Recent figures from the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that approximately 51.5 million people in the United States were diagnosed with a mental health disorder in 2019. These statistics could also explain the projected growth in this job market by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of 25% between 2019 and 2029.
As a result of this, the call for mental health professionals and care is rising, in particular mental health counselors.
What is a mental health counselor?
A mental health care counselor is a qualified and licensed professional that offers services to support and care for individuals with behavioral and emotional issues. Using a range of techniques learned throughout a masters in counseling and training, counselors use these methods in programs tailored to a client’s needs.
There are typically two designations for mental health counselors:
- Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC)
- Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC)
In reality, both are similar in meaning, and professionals who obtain licensure within a state receive this designation. Some states also use variations of the two listed above.
What does a mental health counselor do?
Mental health disorders cover a wide range of issues. They mainly cover three areas, such as emotional, behavioral, and mental problems. Some of the primary conditions that a mental health counselor may encounter include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Plus, many others
The below disorders can also lead to other issues that manifest from the challenges individuals face when coping with the condition. This can include anger, grief, stress, bullying, and self-esteem problems.
Mental health counselors work with clients to navigate and support all types of disorders to improve wellbeing and lifestyles for the future.
What qualifications are needed to become a mental health counselor?
Most people who want to pursue a career in this area obtain a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject. This provides the necessary foundation for the next steps. For a counselor role, you also need a masters in counseling.
Obtaining a masters in counseling
Once you have completed a bachelor’s degree, a masters in counseling is a natural progression. There are several ways to achieve this degree, including classroom-based learning and online study. In the current climate, online masters in counseling options are a great way to get the necessary qualifications in the comfort of your own home.
A masters in counseling will give you the skills and knowledge you need to take your career to the next level. There are several types of counseling niches to explore, but if you are looking at specializing in mental health, choosing a masters in counseling with this specialism is ideal.
Depending on the state you live in, there are specific criteria for accreditation for degrees. One of the leading accreditation organizations – The Council of Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP), is a top choice for anyone looking to complete an accredited masters in counseling or doctoral in counseling. This body ensures that both online and brick and mortar institutions adhere to standards for counseling qualifications.
Some masters in counseling courses also have field placement support, no campus visits as it purely online, and some don’t require a GRE to get started.
Should I study for a masters in counseling online or at a college?
There is a large selection of online masters in counseling courses and options to attend traditional class-based lessons. There are many benefits to both options. However, online courses can be more affordable and flexible if you are studying around other commitments.
Before choosing a degree course, research the best options and consider the cost aspect and whether you need to live away from home. As mentioned above, accreditation is also an essential factor, as different states only accept specific accreditations for the profession. By gathering this information, you will be able to make an informed choice based on your circumstances.
Training to become a mental health counselor
To become a mental health counselor, it’s not only based on your masters in counseling – you also need relevant field training. This experience will help you get to grips with the real-world application of the techniques and skills you learn on a masters in counseling course. Working under a licensed professional, you will gain experience in a professional environment and discover a range of different applications from people that have been in the job for years.
Internships and training is a crucial part of gaining licensure. Depending on the state you will work in, there are varying requirements on the number of hours needed. This can range from 600 hours for internships and between 100 and 300 hours in practicum settings.
Gaining a license to practice
All states require counselors to obtain a license to practice and offer services. You may be required to undertake an examination such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and/or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). There may be other requirements depending on the state, so be sure to check what is required to get the necessary licensing.
Continued professional development in counseling
As with many health professions, the industry is continuously changing and adapting to updates and movements in trends. Once you’re licensed, it’s essential to keep up with the latest in the industry and strive to undertake professional development courses to boost your knowledge and skills after your masters in counseling education.
The business side of mental health counseling
When you study for a masters in counseling and go through the training phase, you will also get to learn about the business side of counseling. There are several legal and ethical aspects to this job role, and it is imperative to have knowledge of these areas. The business side of counseling and care is also continually evolving as social needs change throughout the country. By maintaining your professional development throughout your career, you will be well equipped to deal with the movements in the sector.
Where do counselors work?
Counselors are employed in both the public and private sectors. This includes places like hospitals, schools, community centers, rehabilitation centers, and private practices. Some individuals also choose to work for charities, and this can be an extremely rewarding career choice.
