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Mental Health Counselors

At a Glance

  • Often specialize in treating certain types of clients
  • Work in a variety of places
  • Have a master's degree
  • Have a license or certification
  • Usually work 40 hours a week

Career summary

Mental health counselors help people manage or overcome a range of mental illnesses and emotional problems.

Mental health counselors treat a wide range of conditions. This includes:

People with mental health problems often suffer emotionally, physically, and economically. Mental health counselors help these people identify their problems and find ways to lead normal, healthy lives.

Mental health counselors help their clients and patients develop skills and strategies for dealing with their problems. They work with individuals and groups. They may help families learn how to deal with the emotional and social effects of mental illnesses. Counselors teach family members how to provide support for the patient and for themselves.

Mental health counselors review records and interview clients. They may speak with doctors, family members, police, and other counselors to determine the client's condition and situation. They may also observe the client.

Counselors and patients develop a therapy plan for recovery together.

Counselors may refer patients to support services such as medical evaluation and treatment, social services, and employment services. They often refer family members to community programs and support groups. They follow the patient's progress and may revise the therapy plan as needed. If the patient is on medication they monitor how the medication is working.

Counselors regularly document patient progress and treatment. They prepare and maintain written records and case files, making sure everything is confidential.

Mental health counselors speak to groups concerned with mental health issues. They may prepare documents for presentation in court and accompany clients to legal proceedings. They often help clients and patients during times of crisis.

Related careers

This career is part of the Human Services cluster of careers.

Related careers include:

Military careers

Job duties

Task list

The following list of tasks is specific to mental health counselors.

Common work activities

Mental health counselors perform the following tasks. These tasks are common to many careers.

Work requirements

Working conditions

In a typical work setting, mental health counselors:

Interpersonal relationships

Physical work conditions

Work performance


Physical demands

Mental health counselors frequently:

It is important for mental health counselors to be able to:

It is not as important, but still necessary, for mental health counselors to be able to:

Skills and abilities

Mental health counselors need to:


Reason and problem solve

Use math and science

Manage oneself, people, time, and things

Work with people

Work with things

Education and training

Educational programs

The programs of study listed below will help you prepare for the occupation or career cluster you are exploring.

Programs of study directly related to this occupation

Other programs of study to consider


To work as a mental health counselor, you typically need to:

Education after high school

You must have a master's degree in mental health counseling or social work to work in this field. Several colleges and universities offer graduate programs in these fields. For your bachelor's degree, you should take courses in social work, psychology, sociology, and statistics. Majoring in one of these fields, especially psychology, is a good idea.

In mental health counseling and some social work programs, you take courses in therapy techniques, human psychological development, social research methods, and statistics. You also learn how to counsel individuals and groups and how to identify specific mental disorders. Master's degree programs take two years to complete. These programs typically require a period of supervised experience, such as an internship.

Work experience

Part-time or volunteer work at a social service agency is good background for this occupation.

On-the-job training

Employers often provide training to new mental health counselors. You often work with an experienced counselor for a period of time before receiving your own caseload. You learn agency procedures, forms, and patient management. Training may last up to six months.

Military training

The military trains people to work as caseworkers and counselors. This training lasts from eight to ten weeks. Further training occurs on the job and through advanced courses.

Helpful high school courses

In high school, take classes that prepare you for college. A college preparatory curriculum may be different from your state's graduation requirements.

You should also consider taking some advanced courses in high school. This includes Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses if they are available in your school. If you do well in these courses, you may receive college credit for them. Advanced courses can also strengthen your college application.

Helpful electives to take in high school that prepare you for this career include:

The courses listed above are meant to help you create your high school plan. If you have not already done so, talk to a school counselor or parent about the courses you are considering taking.

You should also check with a teacher or counselor to see if work-based learning opportunities are available in your school and community. These might include field trips, job shadowing, internships, and actual work experience. The goal of these activities is to help you connect your school experiences with real-life work.

Join some groups, try some hobbies, or volunteer with an organization that interests you. By participating in activities you can have fun, make new friends, and learn about yourself. Maybe one of them will help direct you to a future career. Here are examples of activities and groups that may be available in your high school or community.

Things to know

Internships and volunteer work are good ways to get experience. Some employers hire graduates who completed internships in their agency. Employers also look for people who are dedicated and have excellent communication skills.


People interested in becoming mental health counselors can get related experience in many ways. Volunteering at agencies to work with all types of people, working as camp counselors, attending human relations workshops, and developing listening and other communication skills all provide valuable experience. Innovative people are creating their own jobs by expanding counseling to new areas such as, dealing with death and dying in hospitals, or working in industry and crisis centers. Because this can be a stressful occupation, counselor applicants should be stable in their personal life. It is recommended that counselors find a mentor or professional supervisor to whom they can turn to at all times.

Costs to workers

Some workers join professional associations, which may have annual dues.

#modified and combined state and national narrative 2/8/16 lh


Mental health counselors must be licensed by the State of Washington.

Counselors begin as associates and must have a master's degree or doctorate in mental health counseling or behavioral science, or equivalent from an approved school.

For full counselor licensing they must meet the following requirements:

Contact the National Board for Certified Counselors for exam information.

