Mental Health Counselor
Learn how you can help people and families in a mental health counselor career.
A mental health counselor offers guidance to individuals, couples or families dealing with issues that affect their mental health or well-being. These professionals follow a "wellness model" while counseling clients by highlighting their strengths and working to build upon these strengths for increased mental health. This holistic method contrasts with the more traditional illness treatment model used by other health professionals, which regards patients as having health, emotional or behavioral problems that need fixing.
A mental health counselor performs the following duties:
- Evaluate clients through observation, interviews and tests
- Encourage clients to make positive choices and life changes
- Schedule client appointments at home, in treatment facilities or at hospitals
- Administer mental health evaluations and risk assessments
- Encourage clients to make informed and healthy decisions about themselves, their relationships and their futures
- Confer with other health professionals about clients when necessary and providing case records to these professionals
- Plan effective treatments with patients or other health professionals
- Conduct research on mental health
- Help clients deal with addiction/substance abuse, anger management, depression, self-image, stress, suicide and relationship issues, among others
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2012-13 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median national annual salary for mental health counselors is $39,710. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. Those working in private practice generally earn a higher income than their counterparts—as well as enjoy the benefits of a flexible schedule—although it can take up to five lean years to build up a strong client base.
Mental health counselors work in the following environments:
- Private and group practices
- Substance abuse treatment facilities
- Hospitals and partial hospitalization programs
- Correctional institutions
- Counseling centers
- Schools, universities and government agencies
Their work settings are generally as quiet, comfortable and relaxing as possible for the sake of their patients and the work they do. It is essential that those in mental health counseling work in an environment that helps keep them sane and emotionally fit to deal with stressful situations.
Training and Education
Earning your undergraduate degree in counseling, psychology, sociology or social work is the first step to becoming a mental health counselor. All professionals in this field are required to have a master's degree (MA, MS or MSW) in counseling, psychology, social work or a related field. Some professionals continue with their education to earn their PhD in clinical psychology, counseling psychology or mental health therapy.
Candidates should also be prepared to gain experience by volunteering or interning at a rehab treatment center, hospital, counseling clinic or other facility where they can interact with patients on a personal level.
All fifty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have licensing or certification procedures for mental health counselors. To become licensed, candidates must hold a master's degree in counseling (or a related field), complete two years of post-graduate clinical work in a professionally supervised setting and pass a state or nationally developed licensure or certification exam.
Being a mental health counselor is not only rewarding, it is also a gateway career to other professions, such as rehabilitation counseling, substance abuse counseling, marriage and family counseling and educational counseling.
Did You Know?
- Approximately one out of every four Americans over the age of 18 suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder, while one out of 17 Americans is afflicted with a serious mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
- In addition, mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for citizens ages 15 to 44, and nearly half (45 percent) of those afflicted with a mental illness meet the criteria for two or more mental disorders. For these reasons, there is a greater need than ever for professionals such as mental health counselors.