Mental Health Counselor (MHC) Career Guide

Mental health counselors (MHCs) assess and diagnose clients and work with them to achieve mental and physical well-being. About 311,000 mental health counselors (including substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors) are employed in the US according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 In this guide, you’ll learn how to become a MHC, common job requirements, and the career and salary outlook.

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How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

All 50 states and Washington DC closely regulate mental health counselor licensing due to their position of trust with sometimes vulnerable clients. Becoming licensed as a mental health counselor requires a minimum education of a master’s degree. The typical process of becoming a mental health counselor is to:

  1. Earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling or a closely-related major that fulfills your state’s licensing requirements.
  2. Complete required hours of supervised work experience under a licensed professional per state rules.
  3. Take the professional counselor exam(s) required by your state.
  4. Apply for a mental health counseling license.
  5. Start applying for mental health counselor jobs.
  6. Maintain continuing education coursework in your state.

MHC Licensure and Schools by State

While the general steps to becoming licensed as a mental health counselor always include earning a master’s degree and passing exams, the specific process and requirements vary by state. You can find the path to MHC licensure and learn about MHC programs in your state by selecting your state below.

Mental Health Counselor Job Description

There are many titles associated with mental health counselor careers. While Mental Health Counselor (MHC) or Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) are standard terms for a license to practice in this career field, there are other variations depending on the state. These include Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC), and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC).

Mental health counselors provide support to individuals facing mental health challenges, navigating personal growth, or seeking guidance to cultivate positive habits. Ultimately, MHCs strive to empower their clients to achieve their goals for emotional and physical well-being. Mental health counseling can take place between a counselor and an individual, a couple, a family, or a group. Mental health counselors commonly choose to focus their practice area with clients:

  • In a specific age group (such as teenagers)
  • With a certain mental disorder (such as depression or anxiety)
  • With a certain challenge (such as grief or job loss)

Mental health counselors typically align their practice with a specific “school” or method of mental health treatment. Some common therapies that mental health counselors use are:

  • Art therapy: Involves creative expression through art forms, allowing individuals to communicate and process emotions without relying solely on verbal communication.
  • Body-centered therapy: Focuses on bodily sensations and movements, involving techniques like yoga, dance, or somatic experiencing to release tension and address trauma.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: Used to relieve psychological stress and treat trauma including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Music therapy: Utilizes musical activities, sounds, and rhythms to evoke emotions, reduce stress, and enhance well-being.
  • Play therapy: Especially effective for children, play therapy employs toys and games to facilitate expression and healing.
  • Psychotherapy: Also known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy may include approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and motivational interviewing (MI).

Counselors work in a variety of settings, from private offices to public treatment centers. Most commonly, they work in outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers (19%) and individual and family services (15%).2 Mental health counselors also work in hospitals (10%) and residential facilities (9%) as well as in government (8%).2

In addition to counseling, mental health therapists perform a range of tasks in support of their work. MHCs must document the assessment, diagnosis, prognosis, and continuing progress of their clients. It is also common for them to provide referrals to other mental health professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists. Counselors must collaborate and coordinate with other service providers, state agencies, family members, schools, or justice systems. Knowing how to navigate insurance company requirements will also be vital for supporting clients’ access to care.

Keeping abreast of new research and being up-to-date on best practices in mental health therapies helps MHCs to provide the best possible care to clients. Most states require LMHCs to complete a certain number of hours of continuing education to keep their counselor’s license current.

Mental Health Counseling Careers by Degree Level

To help you research opportunities with your desired degree, we have provided the below summary of common jobs for each mental health counselor degree level. Licensing rules vary widely by state, and some states may have different exceptions for licensed professional counselor roles that are required to be licensed. In addition to state-level differences, employers commonly have differing definitions and requirements for titles in the mental health counseling field. With this in mind, the table below provides a general outline of common degree requirements by role. Requirements for a given job or job posting in your area may vary.

Counseling Job TitleMinimum Degree
Commonly Required
Behavioral Health TechnicianAssociate’s
Correctional CounselorBachelor’s
Counselor AideAssociate’s
Crisis Specialist or TechnicianAssociate’s
Department ChairDoctorate
Education & Career Advisor (Adults)Bachelor’s
Emergency Services CounselorBachelor’s
Health EducatorBachelor’s
Human Services WorkerAssociate’s
Intake Counselor or ClinicianBachelor’s
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)Master’s
Mental Health Care AssociateAssociate’s
Mental Health Program ManagerDoctorate
Mental Health Residence ManagerBachelor’s
Mental Health TechnicianAssociate’s
Mental Health Worker, Residential Treatment CenterBachelor’s
Professional CounselorMaster’s
Research AssistantMaster’s
Residential Counselor (Paraprofessional)Associate’s
Residential ManagerBachelor’s
Youth CounselorBachelor’s

Mental Health Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

The average annual mental health counselor salary is $53,490 per year (note that licensed mental health counselors are grouped together with substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors by the BLS for reporting purposes).1 Keep in mind that not all MHCs are salaried; many counselors work by the hour as 1099 contractors. Whether salaried or contracted employees, it is common for counselors to operate on a Fee-For-Service (FFS) model, meaning they get paid their hourly or salaried rate only when directly treating clients.

The highest concentration of mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorder counselors is in Massachusetts, followed by Vermont, Washington, Colorado, and Montana.1 The highest average salary for this occupational group is found in Utah ($66,190 per year).1 Other states rounding out the top five highest average salaries for mental health counselors are Alaska ($65,090), Washington DC ($64,920), Rhode Island ($64,640), and New Jersey ($63,430).1

Demand for mental health counselors is expected to lead to increased job prospects over the coming years as the correctional system seeks to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate offenders and as more people overall seek counseling services.2 Prospects for mental health therapists are expected to be particularly strong in rural and underserved areas. Through 2030, projections suggest an increase of 23% in the employment of mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorder counselors, which is over five times the overall average job growth.2 This equates to an average of 41,000 job openings for this occupation each year.2

Additional Resources

Mental Health Counselor Career Interviews

Frequently Asked Questions

What do mental health counselors do?

Licensed mental health counselors, or LMHCs, work with people who have mental health conditions, illnesses or challenges of varying degrees, helping them learn how to adopt healthy behaviors and manage their mental health. Mental health therapists work with individuals as well as groups, although they may specialize in working with one or the other. Mental health counselors also tend to specialize in working with specific populations or disorders.

Can I work in mental health without a master’s degree?

Although you cannot offer mental health counseling without a master’s degree and a license, there are opportunities to work in this field without a master’s degree. These opportunities are generally found in support roles, such as working as a counselor’s assistant or aide, as a behavioral health technician, or in some states, as a crisis line coordinator.

Are you paid for supervised work hours under an LMHC?

While the internship during a master’s degree program isn’t usually paid because this is considered part of your education, the postgraduate supervised experience under a licensed mental health counselor is typically paid. Many states require you to hold an associate or intern mental health counselor license while completing the supervised experience required for licensure.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2021, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211018.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm