Working with patients suffering from mental illness is often regarded as a calling, a job people are drawn to because of the unique and inherent challenges and the consequent rewards. But caring for and treating the mentally ill is, like the rest of our health care system, also a business, one that requires a clear understanding of much more than patient treatment protocols, counseling techniques, psychological theory, and new advances in psychopharmacology. Mental health treatment facilities, whether they’re housed within a larger hospital/health care group, or based in a community clinic or private practice, must be run efficiently and effectively in order to insure beneficial patient outcomes. This is the reality of health care, and it means that as demand for mental health services increases, there is a parallel need for trained professionals who know the ins and outs of mental health administration.

Just as mental health treatment is a specialty with the larger realm of psychiatric medicine and psychology, mental health administration is a subset of the broader profession of health care administration. Mental health administrators may start with an understanding of the many factors that impact the overall wellbeing of patients, the social, psychological, and physiological causes of mental illness, and the range of treatment options available to individual patents. But they must also understand the state and federal laws that apply to health care providers and the economics of medical care. They also need to know how billing and medical coding systems work, and have the leadership and management skills to coordinate the complex day-to-day operations of a mental health clinic. As we’ll see, these are just some of the crucial skills encompassed by a master’s degree in mental health administration.

Master’s in Mental Health Administration Concepts

  • Analyze mental health organizations for performance and effectiveness
  • Advocate for new policies and treatment methods
  • Systems of planning
  • Compliance with mental health policy and law
  • Variations in policy at community, state, and national levels
  • Human development
  • Mental health and psychopathology in the workplace
  • Theories and techniques of counseling and psychotherapy
  • Issues in human diversity (race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation)
  • Statistics and psychometrics
  • Principles and theories behind successful management
  • Managing in a mental health care environment
  • Fiscal administration in health care systems

Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Mental Health Administration

The good news on the health care front is that it’s growing. According to the latest reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in health care occupations is expected to increase at a robust rate of 19 percent from 2014 to 2024, which is must faster than the national average for job growth. Indeed, as the BLS notes, “Health care occupations will add more jobs than any other group of occupations,” adding a projected 2.3 million new jobs nationally over the next decade. This is largely because the baby boomer population is aging, and the Affordable Care Act, along with other policy reforms, has increased the number of people who have access to proper health care.

Growth of this magnitude creates management challenges, as new staff members are hired and trained, new patients are admitted into treatment, and new systems are put into place for billing insurance companies and federal assistance programs. In addition, there is a greater pressure to bring down the overall cost of health care through more efficient delivery of health care services across the board. That’s a management and administrative challenge. And in the field of mental health care, it’s a challenge that requires the professional knowledge and skills that come with earning a degree in mental health administration.

We’ll look a the specific training encompassed by a master’s degree in mental health administration below, but in general it’s a way to enter the field fully prepared to meet the challenges of delivering quality mental health care at a time when such services are becoming more accessible and better understood, and are predicted to be in greater and greater demand.

What to Expect in a Mental Health Administration Master’s Program

Mental health administration is essentially an area of specialization within the larger realm of health care administration. So, while there are a few schools that offer master’s degree programs that are specifically targeted at mental health administration, it’s far more common for mental health administration to be an area of concentration in a master’s program in general health administration, which may be offered through a school of public health, psychology, or in some cases business. As a result, many of the foundational elements of a master’s in mental health administration are much the same as core curriculum in a general program in health administration.

This includes learning the business side of the health care system, such as how the health insurance industry functions, the application of financial management and accounting principles in the realm of health care, and the laws and policies regulating health care in the US. A master’s degree in mental health administration also involves developing personnel management and communications skills, as well as a working knowledge of information technology and medical records systems, or what’s known as EHR/EMR (electronic health records/electronic medical records). Finally, those aiming to work in mental health administration must also be familiar with the theories, practices, and treatment protocols that are common in the field, including counseling and psychotherapy techniques, psychopharmacology, psychological assessment and diagnosis, social science research methodologies, and the standards and ethics of patient care.

To break it down into three distinct but related pillars of knowledge, training in mental health administration requires:

  1. Understanding the inner workers of the US health care system
  2. Mastering business and management skills
  3. Familiarity with patient treatment protocols and techniques

Most master’s degrees in public health and mental health administration are designed to be completed in two years, or four semesters of academic work. In addition, students are often required to participate in a supervised internship or work-study program for credit. And some programs include an independent research or capstone project that is analogous to a master’s thesis. While specific requirements vary from school to school, the chart below details some of the courses that are common to these master’s programs:

Information Technology for Health Care Administration

Electronic medial records keeping and the use of digital platforms and assets in the administration of health care

The US Health Care System

The laws and policies that govern the administration of health care in the US

Financial Management for Health Care Organizations

Fiscal strategies for managing businesses and organizations in the health care sector

Institutional Organization and Management in Health Care

Theories and practices for managing human resources, decision making, and staffing in a health care environment

Intercultural Communication and Management

Cultural and diversity issues in the management of health care organizations

Professional Ethics and Laws in Mental Health

The legal and ethical issues pertaining to the delivery of health care and mental health services and treatments

Mental Health Care Compliance Standards and Oversight

The impact of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the HIPAA, the Affordable Care Act and Health Care and Education Reconciliation Acts of 2010, and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations on the management and administration of mental health services

Theories of Counseling and Therapy

An overview of psychotherapeutic techniques

Research Methods in Mental Health

An overview of how social science research methods are applied in the field of mental health

Components of the Human Services Industry

How various arms of the health care and social services sectors work in concert with mental health service providers

Degree Options, Areas of Specialization, and Licensing in Mental Health Administration

Mental health administration is itself an area of concentration within the larger realm of health care administration, so there aren’t typically any further specializations for students who have already decided to focus on earning a master’s in mental health administration. A more important consideration is often what type of program and/or school to enroll in. Mental health administration can be offered as a master of arts (MA) in psychology with a concentration in health care administration, as a master of science (MS) in health care administration with a focus on mental health, or as a hybrid master of health administration (MHA) degree. There are also programs that allow for a dual degree in health care administration and business administration (MHA/MBA). For professional purposes, these degrees are essentially equivalent. However, a degree in psychology is likely to include more clinical training, while a health care administration program will generally have a greater focus on the business side of working in mental health care. But, this will vary from program to program.

Because the work of mental health administrators doesn’t involve offering direct care to patients, there are no licensing requirements for employment in the field. A master’s degree in health policy or health care administration, along with some working experience in the field, is what most employers are looking for. States do require licensure for those working in nursing homes, through the National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards, and voluntary certification is available to health care administrators. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook details, “The Professional Association of Health Care Office Management offers certification in medical management, the American Health Information Management Association offers health information management certification, and the American College of Health Care Administrators offers the Certified Nursing Home Administrator and Certified Assisted Living Administrator distinctions.” These optional certifications can be useful for career development and advancement.

Job Outlook and Salaries in Mental Health Administration

As mentioned previously, above average growth is projected throughout the health care sector for at least the next decade. The BLS does not collect data on mental health administrators specifically, but it does have data for medical and health service managers and several related occupations. The chart below offers an overview of the job outlook and current salaries for those working in analogous and related occupations:

Occupation2014 Median SalaryJob Growth 2014-2024
Medical and Health Service Managers$92,81017%
Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists$42,25019%
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors$39,27022%

Article Sources