Mental Health Counselor Training, Skills, and Salary

Depressed man lying on couch talking to therapist
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Mental Health Counselor

A mental health counselor is a professional who uses a variety of psychotherapy methods and techniques to help people experiencing psychological distress.

In the United States, about one in four adults are experiencing mental illness at any given time, and research shows that close to 50% of adults will have at least one mental illness during their lifetime. The prevalence of mental health problems highlights the demand and need for qualified professionals to diagnose, treat, and prevent mental health issues.

The societal costs of mental health issues are growing increasingly high as well. Studies show that the economic burden of major depressive disorder (MDD) is around $210.5 billion a year.

If you are curious about what a mental health counselor can do for you or thinking about entering this profession yourself, there are a few important things you should know.

Learn more about what these professionals do, when you might want to consider seeing one, and what you need to do if you are interested in becoming a mental health counselor.

Where Do Mental Health Counselors Work?

All people face different psychological challenges at various points in life, and sometimes they need the help of a professional to cope with these difficulties.

It can sometimes be confusing to determine what type of help is needed, particularly because there are so many different types of professionals who specialize in treating mental health issues.

Mental health counselors represent just one profession that specifically works with people dealing with cognitive, behavioral, and emotional issues.

Counselors work with individuals, families, groups, and communities to deal with mental health issues and improve mental well-being. You might find professional mental health counselors working in a wide range of settings, including:

  • Mental health clinics
  • Schools
  • Private practices
  • Hospitals
  • Community health centers
  • Correctional facilities
  • Businesses
  • Colleges and universities
  • Social service agencies
  • Government agencies

People experiencing symptoms of psychological illnesses such as depression, phobias, and anxiety may choose to see a mental health counselor for counseling and psychotherapy services.

Counselors may also help people experiencing social difficulties, emotional problems, addictions and substance abuse, grief, self-esteem issues, and marital difficulties. Some mental health counselors choose to work with specific populations such as children, older people, or college students.

What Do Mental Health Counselors Do?

Mental health counselors perform a variety of tasks. If you're looking for a counselor for yourself or a loved one, you may be able to learn more about what this professional does on their website, in their marketing brochures, or within other marketing materials.

If you're interested in working in this role, what a mental health counselor does for that agency or facility is often provided in the job posting.

Duties and responsibilities that you may find listed in a mental health counselor job description include:

  • Assesses and diagnoses clients experiencing symptoms of psychological distress
  • Provides psychotherapy to clients
  • Talks to clients about their experiences, emotions, and thoughts
  • Conducts group sessions with families
  • Works with clients to set goals, develop a treatment plan, and gain insight through treatment
  • Works with clients to identify situations, behaviors, and thoughts that interfere with their wellness and recovery
  • Examines social issues that may influence a client's mental well-being, including peer pressure, bullying, substance use, prejudice, work stress, financial challenges, and health issues
  • Refers clients to other health professionals as well as to other resources in the community, such as other social services, job services, and support groups

Counseling tends to view individual needs within a humanistic context. Rather than focusing on dysfunction, counselors often see problems as arising from normal reactions to developmental changes or as difficulty dealing with specific life stages.

As a result, counselors may focus on personal development by helping you learn the skills and coping abilities you need to deal with such life changes and stages effectively.

While counselors are often called upon to treat specific problems, they also tend to take an approach that focuses on overall wellness. Dealing with the immediate problem is important, but counselors also strive to help you function not just minimally, but optimally.

Enhancing overall well-being by solving problems, improving resilience, encouraging healthy behaviors, and improving relationships is a key component of a counselor's duties.

Mental Health Counselor Training

Many mental health counselors begin by earning a bachelor's degree in a human services field such as psychology, sociology, or social work.

While having a background in social science is ideal, people with undergraduate degrees in other fields can also enter the field of counseling. This often requires completing a number of basic prerequisite courses before gaining admission to an accredited master's degree program.

Basic Educational Requirements

The minimum requirements for a licensed mental health counselor are a master's degree in counseling and at least two to three years of supervised practice under a licensed professional.

Licensing and Certification

States typically require a minimum of 2,000 to 3,000 hours of supervised practice before gaining licensure; however, it is important to check with your state's licensing board to learn more about specific requirements. Always be sure to check the guidelines in the state where you plan to study and practice.

Aspiring mental health counselors must also pass a state licensing exam. In many states, counselors must first pass a test administered by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) in order to obtain a license.

Licensing requirements for mental health counselors vary from state to state, and specific titles for these professional designations may vary as well.

Mental health counselors may be known as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC), or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). In most states, the title of "Mental Health Counselor" is a protected title, which means that only people who have met certain state requirements may legally use that title.

In addition to these basic education and licensure requirements, some counselors also choose to become certified. While this certification is purely voluntary, it is an additional qualification that can make professional counselors more appealing to both employers and potential clients.

Continuing Education

Even after finishing licensure requirements, counselors must continue to stay abreast of current practices by completing a number of continuing education courses over the course of their professional lives.

While this means that you will need to continue taking courses throughout your career, it also allows you to stay current and explore new information and techniques to better hone your skills as a counselor.

