflect their interests. Some states allow learners to take additional classes after graduation that create specialties. No matter the track, it is important to check for accreditation. Earning a degree from an accredited program makes it easier for a mental health counselor to get licensed and hired. Professionals who desire to work in the clinical setting may not need a doctorate. However, those who want to move into the academic or administrative sides of psychology should seek a terminal degree.

Sample Courses

  • Psychopathology and Diagnosis: In this course, students learn about common psychological disorders, how symptoms present in different patients, and the diagnostic criteria for each illness.
  • Professional and Ethical Issues: Due to the work's sensitive nature, the counseling profession presents a set of unique moral concerns. Future counselors learn how to navigate difficult situations ethically and professionally.
  • Psychopharmacology: Although mental health counselors cannot prescribe medication, they must know how psychological drugs may affect their patients. This course offers that insight.
  • Trauma Impact and Counseling: People who have experienced trauma may require special interventions. Students learn how to help trauma victims in the immediate aftermath and over the long term.
  • Research and Statistics: Researchers consistently work to advance counseling. This course helps learners interpret new data and apply findings to their practices throughout their careers.

Doctoral Degree in Mental Health Counseling

With a doctorate, mental health counselors can fulfill roles in clinical management or counseling education. Some universities gear their programs more towards one area than the other, so prospective students should investigate before applying. Most doctoral programs require applicants to have a master's degree in a similar field and a graduate GPA of at least 3.0. Once accepted, it can take two or more years for a student to complete a doctorate program. The time it takes depends on the number of hours the school requires and whether the student attends full time.

The end goal of many doctoral programs is for students to complete and defend a dissertation. Universities often design coursework so each credit hour helps students work toward a final thesis. Doctoral graduates can go on to teach the next generation of counselors, supervise other professionals in a clinical setting, or conduct research. Some Ph.D. programs prepare graduates to become counselors in a pastoral setting. These opportunities are not typically available to counselors without a doctorate. As with master's degrees, learners should select accredited programs for doctoral studies.

Sample Courses

  • Business Issues in Professional Practice: Students who want to open private practices learn how to start and manage such a business.
  • Quantitative Research Methods: This class helps students learn how to conduct research and analyze results. Some universities may require several levels of this course.
  • Residency: Much like a student in a medical doctoral program, some counseling Ph.D. learners take on a residency course. In this residency, a student may work under supervision.
  • Sexual Trauma and Domestic Violence: Victims of sexual crimes and domestic violence need specialized care from qualified counselors. Students learn how to best care for these patients.
  • Teaching in Higher Education: Individuals in counseling education programs take this course to learn best practices for teaching in academia.

Skills Gained in a Mental Health Counseling Program

Mental health counselors complete much education and training to become licensed practitioners. Each step builds essential skills to help them practice effectively, safely, and ethically. Through formal education and hands-on training, counselors learn interpersonal, communication, listening, research, and critical-thinking skills to help them heal their mentally ill and traumatized patients. Some parts of a person's education may teach skills that cannot be learned another way.

  • Interpersonal Skills: These are perhaps the first skills a patient notices in a counselor, and the relationship between the two rests on these abilities. Interpersonal skills involve effective body language, relationship management, collaboration, and professional demeanor. Counselors must demonstrate these abilities to get hired.
  • Communication Skills: Counseling requires effective communication. Mental health professionals must know how to treat patients and how to teach patients about the treatment. This dynamic requires flawless communication, which both classes and internships teach.
  • Listening Skills: Mental health counselors cannot treat patients they do not understand. The first step to understanding patients is actively listening to what patients say and what stays in between the lines. Courses help students learn the signs to watch while practicums put the theories into practice.
  • Research Skills: As a scientific field, counseling relies on research. Whether the student advances to academia or goes into clinical practice, a solid foundation of research skills helps build a successful career. Most students hone these abilities in structured courses.
  • Critical-Thinking Skills: Professionals use critical thinking to analyze a patient's situation, make diagnoses, design treatment plans, and navigate ethical quandaries. Counselors may develop this skill from the first courses and throughout their careers.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Mental Health Counselors

Counseling is one of the country's fastest-growing fields. The BLS projects a 23% growth rate between 2016 and 2026. Jobs in school counseling and social work are projected to grow 16% in the same timeframe. The average growth for all careers is 7%.

While these figures are positive for all mental health counselors, those who specialize in treating patients with substance abuse problems or behavioral disorders may have the biggest opportunities in the coming years. Rural areas are currently underserved, and applicants who are willing to move to such communities may find work quickly. Mental health counselors work in a variety of industries. The table below covers the variation in salary based on industry.

Industries With the Highest Levels of Employment for Mental Health Counselors

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Individual and Family Services 30,170 1.79% $44,580
Outpatient Care Centers 29,890 3.58% $44,770
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 16,1600 2.64% $39,06
Offices of Other Health Practitioners 11,490 1.37% $50,640
Local Government 11,130 0.21% $55,880

Source: BLS

Industries With the Highest Concentration of Employment for Mental Health Counselors

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Outpatient Care Centers 29,890 3.58% $44,770
Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals 7,670 3.26% $45,540
Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities 16,1600 2.64% $39,06
Other Residential Care Facilities 4,150 2.57% $38,990
Individual and Family Services 30,170 1.79% $44,580

Source: BLS

How Much Do Mental Health Counselors Make?

