Mental health counselors treat people with mental and emotional disorders, providing therapy and developing treatment plans. They counsel individuals, groups and families with such issues such as anxiety, stress, depression, substance abuse and addiction, trauma and grief. Some mental health counselors assist clients with work-related problems, academic pursuits and relationship issues, while others specialize in providing mental health services to teens or the elderly. A number of counselors are involved with advocacy, community outreach and mediation programs.
In collaboration with other specialists such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and physicians, mental health counselors help clients get the assistance and treatment they need to lead healthy, productive and fulfilling lives.
Mental Health Counselor Job Summary
- Most mental health counselors are employed in outpatient centers and substance abuse facilities.
- A master’s degree and licensure is required in most states to become a mental health counselor.
- Mental health counselors may specialize in areas such as addiction and recovery or the elderly.
- The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts employment in this field to grow faster than average.
Work Environment for Mental Health Counselors
Counseling may be provided one-on-one or in a group setting, and sessions may take place weekly or more often, depending on the client’s needs. Mental health counselors may also work with family members of their patients and perform community outreach to educate the public on mental health issues. They may have their own private practice or work for hospitals, outpatient programs, health agencies or non-profit community centers.
Those who have a private practice typically work in an office setting and see their clients during the day; other counselors may visit clients in the hospital or at home. Working in a community health services setting may require collaboration with representatives from other organizations to deliver treatment.
Education, Training and Licensing
Most employers require candidates to have a master's degree and licensure for mental health counselor positions. Licensing requirements vary by state and specialty, and often mandate continuing education to maintain certification. Many colleges and universities offer counseling degrees within their psychology, education or human services departments. Coursework may include human growth and development, society and culture, counseling techniques, research, diversity, professional ethics, addiction and grief counseling.
Mental health counseling degree programs usually require both coursework and clinical field work. Many employers provide training for new counselors or offer tuition assistance toward a graduate degree. Counselors with advanced degrees can become supervisors, teachers, researchers or advanced clinicians within their specialty. They may also hold administrative and managerial positions for larger organizations. A mental health counseling doctoral degree provides many opportunities for advancement. Research, teaching and consulting positions allow counselors flexibility in their work schedules.
Professionals can obtain the National Certified Counselor designation from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). This certification is voluntary and separate from the required state licensing. Some states allow those who pass the national exam an exemption from the state certification exam. The NBCC also offers specialty certifications, including clinical mental health, addiction and school counseling.
Employment Figures, Projections, Outlook and Salaries for Mental Health Counselors
Mental health counselors held approximately 106,920 jobs in May 2009, according to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most of these positions were with outpatient care centers, individual and family services organizations, and residential mental health, mental retardation and substance abuse facilities. Other employers include local government agencies and the offices of health practitioners.
Employment in this field is projected by the BLS to grow faster than average compared to other occupations, due to the fact that more people are becoming knowledgeable about treatment and seeking counseling in this area. Also, many insurance companies are directing their members to work with licensed counselors as opposed to psychologists or psychiatrists, who typically charge more for their services.
BLS records for May 2009 indicate that the average annual wage for mental health counselors was $41,710. The middle 50% of professionals in this field earned between $29,920 and $50,140, while the lowest 10% had an annual income of about $24,230. The highest 10% earned approximately $64,610 per year.