Mental Health Counseling: Job Description, Certifications, and Career


Mental health counseling involves treatment to individuals, families, couples, and groups. Some counselors cater to specific populations, such as the elderly, college students, or children. Mental health counselors treat clients with a variety of ailments, including anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, stress, and suicidal impulses. They also help with mental and emotional health issues and relationship problems (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2019).

A mental health counseling session
A mental health counseling session

History of Mental Health Counseling

While we cannot trace back when the first counselor joined the staff of a community mental health center, we can say that the first cohort of counselors began working in the centers in US sometime in the mid-1960s. Most counselors were initially hired as paraprofessionals because they were not trained in one of the recognized disciplines. The counselor’s job titles, too, were different, such as psych tech, mental health specialist II, and psychiatric aide (Palmo, et al., 2011).

In the late 1960s, counselors found positions in new centers being opened, such as youth services bureaus, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, women’s centers, and shelters for runaway youth, etc. The mental health counselors began their trek to professional identity and recognition in the late 1960s. This new profession rose during the 1970s to the front line of service delivery in a variety of settings but lacked a coherent identity. Then the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) was founded in 1976. During the next decade, the AMHCA membership grew and it impacted the areas of training and credentialing of counselors and increased consumer access to mental health services. Counseling is now legally defined in all 50 states of the US, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. The development of AMHCA parallels the development of the professional title, Mental Health Counselor, and now, the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) (Palmo, et al., 2011).

Job Description: What You Will Do as a Mental Health Counselor

Although mental health counseling is a relatively new profession when compared with the other core providers of mental health services, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and psychiatric nurses, it has now emerged and been recognized as an important part of the total health care system (Palmo, et al., 2011).

Mental health counselors are quite often the first professionals approached for emotional and psychological support. They offer guidance on how to attain and maintain mental health and well-being to whoever approaches them, be it individuals, families or groups. Counselors end up treating mental problems like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, and other such mental issues. They generally employ in their practice psychodynamic therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, humanistic therapy, rational-emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), or holistic and integrative approach. Thus, their areas of concern and approaches to them are similar to those of psychologists (All Psychology Schools, n.d.).

Mental health counselors work in various settings, such as mental health centers, prisons, probation or parole agencies, juvenile detention facilities, halfway houses, and employee assistance programs (EAPs). EAPs are mental health programs provided by some employers to help employees deal with personal problems. They may also work with clients in outpatient treatment centers. Some counselors work in private practice, where they may work alone or with a group of counselors or other professionals. Most mental health counselors work full time. In some settings, such as inpatient facilities, they may need to work evenings, nights, or weekends (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2019).

To do their job effectively, the mental health counselors will be required to possess these qualities (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2019):

  • Compassion: They should be able to empathize with the people who approach them in great mental trouble and distress. Without such compassion, you cannot connect with your patients at a deep emotional level, and such connection in and of itself can be very therapeutic.
  • Interpersonal skills: Most cases need a long-term therapeutic relationship, which is sustainable only with good interpersonal skills.
  • Listening skills: Unless you listen to the client carefully and correctly, often noting the mood, tone of voice and body language, you cannot understand properly his main problems and where the pain points and causal issues seem to lie.
  • Patience: Dealing with people with mental issues can be very draining and troublesome because they can be recalcitrant and hard to disabuse them of their fond but wrong assumptions, viewpoints, prejudices, and worldviews.
  • Speaking skills: Ultimately, you need to be able to communicate your diagnosis, the reasons thereof, the steps or measures that you want the client to take so that the therapeutic encounter is successful. To accomplish this, you need good speaking skills.

Certifications: How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

To become a licensed mental health counselor in the US, you must (All Psychology Schools, n.d.):

  • Get a master’s degree in mental health counseling: Workers with psychology, clinical social work, mental health counseling, and similar master’s degrees can provide more services to their clients, such as private one-on-one counseling sessions, and they require less supervision than those with less education. Of course, this means you have to first get a bachelor’s The bachelor’s degree need not be, though it is desirable it is, in psychology or another related field.
  • Get Clinical Counseling Experience: Complete 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience under an approved licensed mental health professional.
  • Additionally, you may need to pass an exam, the National Counselor Exam or the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Exam, so check with the National Board for Certified Counselors.
  • Finally, you have to apply for state licensure.

After starting your practice as a mental health counselor, you are usually required to complete continuing education every one to two years.

Wages and Career Outlook

As in the case of any other professional, the salary/pay will vary according to years of experience, location, nature of work, personal competence, etc. As per the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The median annual wage for mental health counselors was $44,630 in May 2018. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,240, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $72,990.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2019)

Employment of mental health counselors is projected to grow around 22 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. This is because people continue to seek mental health counseling services, which can only be expected to increase with greater awareness. Job prospects are also expected to be very good for mental health counselors, particularly in rural areas or other communities that are underserved by mental health practitioners (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2019).


All Psychology Schools, n.d. Mental Health Counseling. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 25 Sep 2019].

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2019. Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 25 Sep 2019].

Palmo, A., Weikel, W. & Borsos, D. eds., 2011. Foundations of Mental Health Counseling. 4th ed. Springfield: Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd.


Mental Health Counseling: Job Description, Certifications, and Career
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Mental Health Counseling: Job Description, Certifications, and Career
Mental health counseling involves treating ailments like anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, stress, and suicidal impulses.
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