For more information on requirements and fees, contact:

Washington State Department of Health
Health Systems Quality Assurance
Mental Health Program (external link)


Job listings

Listed below are links to job categories from the National Labor Exchange that relate to this career. Once you get a list of jobs, you can view information about individual jobs and find out how to apply. If your job search finds too many openings, or if you wish to search for jobs outside of Washington, you will need to refine your search.

To get a listing of current jobs from the WorkSource system, go to the WorkSource website (external link).


Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors (SOC 21-1018)

Pay Period
Washington Hourly $15.18 $17.61 $21.60 $27.15 $34.66
Monthly $2,631 $3,052 $3,743 $4,705 $6,007
Yearly $31,570 $36,620 $44,930 $56,480 $72,090
    Bellingham Hourly $13.23 $14.95 $25.69 $29.84 $33.95
Monthly $2,293 $2,591 $4,452 $5,171 $5,884
Yearly $27,517 $31,096 $53,443 $62,059 $70,617
    Bremerton-Silverdale Hourly $14.29 $17.40 $23.83 $29.89 $36.57
Monthly $2,476 $3,015 $4,130 $5,180 $6,338
Yearly $29,739 $36,196 $49,570 $62,175 $76,054
    Clarkston-Lewiston Hourly $23.33 $26.16 $28.91 $35.85 $72.07
Monthly $4,043 $4,534 $5,010 $6,213 $12,490
Yearly $48,532 $54,404 $60,135 $74,580 $149,916
    Kennewick-Richland Hourly $17.47 $20.50 $24.43 $29.96 $36.08
Monthly $3,028 $3,553 $4,234 $5,192 $6,253
Yearly $36,337 $42,651 $50,818 $62,317 $75,039
    Longview Hourly $15.26 $18.38 $22.87 $29.16 $36.48
Monthly $2,645 $3,185 $3,963 $5,053 $6,322
Yearly $31,752 $38,239 $47,579 $60,644 $75,879
    Mount Vernon-Anacortes Hourly $18.28 $21.52 $25.22 $29.24 $32.13
Monthly $3,168 $3,729 $4,371 $5,067 $5,568
Yearly $38,030 $44,764 $52,463 $60,812 $66,830
    Olympia-Tumwater Hourly $15.63 $17.86 $23.29 $30.05 $35.60
Monthly $2,709 $3,095 $4,036 $5,208 $6,169
Yearly $32,496 $37,139 $48,435 $62,512 $74,037
    Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Hourly $15.61 $17.96 $21.71 $26.28 $34.74
Monthly $2,705 $3,112 $3,762 $4,554 $6,020
Yearly $32,462 $37,352 $45,150 $54,653 $72,269
    Spokane-Spokane Valley Hourly $15.16 $17.44 $20.85 $26.06 $32.53
Monthly $2,627 $3,022 $3,613 $4,516 $5,637
Yearly $31,537 $36,264 $43,355 $54,196 $67,656
    Vancouver Hourly $18.22 $21.50 $27.84 $39.95 $49.13
Monthly $3,158 $3,726 $4,825 $6,923 $8,514
Yearly $37,899 $44,723 $57,899 $83,094 $102,185
    Walla Walla Hourly $15.72 $18.18 $21.48 $24.45 $28.56
Monthly $2,724 $3,151 $3,722 $4,237 $4,949
Yearly $32,704 $37,807 $44,684 $50,858 $59,394
    Wenatchee Hourly $14.65 $17.50 $23.76 $33.48 $37.05
Monthly $2,539 $3,033 $4,118 $5,802 $6,421
Yearly $30,481 $36,403 $49,403 $69,637 $77,067
    Yakima Hourly $14.55 $16.40 $18.86 $27.45 $33.52
Monthly $2,522 $2,842 $3,268 $4,757 $5,809
Yearly $30,258 $34,118 $39,233 $57,098 $69,731
United States Hourly $13.58 $16.80 $21.46 $27.68 $35.09
Monthly $2,353 $2,911 $3,719 $4,797 $6,081
Yearly $28,240 $34,950 $44,630 $57,580 $72,990

Wages vary by employer and area of the country. The counselor's level of experience also affects wages.

Counselors who work full time usually receive benefits. Typical benefits include sick leave, paid vacation, and health insurance. Some employers also provide a retirement plan.

Employment and outlook

Washington outlook

The table below provides information about the number of workers in this career in various regions. It also provides information about the expected growth rate and future job openings.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors (SOC 21-1018)

Location Current employment Growth over 10 years Annual openings
United States 304,500 22.5% 5.2% 41,500

National employment

Major employers:

National outlook

Demand for this occupation will grow significantly. New health care regulations require coverage for mental health counseling. Employment of mental health counselors will grow as the public becomes more comfortable seeking professional help for personal and family problems.

Job opportunities are excellent, especially in rural and other underserved areas.

Other resources

American Counseling Association (external link)
6101 Stevenson Avenue, Suite 600
Alexandria, VA 22304
American Mental Health Counselors Association (external link)
107 S. West St.
Suite 779
Alexandria, VA 22314
How Can I Become a Certified Peer Counselor? (external link) (PDF file)
International Association of Peer Supporters (external link)
PO Box 775
Norton, MA 02766


Career cluster

Career path

O*Net (external link) occupation

O*Net job zone (external link)

DOT occupation

Holland occupational cluster