A State by State Counselor Guide

Mental Health Counselor

Things you should know about mental health counselors...

Mental health counseling is what people typically think of when they hear the word counseling, but counselors’ actual job duties may go well beyond what people imagine. Clinical counselors do indeed talk people through problems. In many cases, though, they diagnose as well as treat mental illness.

Jobs for mental health counselors will grow 36% through 2020. ~ Bureau of Labor Statistics

New federal regulations allow qualifying mental health counselors to serve as mental health practitioners, providing services without referral, under the TRICARE program. This is big news, as TRICARE serves between 9 and 10 million service members, retirees, and family members.

Job duties are also expanding in other sectors. Not surprisingly, there is an increased need for highly trained counselors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted that jobs for mental health counselors will grow 36% during the 2010 to 2020 decade.

Counselors typically earn less than psychiatrists or psychologists do, but that’s one thing that makes them attractive to insurance companies. The average mental health counseling salary was $42,590 in 2010. 80% made between $24,840 and $65,660.

Capella University offers four online CACREP - Accredited Graduate Programs in Counseling: MS in Mental Health Counseling, MS in School Counseling, and PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision. Click here to contact Capella University and request information about their programs today.

Northwestern's Top-12 Ranked CACREP Accredited Online M.A. in Counseling program offers both full and part time options that allow you to earn a degree on your own schedule. GRE scores are not required for this program. Request information.

NYU - Online Master of Arts in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness. This program prepares students to help clients create lives of health and meaning.

Mental Health Counselor Duties

Some mental health counselors help people who have normal cognitive processes cope with difficult life events, for example, physical illness, death of loved ones, and relationship problems or divorce. Others help people manage serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. Counselors need to know when to refer clients or patients for additional resources and how to identify when abuse may be happening or when there is a risk of suicide or other violence.

Cognitive therapy is among the most common techniques, but some employ other therapies. Some clinical counselors specialize and work with a particular population, for example, the elderly. Mental health counselors may work for a variety of agencies: individual and family services, hospitals, and inpatient and outpatient mental health facilities. Some are in private practice.

New federal regulations allow qualifying mental health counselors to serve as mental health practitioners, providing services without referral, under the TRICARE program.

Clinical counselors often work as part of a health care team; the team could include doctors, nurse specialists, psychologists, and even social workers.

Becoming a Mental Health Counselor

All states require mental health counselors to have a master's degree. Curriculum requirements vary from one jurisdiction to the next. Many states require that the degree program either be accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs or be substantively equivalent.

Capella University offers three online CACREP - accredited Master's programs: Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Marriage and Family Therapy and School Counseling. Click here to contact Capella University and request information about their programs.

CACREP-accredited mental health programs transitioned to 54 semester hours in 2009 and will transition to 60 in 2013. They must meet a core of content objectives that are common to all counseling specialties. These include human growth and development, career development, and group work (group development, dynamics, and techniques). Mental health programs have additional standards like applying the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Illness (DSM).

Mental health counselors have a broad knowledge base. They must know how to apply research to clinical counseling. While it is never within their scope of duty to prescribe medication, clinical counselors are expected to have knowledge of common psychoactive medications, including contraindications and side effects.

All jurisdictions require clinical counselors to have a residency, or period of supervised experience, after completing their education. During this period, they work under clinical supervisors, who consult with them at regular intervals and provide documentation to the licensing board.

Mental health counseling programs are competitive, but they consider more than just academic indicators. CACREP standards require programs to consider applicants' potential for forging successful interpersonal relationships across cultures. Grades and test scores are a factor, but scores are not given special significance.


All states license the mental health counseling profession. Some states group mental health counselors with other professional counselors (for example, those in rehabilitation). Others have multiple licensing levels for counselors and recognize the unique qualifications that clinical counselors possess.

It can be a good idea to pursue the highest level of licensing. Licensing level can be important for reimbursement purposes (and can therefore increase employment options).

Counselors may also opt for voluntary mental health counseling certification through the National Board for Certified Counselors.

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