A mental health counselor salary depends largely upon industry and employer. Junior colleges tend to pay about $10,000 more per year than local government agencies. Over the course of a career, a mental health counselor can increase earnings by $14,000 per year. Entry-level counselors around the country earn about $44,000 per year, while those with at least 20 years of experience make an average of $58,000.

However, many mental health counselors do not stay in a role for 20 years. Instead, many go on to manage clinics, teach others, and conduct research. With a doctorate, these options allow professionals to earn considerably more money. Those who do not wish to earn a doctoral degree can increase their earning potential with certifications. These prove to employers that a counselor is an expert in a given field and exceeds professional standards.

Salaries for Licensed Mental Health Counselors by Experience

  Entry-Level (0-5 Years) Mid-Career (5-10 Years) Experienced (10-20 Years) Late-Career (>20 Years)
Licensed Mental Health Counselors $44,000 $48,000 $54,000 $58,000

Top-Paying Industries for Mental Health Counselors

Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services 130 $65,680
Junior Colleges 90 $65,090
Insurance Carriers 120 $62,100
Local Government 11,130 $55,880
Specialty (Except Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals) 420 $55,650

Source: BLS

Top-Paying States for Mental Health Counselors

The state in which a counselor practices can significantly affect earning potential. The states that pay the highest wages include Alaska, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, and New Jersey. These states boast average salaries ranging from $53,410 to $65,520. It is no coincidence that some of the most rural states pay more for counselors. It can be difficult for rural areas to staff mental health clinics. When choosing where to practice, counselors should also consider factors such as the licensing process and the quality of life they desire. They should also contemplate the types of patients they hope to serve. For example, those who wish to specialize in substance abuse may choose areas that are profoundly affected by the opioid epidemic.

Related Careers for Mental Health Counselors

Counseling students and practicing professionals gain skills that can transfer to other careers as well. Graduates may specialize in areas such as substance abuse and family therapy, where all the skills from general mental health counseling apply. Counselors may also become social workers. This field requires many of the same interpersonal and communication skills as counseling. Licensed counselors can share their knowledge by teaching in postsecondary schools. The chart below outlines some of these career options.

Occupation Description Salary Degree Level Required
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors These are specialties within the counseling field in which professionals work with a subset of patients that need specialized attention. $43,300 Bachelor's, Master's
Marriage and Family Therapists These therapists often begin as mental health counselors and then carve out a niche in helping families. $48,790 Master's
Rehabilitation Counselors These professionals help people who struggle with addiction as they enter rehab facilities and recover. $34,860 Master's
Social Worker Social workers and counselors often work side-by-side to help disadvantaged people navigate complex government systems, ensure safety for children, and perform other social services. $47,980 Master's
Postsecondary Teachers These teachers may have experience as mental health counselors and always have many years of education in the area. They lead classes and conduct research. $76,000 Doctorate

Source: BLS

How to Find a Mental Health Counseling Job

After years of school and internships, graduates may be anxious to start their careers. Candidates should bolster their resumes by adding any relevant certifications or specializations. However, it is important that the certification or specialization matches the job. For example, it is not helpful to include a substance abuse certificate when applying for a pediatric counseling position. Students can also seek references from internship supervisors and professors. Learners or recent graduates who need more assistance may find help through their school career center. These centers often host resume workshops with experts on-hand to answer questions.

Networking is an important part of finding a job in many fields, including counseling. In addition to reaching out to professionals they know personally, graduates can attend job fairs to start networking. Campuses, hospitals, inpatient facilities, and government offices host job fairs that can help counselors make connections. Furthermore, applicants can visit sites such as Meetup to discover local counseling groups that meet regularly. Candidates in rural areas may use LinkedIn and Facebook to connect with fellow mental health professionals. Online job boards such as iHireMentalHealth and the National Council for Behavioral Health website offer current job postings from around the country.

Professional Organizations for Mental Health Counselors

  • American Counseling Association: This nonprofit offers members free continuing education, a code of ethics, and industry news. It also advocates for legislative change to benefit mental health professionals.
  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: The AFSP unites patients, counselors, advocates, and family members on a mission to prevent suicide. Counselors can volunteer and network with like-minded people. Those on the research side can apply for grants.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness: NAMI advocates for ending the stigma that prevents many people from seeking mental healthcare. The organization hosts many campaigns and events, including an annual conference.
  • National Board of Certified Counselors: This organization offers many resources for practicing counselors, recent graduates, and job applicants. It also boasts a prestigious certification that can differentiate a resume.
  • National Institute of Mental Health: This government agency bestows many grants that researchers need to make counseling breakthroughs. It also offers training opportunities for those who want to advance their research careers.
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