Sometimes it's easier to explain what something is by pointing out what it isn't. In the case of mental health counselors, this proves to be a useful tactic. Mental health counselors are not psychologists or psychiatrists, both of which require a full doctoral degree and the many years of schooling, internships/residencies, and thesis/research that go along with earning a PhD, PsyD, or MD degree. However, like psychologists and psychiatrists, mental health counselors meet with patients, engage in psychotherapy, and offer psychological guidance, treatment, and counsel to those in need. Mental health counselors typically don't engage in the deep research projects that are part of the practice of psychology and psychiatry, but they are fully licensed, carefully trained professionals who play a crucial role in a larger and expanding network of social service and health care providers, sometimes coordinating care with other professionals in the health care, education, and vocational training spheres.
Mental health counselors typically work with individuals who are struggling with emotional and behavioral disorders, work and/or relationship problems, or other potentially debilitating dysfunctions. Their aim is to improve the overall mental and emotional wellbeing of their patients by helping them to manage and overcome specific problems. Specialized mental health counselors may also work with families, couples, children, or groups. They might target issues related to substance abuse, eating disorders, stress, anxiety, marital problems, parenting, or aging, and work in community clinics, schools, hospitals, residential care facilities, or private practices.
The American Mental Health Counseling Association sums up the work of mental health counselors quite well in its introduction to "Facts About Mental Clinical Health Counselors": "Clinical mental health counseling is a distinct profession with national standards for education, training and clinical practice. Clinical mental health counselors are highly-skilled professionals who provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy. They combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution."
Master's in Mental Health Counseling Concepts
- Lifespan Development (childhood, adolescence, and adulthood)
- Attachment theory
- Group dynamics
- Interviewing techniques
- Counseling and psychotherapy theories
- Diagnostic and assessment practices
- Professional mental health counseling issues (ethics, etc.)
- Multicultural counseling
- Couples and family therapy
- Substance abuse counseling practices, theories
- Vocational psychology and career counseling
- Intervention methods
- Statistical analysis
- Methods for psychological research
- Mental health law
- Professional credentialing
Benefits of Earning a Master's in Mental Health Counseling
Although mental health counselors do not require the same level of education and training as psychologists in order to practice professionally, they are required to undergo state licensing before embarking on a career in the field. A master's degree in mental health counseling or a closely related area of training, along with at least a year of supervised work in a clinical setting, is the baseline requirement in order for the state licensing exam. So, enrolling in a master's program in mental health counseling is a vital step along the way to becoming a mental health counselor.
There are a number of innate qualities and personal attributes that can make for a successful mental health counselor. Patience and compassion, coupled with well-developed listening skills, an ability to communicate effectively, and an instinct for problem solving, are all important components of a mental health counselor's make-up. But, mental health counseling involves intervening actively in the lives of people who may be wrestling with grave, even life-threatening issues, like alcoholism, suicidal ideation, and anorexia/bulimia. It can involve working with children who are at crucial formative and impressionable stages in their development. And, even in cases where mental health counselors are engaged with patients who have less severe and/or sensitive issues, providing advice and guidance in a clinical setting is a big responsibility, one that calls for more than just an average degree of sensitivity, compassion, and respect for privacy and confidentiality. As we'll see below, these are all incorporated into the training that is part of earning a master's in mental health counseling.
What to Expect in a Mental Health Counseling Master's Program
Master's degree programs in mental health counseling are overseen by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which sets the standards for program objectives, training requirements, instructional support, and coursework. CACREP accredited programs are generally designed to be completed in two years, or four semesters of academic work. This amounts to 60 total credit hours, a quarter of which are usually set aside for a supervised practicum and internship requirements that give students the chance to work in a supervised clinical setting. These programs can confer master of arts (MA) or master of science (MS) degrees, which are now considered largely equivalent in the field of mental health counseling.