Counselors often specialize in specific types of programs. Within the mental health counseling profession, there are also niches particular to this field. For example, you may choose to specialize in children’s mental health or senior counseling areas. Depending on the specialism, this will determine the type of place you are likely to work. In children’s mental health settings, counselors typically provide services to foster care organizations and youth care groups. If you are dealing with mature clients, then the environment may include care homes, community centers, and veteran hospitals.
There are many public sector jobs available in counseling. You will work for publicly funded organizations, such as charities, government correctional facilities, and schools. There is a wide range of jobs in the private sector, including corporate roles and consultant style jobs. Some counselors also open private practices and tailor services to the local and national population’s needs.
Typical mental health counselor duties
Throughout your studies and training, you will discover the types of duties a counselor may perform in the workplace. By undertaking a masters in counseling, you will know the kind of techniques to put into practice when faced with these duties.
Some typical examples of a day in the life of a mental health counselor include:
Evaluating symptoms of mental health disorders
Some mental health disorders have common traits, while others do not. Every person is different, and your study and training will help you evaluate the client’s symptoms.
Once symptoms have been recognized and determined, a treatment plan can be drawn up. The counseling process is never black and white, and treatment may take many different paths, including obtaining help from other health professionals. Treatment plans also have to incorporate setbacks within the program, and using your knowledge gained in a masters in counseling; you will be able to identify cues and downward trends in progression to tweak the process.
In any client treatment offered, a supportive and empathetic approach is crucial. However, you also have to remain impartial and non-judgmental. Providing support every step of the way is essential to build a bond between you and the client.
Mental health counselors also provide education on the different types of therapy available. By providing the steps in the process, also ensures clients are comfortable with the program and can see the progress they are making. There are several types of therapy available depending on the symptoms, and in some cases, referrals may be required.
The saying goes, ‘no man is an island,’ which could not be more accurate in a counseling session. As mentioned above, the therapy required may be out of your comfort zone as a professional, so a referral to another professional may be necessary. In other cases, you may also determine that additional help is required while they have counseling, such as joining support groups.
Mental health professionals often collaborate with other healthcare bodies, including outpatient care, residential treatment centers, and social workers.
Providing strategies for self-care
Another aspect of counseling is promoting self-care and awareness of triggers. Counseling is a vital step for many people to make a positive change in their life, but it does not just end when the session closes. As a mental health counselor, you work with clients to provide strategies for future relapses or potential challenges that could disrupt progress.
Analyzing client data and tracking progress
Another element of the role of a counselor is tracking program progress for each client. While there is no standard benchmark for everyone to meet, it is vital to make realistic objectives to evaluate how well it is going. Setbacks are natural and recording everything will ensure you can tailor treatment and identify trends in symptoms for the future.
Developing transferable skills to improve your counseling career
As part of any masters in counseling course, there is also a range of transferable skills developed while studying. These skills will also ensure you can safely and legally carry out work in counseling to support your clients’ needs.
During your studies and through internship training, students build skills including communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Each of these areas is vital to undertaking work as a counselor. Understanding the techniques of maximizing each skill can improve your career success.
One of the significant areas of counseling is becoming an active listening. It’s not enough to hear what someone is saying, a counselor must develop skills to home in on body language, tone of voice, and client cues to understand the bigger picture. Taking a masters in counseling will equip you for this. You will learn tried and tested techniques to understand individuals’ behaviors, plus instinct will also play a massive part in how you identify differences.
Salary expectations of mental health counselors
A career in counseling and, in particular, mental health counseling is a profession that is often viewed as a vocation, rather than ‘just a job’. This is due to the intensity and passion that many have for this occupation. While this is a great attitude towards your career, salary is also another vital factor. The question – how much does a counselor earn often comes up.
There are different factors that affect earning potential. This is typically due to the differences in public and private sector salaries. Some examples of pay in the sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, include:
- Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors External link – $46,240
- Marriage and family therapist – $49,610
- Rehabilitation counselors – $39,950
Pursuing a career in mental health counseling
If you are interested in taking the next steps in this career, there are many options available. Why not consider your next steps and turn your passion for helping people into a dream job?