Mental Health Counselors Overview

The ability to inspire confidence, trust and respect, along with a strong desire to help others are key traits of mental health counselors. To become a licensed counselor, typically a masters degree is required but requirements vary from state to state. The job outlook for mental health counselors is favorable as more opportunities are available than qualified graduates.

Nature of the Work for Mental Health Counselors

Mental Health Counselors

Mental health counselors work in a variety of community settings, providing a range of support and counseling services. Despite their scope of practice mental health counselors may work with adults, children, adolescents or families with a multitude of issues including school problems, trauma, career counseling need, mental health disorders, addiction and disability. In order to offer the most appropriate support and counseling, mental health counselors must be able to identify all kinds of issues.

Mental health counselors promote mental health and treat emotional and mental disorders for individuals, groups and families. They may work with clients dealing with suicidal impulses, anxiety, depression, trauma, low self-esteem, addiction, substance abuse, stress and grief, using a variety of therapeutic techniques. In addition, mental health counselors must often help with mental and emotional health issues, career concerns, relationship problems and educational decisions. Advocacy, community outreach and meditation activities are also common. Some mental health counselors even specialize in particular areas such as offering these services to the elderly population. In this job, mental health counselors will work closely with other mental health specialists including clinical social workers, school counselors, psychologists, psychiatric nurses and psychiatrists.

Often mental health counselors work in an office in which clients visit throughout the day, but others may provide services within the community.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Mental Health Counselors

Training and education requirements for mental health counselors vary from state to state. That said, a masters degree is almost always required for licensure. In order to ensure compliance, prospective mental health counselors should check with prospective employers, state and local governments and national voluntary certification organizations to determine requirements.

Colleges and universities offer counseling programs through a variety of departments including psychology, human services and education. Areas of study include career counseling, agency or community counseling, clinical mental health counseling and substance abuse or addictions counseling. Core subject areas include assessment, counseling techniques, research and program evaluation, human growth and development, social and cultural diversity, group work, career development and professional ethics and identity. Accredited masters degree programs usually include 48 to 60 semester hours of graduate study, which includes a supervised clinical internship. On the job, some employers offer training to new hires. Others provide time off or tuition assistance so they may peruse their graduate degree. Also, commonly mental health counselors must complete workshops, personal studies or graduate studies to meet requirements for maintaining licenses or certifications.

Outside of schools, nearly all states require mental health counselors to be licensed. However, the work setting may determine the requirements. For example a mental health counselors working in a community setting may not need a license while one in a private practice may.

In this field it is also important to have a strong desire to help people and the ability to instill trust, respect and confidence. Both team work and independent work skills are needed. They must follow the code of ethics as stated by their certification or licensing organization. The daily problems that mental health counselors consistently deal with can cause stress and often require high levels of both emotional and physical energy.

The National Board for Certified Counselors also offers a voluntary national certification. While it’s not required and does differ from the state license, some states will honor it instead of the state exam. The organization also offers specialty certifications in several areas including clinical mental health.

Certifications are offered by other organizations as well and while they are voluntary, they can improve job prospects.

To advance in the field of mental health counselors, some professionals choose to pursue a doctoral degree. They may move to positions as supervisors or administrators. Others go into college teaching, research, consulting or group or private practices.

Top 10 Most Popular Mental Health Counseling/Counselor Schools

1. St. Edward's University (Austin, Texas)
2. Southern New Hampshire University, Online (Hooksett, New Hampshire)
3. University of Phoenix (Multiple Campus Locations)
4. Xavier University (Cincinnati, Ohio)
5. Argosy University (Multiple Campus Locations)
6. Pace University, New York (New York, New York)
7. Mt Hood Community College, Gresham (Gresham, Oregon)
8. University of Massachusetts, Boston (Boston, Massachusetts)
9. Medaille College (Buffalo, New York)
10. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)

See All Mental Health Counseling/Counselor Schools

Most Popular Online Mental Health Counseling/Counselor Schools

1. University of Phoenix - Online School
2. Walden University - Online School
3. Capella University - Online School
4. Argosy University, Online Programs
5. Nova Southeastern University - Online School
6. Sullivan University - Online School

Employment and Job Outlook for Mental Health Counselors

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow much faster than average (increase 20% or more).

There are about 113,300 working mental health counselors. An increasing number of mental health counselors are self-employed working in either group or private practices. Laws are changing to allow insurance companies to cover more counseling services and society is beginning to view mental health counselors in a more professional way.

Much faster than average growth is expected for the employment of mental health counselors—an increase of about 24 percent. Increasingly, under managed care systems, insurance companies are covering counseling services thus making them a more budget-friendly alternative to psychologists and psychiatrists. The demand for mental health services has also increased as individuals are more willing to seek assistance with their issues.

Overall, there should be more job opportunities than qualified graduates from counseling programs. This is especially true in rural areas.

Earnings and Salary for Mental Health Counselors

The median annual salary for mental health counselors is $38,010. The highest 10 percent earn above $64,610, the lowest 10 percent earn under $24,230 and the middle 50 percent earned between $29,920 and $50,140. Broken down by the largest industries employing mental health counselors, median annual wages were as follows:

Residential mental retardation, mental health and substance abuse facilities: $29,950
Individual and family services: $36,130
Outpatient care centers: $37,590
Office of other health practitioners: $40,880
Local government: $45,510

Annual Salary for Mental Health Counselors

On average, Mental Health Counselors earn $38,010 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $24,230/yr $29,920/yr $50,140/yr $64,610/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook