What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

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Image by Jo Zhou © The Balance 2019

A mental health counselor helps people cope with emotional, mental, and sometimes dependency disorders. Their clients might be struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, marital and family problems, difficulties caused by aging, or they could be dealing with stress and anxiety.

Some other job titles for this occupation include behavior analyst, behavior support specialist, mental health specialist, and counselor.

Approximately 157,700 worked in this field in 2016.

Mental Health Counselor Duties & Responsibilities

A mental health counselor's responsibilities can be varied, but generally include the following:

  • Provide various outpatient mental health services with the goal of patient recovery.
  • Conduct intakes and monitor individual, group, and family therapies.
  • Develop service plans and conduct reviews as needed throughout the duration of treatment.
  • Provide mental health assessments, counseling, referrals, and intervention services.
  • Complete and maintain documentation according to federal and state guidelines.

A mental health counselor is often faced with treating both routine and serious mental health illnesses.

Mental Health Counselor Salary

Salary can depend on whether the counselor works for the government, in private practice, or for a private institution.

  • Median Annual Salary: $44,630 ($21.46/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $72,990 ($35.09/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $28,240 ($13.58/hour)

Education, Training & Certification

This career requires extensive education, as well as licensing and certification requirements:

  • Education: You must earn a master's degree in a mental health-related field of study, such as clinical mental health counseling, psychology, or social work. In addition to your coursework, you'll also participate in clinical training. Many employers prefer to hire people who earn their degrees from programs that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Licensing: You'll need to be licensed in the state in which you want to work, and this typically involves passing a written examination. Many states require that mental health counselors pass the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE), a test administered by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). This is a multiple-choice exam that consists of 200 questions.
  • Continuing Education: You'll have to take continuing education courses to retain licensure.
  • Certification: Some mental health counselors choose to become certified. It's voluntary, but attaining this credential can make you a more competitive job candidate. The NBCC offers several designations. You can become a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) then apply for a specialty certification, such as Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) or Master Addictions Counselor (MAC).

Mental Health Counselor Skills & Competencies

Your classroom education, clinical training and even certification will only take you so far. The following soft skills and personal qualities are essential to your success in this occupation:

  • Computer literacy: This includes knowledge of Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio, Access) and familiarity with the internet and email communications
  • Flexibility: You should be able to work independently and as a positive member of a team as well.
  • Compassion and empathy: An ability to establish and maintain effective working relationships with mentally or emotionally disabled persons and their families is a must.
  • Active listening skills: Excellent listening skills will allow you to understand what your clients are sharing with you and subsequently provide the help they need.
  • Verbal Communication: Your clients must be able to comprehend what you're telling them so they can take recommended actions.
  • Interpersonal Skills: You must be able to understand your clients' reactions and be able to persuade them to make necessary changes.
  • Service Orientation: You should have a strong desire to help others.
  • Critical Thinking: You must be able to identify and then evaluate possible solutions.

Job Outlook

This is a "Bright Outlook" occupation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment is expected to grow by 23 percent between 2016 and 2026. This is much faster than the average growth for all occupations, and it's at least partially due to states increasingly looking for alternatives to jail time for drug and other minor offenders.

Work Environment

Some mental health counselors own private practices. They might work alone, or with other professionals. Others work in mental health centers, substance abuse treatment centers, hospitals, prisons, and schools employ others. Those who work in addiction might be employed by residential treatment centers. Environment can depend a great deal on the nature of the employer.

Working as a mental health counselor can be very stressful. Your patients are typically in distress and may become argumentative or even physically abusive. In fact, you might be specifically called in for assistance when this happens.

Work Schedule

Jobs are typically full time and they often require working evenings and weekends. You might have to respond to emergency situations when you aren't scheduled to work, and many counselors juggle significant workloads.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Some similar jobs and their median annual pay include: 

  • Community health worker: $46,080
  • Registered nurse: $71,730
  • Rehabilitation counselor: $35,630