What Is a Mental Health Counselor?

Job Description

Mental Health Counselor leading therapy group
••• Tom M Johnson / Blend Images / Getty Images

A mental health counselor helps people cope with emotional and mental disorders. His or her clients may have drug and alcohol addiction, marital and family problems, difficulties caused by aging or may be dealing with stress and anxiety. Some other job titles for this occupation include behavior analyst, behavior support specialist, mental health specialist and counselor.

Quick Facts

  • Approximately 157,700 work in this field (2016).
  • Some mental health counselors own private practices. Mental health centers, substance abuse treatment centers, hospitals, and schools employ others.
  • Jobs are typically full time and often require working on evenings and weekends.
  • This is a "Bright Outlook" occupation according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is classified as such because of its excellent job outlook. Employment is expected to grow by 23 percent between 2016 and 2026. This is much faster than the average growth for all occupations.

A Day in the Life of a Mental Health Counselor

Employers listed the following duties in job announcements on Indeed.com:

  • "Provide array of outpatient mental health services to promote individualized patient recovery"
  • "Conduct intakes, individual, group, and family therapy"
  • "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 in a timely and accurate manner and according to Federal, State and Center guidelines"
  • "Write reports to court, school, or other community agencies as necessary"

Education, Licensing, and Certification

To work as a mental health counselor, you must first earn a master's degree in a mental health-related field of study.

Your options include clinical mental health counseling, psychology or social work. In addition to your coursework, you will also participate in clinical training. Many employers prefer to hire people who have earned their degree from a program that has been accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)

To practice as a mental health counselor, you will need to get a license from the state in which you want to work. In addition to your master's degree and clinical training, you will also have to pass a written examination. Many states require people to pass the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE), a test administered by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). It is a multiple choice exam that consists of 200 questions. You will also have to take continuing education courses to retain licensure.

Some mental health counselors choose to become certified. This is purely voluntary, but attaining this credential can make you a more competitive job candidate. The NBCC offers several designations. One can become a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) and then, if he or she chooses, apply for a specialty certification such as Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) and Master Addictions Counselor (MAC).

What Soft Skills Do You Need to Succeed in This Career?

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

  • Active Listening: 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 are saying to them so they can take recommended actions.
  • Interpersonal Skills: In addition to the ability to listen and speak well, you also need what are often called "people" skills. For example, you must be able to understand your clients' reactions and be able to persuade them to make necessary changes. You also need empathy and sympathy.
  • Service Orientation: To do this job, you must have a strong desire to help people.
  • Critical Thinking: To aid in your decision-making and problem solving, you must be able to identify and then evaluate possible solutions.

The Truth About This Job

  • Working as a mental health counselor can be very stressful.
  • Your patients, who are in distress, may become argumentative or even physically abusive.
  • You may need to respond to emergency situations when you aren't scheduled to work.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

Are you wondering what employers are looking for when they hire new mental health counselors? Here are some requirements from actual job announcements found on Indeed.com:

  • "Ability to make professional evaluations, decisions, and recommendation for treatment planning and implementation"
  • "Able to work independently and as a positive member of a team"
  • "Ability to establish and maintain effective working relationships with mentally or emotionally disabled persons and their families is a must"
  • "The successful candidate will be comfortable treating both routine and serious mental health illness"
  • "Knowledge of completing documentation not limited to: treatment plans, assessments and service authorizations"
  • "Computer literacy, including knowledge of Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio, Access) and familiarity with the internet and email communications"

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Is mental health counselor a suitable career for you? If you have the following interestspersonality type, and work-related values it could be a good fit.

Related Occupations

OccupationDescriptionMedian Annual Wage (2014)Minimum Required Education/Training
Marriage and Family TherapistTreats clients who have emotional and mental problems, within the framework of family and marriage systems.


Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy
Mental Health Social WorkerDiagnose and treat mentally ill people or individuals with emotional and behavioral disorders.$42,700Master's in Social Work
Career CounselorHelps clients make decisions regarding their careers.$54,560Master's Degree in Counseling
Rehabilitation CounselorHelp people who have disabilities live independently$34,670Master's Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online (visited March 18, 2018).