Where Does a Mental Health Counselor Work?
There is an urgent need for mental health counselors throughout the United States. Mental Health America (MHA) concluded in a 2023 report that 152 million Americans lived in communities without consistent mental health services. People of all ages need compassionate and qualified counselors to guide them toward healthier lives.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates an additional 77,500 counselors are needed by 2031. People from various professional and educational backgrounds pursue mental health counseling careers after completing graduate degrees. Before investing in a degree, it is helpful to know where mental health counselors work and what they do on a daily basis.
Understanding America’s Mental Health Needs
The demand for mental health services has grown more acute since the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing found that 56% of survey respondents sought or wanted to seek help from counselors. Seventy-six percent of participants also recognized that mental health was as important as physical health.
This broad interest in counseling services has driven demand in excess of the number of available providers. MHA calculated a 350:1 ratio of Americans to mental health providers with twenty-six states exceeding this ratio. Mental health counseling shortages aren’t restricted to a single region with states ranging from Alabama (850:1) to Idaho (440:1) struggling with shortages.
Millions of Americans are left to struggle with mental illness as they search for counseling. Twenty-eight million adults in the United States received no treatment in 2020, many due to lack of access or insurance. MHA’s 2023 report found the consequences of insufficient treatment resources including:
- 93.5% of adults with substance use disorders not receiving treatment
- 60% of youth with depression not receiving treatment
- 4.8% of adults experiencing serious thoughts of suicide
What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?
Mental health counselors identify and treat illness in patients of all ages. Public perception of counseling focuses on individual and group therapy sessions that are part of treatment. The role of the counselor in a patient’s path to wellness extends into other responsibilities including:
- Preparing and reviewing session notes for each patient
- Maintaining relationships with social services and specialists for patient referrals
- Designing discharge plans for long-term patient success
- Preparing family members of patients to support recovery
The substance of counselors’ interactions with patients depends on their approaches to counseling. Mental health counselors shape their primary approaches to counseling through graduate studies, placements, and early-career experiences. A 2021 study identified the most common styles among sampled university counselors:
- Cognitive behavioral and rational emotive behavior therapy (26.3%)
- Integrative (18.5%)
- Humanistic (11.7%)
- Mindfulness-based approaches like dialectical behavioral therapy (9.3%)
Counselors draw on personal experiences and diverse educational backgrounds as they work with patients. U.S. Census data found that 28.4% of mental health counselors earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology before receiving their graduate degrees. This means that 71.6% of counselors earned degrees in other disciplines including:
- Business (10%)
- Public Administration and Social Service (8.65%)
- Health (7.84%)
- Social Science (7.74%)
- Education (7.32%)
Who Does a Mental Health Counselor Work With?
Careers in mental health counseling develop in a variety of settings because mental health intersects with all aspects of daily life. Licensed counselors start their own practices, join private practices, or work for social service agencies. BLS data on where mental health counselors work highlight diverse workplaces for practitioners:
- Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers (19%)
- Individual and family services (15%)
- State, local, and private hospitals (10%)
- Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities (9%)
- Government agencies (8%)
There are clear patterns in the groups most frequently served by counselors based on years of national health data. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that the age group most frequently facing mental disorders is the 18-25 cohort, while the 50-64 cohort has the fewest members reporting issues. KFF’s 2022 report on mental health demographics also found that:
- White people were more likely than Black and Hispanic people to report illness
- Women reported higher rates of mental illness than men
- Men reported higher rates of substance use disorders than women
Mental health counselors frequently deal with the intersections of patient health and socioeconomic issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 21.1% of unhoused people in the United States experienced serious mental health issues. NAMI also identified 19.7% of military veterans and 9.6% of active-duty military personnel with mental illness. Counselors think beyond therapy sessions in navigating patients toward the help they need.
What Are Job Prospects for Mental Health Counselors?
The mental health counseling profession is a secure option for newcomers because of the growing need for treatment. BLS estimates a 22% growth in counseling jobs between 2021 and 2031 to keep up with demand. With 6,464 Mental Health Care Professional Shortage Areas as of 2022, there will be plenty of opportunities to help communities in need.
Mental health counseling careers cover many different job titles and licensure types. Counselors, therapists, clinicians, and other titles vary based on employer needs and clinical environment. State licensing boards also differ in their professional titles for licensed counselors with graduate degrees including:
- Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
- Licensed Mental Health Counselor
- Licensed Professional Counselor
- Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
- Licensed Professional Clinical Mental Health Counselor
A master’s degree in counseling opens doors to private practice or employment with agencies, schools, and existing practices. Counselors interested in training the next generation of mental health providers can use their master’s degrees as platforms for doctoral studies. American International College (AIC) supports all of these career paths with its graduate degree options.
Preparing for Mental Health Counselor Careers at AIC
AIC offers two 100% online graduate degree options for those seeking careers in mental health counseling. The Online MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling is designed for students with any undergraduate degree interested in counseling licensure. Students in the Online Ed.D. in Mental Health Counseling program build on previously earned master’s degrees in preparation for counseling and academic careers.
The MA program can be completed in two years of full-time study or three years and three months of part-time study. Students complete 700 hours of hands-on experience through local field placements arranged by AIC. These experiences bring to life lessons learned in a 60-credit curriculum including courses on topics like:
- Crisis Intervention and Trauma-Informed Care
- Counseling Theories, Techniques, Practice, and Consultation
- Multicultural Studies and Social Bases of Behavior
AIC’s Ed.D. in Mental Health Counseling offers part-time and full-time options requiring less time than the typical four-year doctoral degree. Doctoral candidates work with the College’s field placement team to arrange 700 practicum hours. A 66-credit curriculum prepares Ed.D. students for their next career steps with courses including:
- Racial, Multicultural, and Social Bases of Behavior
- Studies in Human Lifespan Development
- Substance Use Disorders and Addiction Counseling
Both degree options prepare students for licensed mental health counselor licensure in Massachusetts and other states. The AIC community has been an inclusive environment for a diverse student body since its founding in 1885. AIC graduates also benefit from the College’s national reputation as they advance their careers.
Find out more about how AIC can support your mental health counselor career by downloading the program guide.