Mental Health Counselor Skills

Aside from training and education, what type of skills should you have in order to succeed in this profession? Becoming an effective mental health counselor requires:

  • A solid knowledge base of psychology, therapy, and counseling
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Excellent listening skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Social skills
  • The ability to communicate effectively

Emotional intelligence, compassion, empathy, and nonverbal communication abilities are also critical for mental health counselors.

Pros and Cons to Consider

If you are interested in becoming a mental health counselor, it is important to consider both the potential benefits of the career as well as some of the possible drawbacks.

One of the greatest rewards of being a mental health counselor is being able to have a direct impact on the lives and well-being of clients. Counseling allows professionals to both prevent and treat psychological distress, which can help clients lead healthier and happier lives.

One potential downside to consider is the fact that the job can sometimes be stressful since counselors sometimes need to intervene and assist clients who may be emotional, angry, or even combative.

Good stress management and emotional regulation abilities can be important in maintaining a good balance in your life as you juggle the rigors of your job and other life responsibilities and goals.

Mental Health Counselor Salary

The Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors held nearly 319,400 jobs in 2019, with the largest percentage working in outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a mental health counselor was $47,660 in 2020.

The following are additional findings from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • The top 10% of mental health counselors earn an annual wage of more than $78,700.
  • The bottom 10% of mental health counselors earn less than $30,590.
  • Areas with the highest rates of employment included: outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, individual and family services, and hospitals (state, local, and private).
  • The highest-paying areas of employment for mental health counselors include government positions ($54,070), hospitals ($50,460), and individual and family services ($47,580).

Individual salaries can vary depending upon a wide range of factors, including geographic location and the field in which one practices.

While mental health counselors typically earn less than psychologists, this is also a factor that makes them appealing to insurers. Mental health counselors are able to receive third-party reimbursement for the diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of psychological conditions, often at a less expensive rate than some other health professionals.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the demand for mental health counselors will grow at a rate faster than the average for all occupations. They suggest that the demand for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors will grow by 25% by 2029.

The need for mental health counselors will be particularly strong in fields that deal with substance abuse and serve military veterans.

Reasons to See a Mental Health Counselor

People often face mental health challenges throughout life. Such struggles can include anxiety, depression, grief, addiction, and difficulty in coping with life's stresses and challenges. Some of the reasons you might want to seek the assistance of a mental health counselor:

  • You are experiencing repeated, uncontrollable thoughts or memories related to a recent traumatic experience.
  • Life seems intense and unmanageable.
  • You feel uninterested in things you used to enjoy and disconnected from the people around you.
  • You have been using substances to cope with your problems.
  • Your anxiety feels overwhelming.
  • Your relationships feel strained and not what they used to be.
  • You just feel like you would benefit from talking about your concerns with a professional.

Remember, you don't need to be experiencing symptoms of a psychological disorder to seek help from a mental health professional.

Counselors, as well as other mental health professionals, can help you with a wide range of concerns, from stress to health to relationships. Whether your goal is to gain insight into your own behaviors, become a better spouse or parent, or become more motivated to achieve your goals, consulting a mental health professional can help.

If you are looking for a counselor, you can use the resources provided by the National Board of Certified Counselors to locate certified counselors in your area. You can also discuss your symptoms and needs with your primary care physician who can then refer you to a mental health counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

A Word From Verywell

Mental health counselors play a vital role in the delivery of psychological services. If you feel that you might benefit from counseling, talk to your doctor to learn more about your options and if a mental health counselor might be the right fit for your needs.

If you are interested in a career in this field, spend some time researching what you will need to do in order to become a counselor. Mental health counseling is just one career option in this area, and you might want to consider related careers such social worker, clinical psychologist, marriage and family therapist, or counseling psychologist.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the role of a mental health counselor?

    A mental health counselor uses a variety of therapeutic techniques in order to help a person cope with psychological distress.

  • Is a mental health counselor the same as a therapist?

    No. A counselor tends to offer short-term care; therapists, on the other hand, are usually seen for long-term care. Therapists may focus on your past, whereas counselors may focus more on your present and future.

  • What skills do you need to be a mental health counselor?

    Mental health counselors often have critical thinking, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. They have the ability to listen and communicate effectively. It is also useful for a counselor to be compassionate and empathetic.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Center for Disease Control. Mental illness surveillance among adults in the United States. Supplements. 2011;60(3):1-32.

  2. Greenberg PE, Fournier AA, Sisitsky T, Pike CT, Kessler RC. The economic burden of adults with major depressive disorder in the United States (2005 and 2010). J Clin Psychiatry. 2015;76(2):155-62. doi:10.4088/JCP.14m09298

  3. American Counseling Association. Overview of state licensing of professional counselors.

  4. University of Michigan; School of Public Health Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center. Understanding billing restrictions for behavioral health providers.

  5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors. Operational Outlook Handbook.

  6. Northeastern University. Counselors vs. therapists vs. psychologists.

Additional Reading
  • Gintner GG, Mears, G. Mental health counseling. In: Emener WG, Richard MA, Bosworth JJ, eds. A Guidebook to Human Service Professions. Charles C Thomas, LTD; 2009. 

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.