Is a Career as a Clinical Mental Health Counselor Right for You?
Mental illness is a personal, national, and global concern. That’s why clinical mental health counselors (CMHC) and other allied health professionals have a tremendous opportunity to help address the pressing need for mental health services.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental health condition. This means you or someone you know may be dealing with the weight of depression, anxiety, or substance abuse right now.
Research has shown that mental health is inextricably linked to physical health. NAMI states that people with severe depression have an increased risk for chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes and double the risk for cardiometabolic disease.
Moreover, NAMI reports that depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide. Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity annually.
Becoming a CMHC can be life-changing for you and those in your care. It might be right for you if you’re ready to embark on a new career where you can marry your intrinsic listening abilities and empathy with learned skills in theory, research, and evidence-based clinical practice to help others achieve wellness.
Let’s look at how to become a mental health counselor and see if it’s the right career choice for you.
Understanding the Role of a Clinical Mental Health Counselor
Clinical mental health counselors address clients’ emotional and psychological well-being through evidence-based therapies and practical techniques.
According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, “Clinical mental health counselors are highly skilled professionals who provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy. They combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution.”
At its core, clinical mental health counseling helps people with mental health conditions such as depression, stress, trauma, and addiction. CMHCs may work with individuals, couples, groups, and families to help them achieve psychological and emotional well-being through talk therapy, behavior modification, and effective coping skills. Some may work with specific patient populations, such as children or older adults.
A Day in the Life of a Mental Health Counselor
While no two clients and no two days are the same, mental health counselors spend most of the workday with patients:
- Encouraging them to discuss their experiences and feelings
- Diagnosing and treating various mental health issues
- Maintaining accurate record-keeping
- Helping them define goals and plans
- Develop coping skills for difficult situations
- Referring them to other mental health professionals when necessary
Continuing education is necessary to maintain licensure, so clinical mental health counselors also regularly attend workshops and seminars to learn the latest research and therapeutic approaches to treat their clients effectively.
Where Do Mental Health Counselors Work?
CMHCs and other substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors work full-time and part-time in hospitals, residential facilities, outpatient treatment centers, schools, and correctional facilities. Of the 388,200 working counselors in 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites these sectors as the largest employers:
|Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
|Individual and family services
|Offices of other health practitioners
|State, local, and private hospitals
|Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities
The Rewards and Challenges
A mental health counselor’s career can be rewarding. In fact, Mental Health Counselors rank #2 in Best Social Services Jobs.
One of the primary reasons many choose a mental health counselor’s career is to have a direct and lasting impact on the lives and well-being of others. Many consider their role more of a calling than a career. Benefits of this career include a schedule that supports work/life balance and the variety that comes from working with diverse clientele and subject matter.
Challenges in the mental health counselor’s career can include putting personal judgments and feelings aside, setting professional relationship limits, client resistance and lack of engagement, and stress and burnout. Since mental health counselors listen and respond with empathy and compassion, some experience emotional stress because they may inadvertently absorb their clients’ feelings. Maintaining a professional distance and practicing self-care is essential to a healthy balance between your job and personal life.
Qualities and Skills Required
Do you have what it takes to be a successful mental health counselor? Aside from earning a postgraduate degree and being licensed in your state, both “soft” and “hard” skills are necessary for developing therapeutic relationships with your clients to truly help them.
Indeed cites twelve essential skills to becoming a successful mental health counselor.
- Active listening — the ability to engage and validate clients’ need to be heard
- Questioning — the ability and understanding to ask open and closed questions
- Note-taking — the ability to take session notes in an organized manner
- Interpretation — the ability to interpret vague information that clients share within the context of what they are going through
- Nonverbal communication — the ability to identify current attitudes or feelings based on clients’ body language
- Self-awareness — the ability to be aware of how your body language and tone of voice can affect your clients’ willingness to share information
- Trustworthiness — the ability to build and maintain trust with clients
- Empathy — the ability to see clients’ situations from their perspectives to best help them overcome their obstacles
- Emotional compartmentalization — the ability to emotionally compartmentalize yourself from your clients and maintain professional boundaries
- Information recall — the ability to retain information that is shared to help guide further questioning
- Confidentiality — the ability to respect clients and the information they share with you
- Record keeping — the ability to keep detailed client records and relevant paperwork
Other soft skills include patience, confidence, empathy, and recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion. Your clients will come from all walks of life, and you must be accepting of each one and their unique background, identification, and expression.
Job Outlook and the Future
The career outlook for the CMHC is promising. As stated above, there is a tremendous demand for mental health counselors.
Career Prospects and Salary
The BLS reports an impressive eighteen percent increase in jobs through 2032 — much higher than the average three percent for all occupations.
Nationally, mental health counselors earned a median annual wage of $49,710 in 2022. The lowest ten percent earned less, and the highest ten percent earned more than $82,710.
The top-paying industries for mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorder counselors are:
|Business, professional, labor, political, $80,680 and similar organizations
|Agencies, brokerages, and other $77,710 insurance-related activities
Future Opportunities and Trends
Thanks to celebrities, public figures, and the media, discussing mental health issues openly and honestly has helped reduce the stigma of mental illness. In fact, in a poll by the American Psychiatric Association, one-quarter of Americans resolved to improve their mental health in January 2022.
PsychCentral reported eight mental health trends to watch:
- Trauma-informed care
- Blood tests for mental illness
- Advancements in psychedelic research
- Healthy boundaries for social media
- AI in clinical settings
- Telehealth services
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
- Virtual reality for chronic pain
These and other trends in the care and treatment of mental illness allow you to seek new and innovative ways to help your clients and improve the overall well-being of your community.
Education and Training
Clinical mental health counselors come to the profession from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, but they share a common desire to help and support others achieve wellness.
If you’re ready to start your journey to become a mental health counselor, the first step is to find a reputable postgraduate program in clinical mental health counseling. Whether online or on campus, these programs typically take several years to complete and require supervised fieldwork to gain hands-on clinical experience.
After graduating, you’ll need to pass your state licensing exam and apply for licensure to practice.
American International College
American International College (AIC) is a trusted and recognized institution with a longstanding history of making quality education accessible for all people from diverse backgrounds.
AIC offers two online pathways to becoming a licensed mental health counselor, which provide an online learning experience coupled with supervised fieldwork near you. Fieldwork placement services are provided at no extra cost, saving you time and money.
If you have a bachelor’s degree in any field, AIC’s online MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling might be right for you. This flexible program is designed for working professionals and can be completed on a part-time or full-time basis.
If you have a master’s degree in psychology or a closely related field and are ready to advance your career by achieving the highest level in counseling and academia, AIC’s EdD in Mental Health Counseling might be the right pathway. Designed for working professionals, this program can be completed on a part-time or full-time basis.