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Mental Health Counselor Career Guide

About 280,000 mental health counselors (including substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors) are employed in the US according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 Mental health counselors help their clients achieve mental and physical wellbeing 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 (16%).2 Mental health counselors also work in hospitals (10%) and residential facilities (10%) as well as in government (9%).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 treat individuals who have mental illnesses, are undergoing a personal crisis, or who need help developing healthy behaviors in order to reach their goals and improve their mental and physical wellness. Mental health counseling typically takes place one-on-one between a counselor and his or her client but can also take place in group settings. 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 group such as those struggling with grief.

Mental health counselors typically align their practice with a specific “school” or method of mental health treatment such as psychotherapy (more commonly known as “talk therapy”) or cognitive behavioral therapy (a practice that aims to change unhelpful behaviors and improve emotional control). They may work independently or as part of a group practice, hospital, or 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.

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. The scope of a mental health counselor’s professional practice varies widely by state, but it is also common for a counselor to provide referrals to other mental health professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists.

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 up-to-date on best practices in mental health therapy 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 common 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. With online mental health degree programs, it may even be possible for you to continue working while you study. 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.

Job TitleAssociate’s Degree Commonly RequiredBachelor’s Degree Commonly RequiredMaster’s Degree Commonly RequiredPhD Commonly Required
Behavioral Health TechnicianYes
Correctional CounselorYes
Counselor AideYes
Crisis Specialist or TechnicianYes
Department Chair

Yes
Education & Career Advisor (Adults)Yes
Emergency Services CounselorYes
Health EducatorYes
Human Services WorkerYes
Intake Counselor or ClinicianYes
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)Yes
Mental Health Care AssociateYes
Mental Health Program ManagerYes
Mental Health Residence ManagerYes
Mental Health TechnicianYes
Mental Health Worker, Residential Treatment CenterYes
Professional CounselorYes
ProfessorYes
Research AssistantYes
ResearcherYes
Residential Counselor (Paraprofessional)Yes
Residential ManagerYes
TherapistYes
Youth CounselorYes

Mental Health Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

The average annual mental health counselor salary is $46,240 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 The highest number of mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorder counselors work in California (32,380), followed by the states of Pennsylvania (20,350), Massachusetts (16,120), New York (14,910), and Florida (13,980).1 The highest average salary for this occupational group is found in Utah ($67,410 per year).1 Other states rounding out the top five highest average salaries for mental health counselors are Nevada ($63,910), Oregon ($60,960), Alaska ($60,830), and New Jersey ($60,120).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 other underserved areas. Through 2028, projections suggest an increase of 22% in the employment of mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorder counselors.2 This equates to an average of 6,850 new jobs 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 illnesses or challenges of all types, 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 $46,240 per year according to national statistics as of 2019.1 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 government earn the highest average annual salary ($51,690), compared to counselors working in residential mental health and substance abuse facilities, who earn the lowest average annual salary ($38,190).2

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.

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, 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