Is Counseling and Mental Health Services a good career path?

By Jordan Fabel •  Updated: November 15, 2022  •  6 min read  •  Mental Health
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The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employment for mental health counselors is expected to grow between 2019 and 2029. The projected 25 percent increase is faster and larger than the average for other occupations. The importance of mental health is more widely known than in the past. And as more people make this a priority, the need for mental health counselors will increase.

What is a Mental Health Counselor?

A mental health counselor is a professional who helps those in psychological distress.

A person experiencing psychological distress is in a state of emotional suffering. A mental health counselor uses various techniques and methods to try and relieve the distress. Common methods and techniques used in mental health counseling include:

Why Mental Health Counselors are in High Demand

Mental illness is more common in the US than most people realize. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports nearly one in five US adults has a mental illness. That’s a total of more than 51.5 million people.

Mental illness encompasses several different conditions. And each condition has a severity of mild, moderate, or severe. The conditions are also categorized as serious mental illness (SMI) or any mental illness (AMI). AMI includes all mental illnesses. SMI is a subset of AMI that means the mental illness is severe.

The prevalence of mental health problems is at an all-time high. It’s estimated that nearly 50 percent of adults will experience at least one mental illness at some point. Mental health counselors are needed to diagnose, treat, and prevent mental health issues.

Types of Mental Health Counselors

There’s more than one type of mental health counselor. You have several options when it comes to choosing your career path. And your area of expertise will depend on your interests and goals. It’s possible to specialize in a specific area of mental health or take a general approach.

Three (out of several) possible career paths include:

  1. Substance abuse counselor – A mental health professional specializing in treating patients who have an addiction to alcohol or drugs.
  2. Behavioral disorder counselor – A mental health professional who specializes in helping patients change specific behaviors.
  3. General mental health counselor – A mental health professional who works with patients dealing with various mental health issues. This counselor works with people who have problems related to emotional, behavioral, and cognitive issues.

Mental health counselors work with individual patients, communities, families, and other types of groups. But the goal is always to help people improve their mental well-being.

Mental Health Counselors at Work

Mental health counselors work in a variety of settings. Some common locations include:

  1. Mental health clinics
  2. Hospitals
  3. Private practices
  4. Health centers
  5. Correctional facilities
  6. Government agencies
  7. Social service agencies
  8. College and universities
  9. Businesses

Mental health counselors deal with various issues, so it’s common to find them in a variety of locations. High school students may have struggles with their self-esteem. A business might want to help its employees remain mentally healthy. Many types of people need mental health care. You’ll often find mental health counselors working in various locations to treat different segments of the population.

You’ll discover you have many options when it comes to creating your career. For example, you might decide to work at an elementary school and provide services for children. You could work in a nursing home or hospital and provide services to older people. Or perhaps you’d like to provide marriage and pre-marriage counseling for a religious organization.

Training and Education Requirements

Most mental health counselors have at least a bachelor’s degree in a field such as social work, sociology, or psychology.

You can still enter counseling if your undergraduate degree is in an unrelated field. But you’ll have to take several prerequisite courses. You’ll also need to earn admission into an accredited master’s degree program.

A master’s degree in counseling is required to become a licensed mental health counselor. Two or three years of supervised practice with a licensed mental health professional is required as well.

The number of supervised practice hours you’ll need depends on your state. Most states require at least 3,000 hours of supervised practice. For example, Alabama requires 3,000 hours of board-supervised practice, and at least 2,250 of those hours must come from direct counseling services.

The best course of action is to check with the licensing board in the state where you want to practice and study. For instance, if you’re in Alabama, you’d contact the Alabama Board of Examiners in Counseling.

Most states also require you to pass an exam given by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). And you must pass the exam before you can become a licensed counselor. You’ll likely have to take the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination (NCE) as well.

After becoming licensed, you’ll need continuing education courses. These courses help you stay updated on current methods and strategies in mental healthcare. You can’t renew your license until you’ve met the required continuing education hours for your state. And this is something you’ll do for the entirety of your counseling career.

Required Skills for Mental Health Counselors

To become a successful mental health counselor, you need several skills. Understanding techniques and knowing the subject matter are important. But good listening skills, critical thinking, effective communication, and the ability to solve problems are equally important. So are excellent people skills, emotional intelligence, empathy, and compassion.

Career Potential

In 2020, the average salary for a mental health counselor was $47,660. And the BLS estimates there were nearly 319,400 mental health counselors in 2019. The majority of these counselors were employed in substance abuse centers and outpatient mental health clinics.

Salaries vary based on location and area of expertise. Some counselors earn upwards of $78,700 per year, but some counselors earn less than $30,000 per year. But as stated above, the average salary was $47,660 in 2020.

The highest paying areas aren’t necessarily the same as the areas with the most patients. Substance abuse centers, hospitals, outpatient mental health services, family services, and individual services have the highest employment rates for mental health counselors. But the highest paying areas are government positions, hospitals, and private practices.

Maintaining Your Mental Health

There are several benefits to becoming a mental health counselor. Most importantly, you help people lead happier and healthier lives. You make the world a better place and can potentially earn a good income. But a career as a mental health counselor has pitfalls as well.

One potential danger of the job is continuously dealing with stress. You’ll often deal with clients who are combative, emotional, or angry. These situations can take a toll on your mental state.

Good stress management and emotional intelligence are important. This maintains a healthy balance between your life and the responsibilities of the job. Having your own mental health professional is always encouraged.

A Career in Mental Health

If you’re interested in the mental health field, take time to research how to get started. Perhaps mental health counseling is perfect for you. But you also might want to consider a related field, such as social work or psychology.

Jordan Fabel

Jordan Fabel

Covering different 'paths' that people's lives can take. Creative, foster parent, ticket dismissal, you get the idea. Exploring the requirements, certifications, exams, and obviously, approved courses along each path.