Mental Health Counselor Career Guide

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 Mental health counselors help their clients achieve mental and physical well-being through assessment and diagnosis of issues, psychotherapy, learning new skills, and other counseling techniques.

Counselors work in a variety of settings, from private offices to public treatment centers. They are most commonly found working 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 The following guide provides further information about mental health counselor careers including how to become a mental health counselor, typical requirements, and the career and salary outlook for mental health counselors.

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

Mental health counselors provide support to individuals facing mental health challenges, navigating personal growth, or seeking guidance to cultivate positive habits that empower them 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 a specialization, such as working with a specific age range, mental disorder (such as depression or anxiety), or other defined groups such as those struggling with grief.

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.
  • 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).

They may work independently or as part of a group practice, hospital, clinic, or in other treatment centers. Especially in larger clinical settings, mental health counselors often function as part of a larger care team comprised of doctors and other healthcare professionals working to improve and support a patient’s overall health and well-being. There are many mental health counseling degree programs that can help prepare future counselors for the various options.

Mental Health Counselor Requirements and Common Tasks

While the typical mental health counselor job description may vary, mental health counselors must be licensed by the state in which they are working. In all US states, a master’s degree – typically a master’s degree in mental health counseling, though other degrees with appropriate coursework may sometimes be accepted – is required in order to become licensed. Prospective mental health counselors must also complete supervised work experience in a clinical mental health setting in order to earn their full license; this commonly ranges from one to three years, depending on state requirements. For those with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, there may be support roles available that do not require licensure, such as intake coordinator or counselor’s aide.

The scope of a mental health counselor’s professional practice varies widely by state. Aside from directly counseling clients, mental health therapists perform a range of tasks in support of their work. Not least of these is managing paperwork that documents the assessment, diagnosis, prognosis, and continuing progress of their clients. It is also common for a counselor to provide referrals to other mental health professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists. Counselors must also collaborate and coordinate with other service providers, state agencies, family members, schools, or justice systems. Knowing how to navigate insurance company rules and requirements will also be vital for supporting clients’ access to care.

Professional development, also known as continuing education, is also important for counseling professionals. Completing a certain number of hours of continuing education is a common requirement for renewing a counselor’s license. Keeping abreast of new research and being up-to-date on best practices in mental health therapies is also important in order to provide the best possible care to clients.

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Mental health therapists occupy a position of trust with clients who are often vulnerable, which is why all 50 states and Washington DC closely regulate mental health counselor licensing. As previously noted, becoming licensed as a mental health counselor requires 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. Earn one to three years of supervised work experience under a licensed professional, again depending on 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.

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 Counselor Education and Job Training

A master’s degree is the minimum educational requirement to become licensed as a mental health counselor. In some states and circumstances, you may be able to work in a support role in the mental health field without becoming a licensed professional counselor as long as your work is supervised by a licensed professional, though you will not be able to provide direct counseling services.

There are many mental health counseling degree programs that can help you on this path. If you do not already have a bachelor’s degree, there are bachelor’s degrees in mental health counseling, pre-counseling, and related topics that can help you prepare for the master’s program necessary to be independently licensed as a mental health therapist. Many mental health degree programs are designed for working professionals and hold classes either online or after business hours. Before you commit to a program, however, be sure to check your state’s requirements for LMHCs so that you can be sure to plan your education accordingly.

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 Chair

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 mental health counseling employers offer salaried positions; 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 the states of 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.2 This equates to an average of 41,000 job openings for this occupation each year.2

Mental Health Counselor Career Interviews

Additional Resources

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.

How much do mental health counselors make?

Mental health counselors (along with substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, in the same BLS group) earn an average of $53,490 per year according to national statistics as of 2021.1 Factors such as geography, specialty, experience, and industry all have an impact on the salary an individual mental health counselor can expect. For example, as a group, counselors in this BLS group working in business, professional, labor, political, and similar organizations earn an average annual salary of $78,570, compared to counselors working in other residential care facilities, who earn an average annual salary of $38,950.1

What do you need to do to become a mental health counselor?

In order to become a mental health counselor, you must be licensed by the state in which you wish to work. This means earning a bachelor’s degree followed by earning a master’s degree, which will typically be in mental health counseling. In most states, the master’s degree must comprise 60 credit hours and may need to include specific coursework. After graduating, you will need to complete from one to three years of supervised experience under a licensed mental health professional in order to qualify for your own license. Check with your state board of mental health licensing for up-to-date requirements.

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.

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