As set out by CACREO, the core areas of classroom study and training in mental health counseling at the master's degree level are as follows:
- Diagnosis and psychopathology
- Psychological testing and assessment
- Professional orientation
- Research and program evaluation
- Group counseling
- Human growth and development
- Counseling theory
- Social and cultural foundations
- Lifestyle and career development
- Supervised practicum and internship
Course titles and descriptions will vary from school to school and program to program. And, as we'll see below, there are generally elective course options that allow students to explore various areas of specialization within mental health counseling. But, an accredited master's program in mental health counseling is likely to include core coursework in at least some of the subjects detailed below:
Theories of Psychological Counseling
An overview of the various schools and approaches to counseling in a clinical setting
Counseling Techniques and Psychotherapy
The application of theory to the practice of psychological and mental health counseling
Mental Health Assessment
Qualitative and quantitative approaches to assessing and diagnosing mental health issues
An overview of the use of drugs and other pharmaceutical treatments in mental health
The relationship between age and psychological development and how that impacts counseling techniques
A study of the major psychological dysfunctions that impair mental health, and emotional, behavioral, and cognitive function
Professional Ethics in Counseling
Confidentiality and other legal and ethical considerations and imperatives for mental health counselors
Strategies for using the techniques of mental health counseling in group treatment settings
Career and Vocational Counseling
The special concerns when offering career and vocational counseling
Behavioral Medicine and Health Psychology
The mind-body connection, the physiological basis for mental illness, and how mental health impacts physical health
Neuroscience for Counseling Professionals
How chemical and biological processes of the brain impact psychology
Social and Cultural Factors in Psychology
Group dynamics and the interplay of race, gender, ethnicity, and other socio-cultural factors in mental health counseling
Popular Specializations in Mental Health Counseling
Mental health counselors work with people of all ages, from a diverse array of backgrounds, who may be struggling with a wide range of mental health issues. Some mental health counselors have general practices, while others choose to specialize on specific population groups, or discrete concerns such as substance abuse, learning disorders, marital problems, or job satisfaction and performance. In fact, the American Counseling Association (ACA) has twenty separate divisions, each of which reflects a different area of specialization within mental health counseling. These include:
- Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling
- Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling
- Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development
- American School Counselor Association
- International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors
- International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors
- National Employment Counseling Association
Specializations in mental health counseling are generally addressed through elective coursework and internships during a master's program. This can include classes in human sexuality, crisis intervention and trauma recovery, child and adolescent counseling, college counseling, or marriage and family counseling.
Licensure and Certification for Mental Health Counselors
Every state requires mental health counselors to be licensed, which means qualifying for and then passing a state approved exam. Not all states have the same specific requirements, however. A master's degree along with one to two years of supervised clinical experience is the pre-exam norm, and most states rely on either the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or National Certified Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) for full licensure. In addition, the National Board for Certified Counselors offers voluntary certifications for mental health counselors that can be advantageous for job placements and career advancement.
Passing a state licensing exam then confers one of several professional titles, which also vary from state to state. They include clinical mental health counselor (CMHC), licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC), licensed clinical professional counselor (LBPC), and national certified counselor (NCC). While that may seem confusing, the designations are largely equivalent in that they qualify the recipient to begin practicing professionally as a mental health counselor.
Career Options, Salaries, and Job Outlook for Mental Health Counselors
The overall job outlook for mental health counselors is quite good, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook is forecasting a 20 percent growth in jobs for mental health counselors through 2024, which would add 26,400 new positions to the 2014 total of 134,500 nationwide. Of course, job openings and salaries depend on a number of factors. They vary regionally, and by area of specialization. They are also dependent upon the work environment. BLS Occupational Employment Statistics for May 2014 found that the biggest employers of mental health counselors were as follows:
|Industry||Average Annual Wage|
|Individual and Family Services||$41,820|
|Outpatient Care Centers||$43,920|
|Residential Facilities (Mental Health, Substance Abuse, Developmental Disability)||$37,030|
|Local Government Agencies||$51,850|
|Offices of Other Health Practitioners||$50,330|
Of the 134,500 mental health counselors counted in the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, 21 percent were in individual and family services sector jobs; 17 percent worked in outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers; 12 percent in residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance abuse facilities; and 11 percent in hospitals. The overall median salary for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists, according to the BLS, was $42,250 as of May 2014.