Becoming a Mental Health Therapist: Job Description & Salary Info

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A mental health therapist's mean annual salary is $44,000. Is it worth the education and licensure requirements? Get the truth about the job duties and career prospects to decide if becoming a mental health therapist is the right career for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Mental Health Therapist Career

Mental health therapists work with clients who are dealing with a range of emotional or psychological conditions. Be sure to consider all of the positive and negative aspects of this career.

Pros of a Mental Health Therapist Career
Strong job growth (29% increase in 2012-2022)*
Great job prospects in rural and underserved areas*
Multiple specializations or focus areas*
Variety of daily activities*

Cons of a Mental Health Therapist Career
Graduate school required for most jobs*
Potentially high-stress job**
Irregular working hours possible**
Extensive licensure requirements*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **MHA Health Careers Center.

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Depression, grief, stress management, relationships, trauma - these are some of the issues that mental health therapists help clients deal with on a daily basis. They're trained to use evidence-based counseling methods to help clients - including both individuals and groups - work through psychological disorders and challenging life events. The job can also entail community efforts to educate and spread awareness about mental health.

Some therapists, also known as mental health counselors, work in hospitals or outpatient facilities offering psychological services. Others work for government agencies, community organizations or residential facilities. Your work setting largely depends on your specialty area. For example, mental health therapists can focus on the elderly and aging in a nursing or retirement facility, or they could opt to provide services for individuals dealing with substance abuse problems in an outpatient care center. While some offer community outreach for local health organizations, others provide these services in clinical settings, like hospitals.

Salary and Career Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for mental health therapists was $44,000 in 2014 (www.bls.gov). Over half of these professionals worked at outpatient care centers, individual and family service organizations, and mental health and substance abuse institutions. However, other places you could work include government agencies, private practice and hospitals.

The BLS expected nearly 37,000 new jobs for mental health counselors from 2012-2022, the most growth of all counseling specialties. Factors that could attribute to this growth included a growing number of individuals and families who were willing to take advantage of mental health services as well as increased coverage by health insurance companies for the services these therapists offer. They typically come at a lower price tag in comparison to other mental health professionals' services, such as psychiatrists.

Career Skills and Requirements

Education and Licensing

A master's degree in mental health counseling is the typical educational requirement for employment in this field, according to the BLS. Coursework in these graduate programs focuses on mental illness, psychological assessments, ethical and legal issues, treatment planning and theories of counseling. You might also develop knowledge and skills related to different areas of counseling, such as family therapy or community counseling. You'll be able to practice what you've learned through supervised counseling practicums and internships that are commonly included in the curricula.

Beyond the education requirements, you're likely going to need to obtain a state license to practice. While specifics vary, typical requirements include a master's degree in counseling and significant supervised work experience. Once you meet your state's academic and experience requirements, you'll need to pass an examination to qualify for licensure.

Useful Skills

As important as proper training is in this career, you'll also need to have certain personal attributes to be successful as a mental health therapist. Strong communication skills are essential; you'll not only need to be able to communicate verbally and non-verbally with your clients, you could also have to collaborate with other health care professionals, such as psychiatrists, social workers or physicians. Developing and maintaining client files and keeping them confidential is also an important part of the job. You'll need to be emotionally stable, since you may be dealing with clients with severe disorders and problems that require sensitivity and dedication.

What Do Employers Look For?

Because states regulate mental health therapists, employers look for candidates who have master's degrees and state licensure. Having work experience, particularly in the employer's mental health specialty, can also be important. Below is a sampling of March 2012 job postings that provide some insight into what prospective employers were looking for in a therapist or counselor.

  • A residential facility for at-risk youth in Ohio advertised for a mental health therapist to provide counseling services to both adolescents and their families. In addition to a dedication to children, the employer stressed that the therapist must have experience or training in adolescent, family and substance abuse counseling.
  • A health and wellness company sought a licensed professional counselor to work in its Atlanta outpatient clinic. The successful candidate would provide individual and group therapy services to clients dealing with mental health disorders, addictions, relationship problems and lifestyle changes as well as vocational and educational issues. The employer expected experience in a variety of counseling areas and a willingness to engage in community outreach efforts.
  • A community mental health and substance abuse organization in Wyoming posted a job opening for an adolescent and family therapist. The position required evening hours and some travel. In addition to standard education and licensure requirements, the employer wanted a therapist with computer proficiency.

How to Maximize Your Skills

Certification and Specialization

Since nearly all mental health therapists must be licensed, it could take more than meeting the typical education and experience requirements to help you stand out to employers. The National Board for Certified Counselors stated that counseling professionals benefited from earning a credential. Obtaining voluntary certification lets prospective employers know that you have knowledge and the skills in counseling or a specialty. The organization offers a certification program in general counseling in addition to specialty credentials for clinical mental health and addictions counselors.

Employers often look for candidates who have experience in a particular type of counseling, such as working with clients dealing with substance abuse. Gaining targeted work experience in an area you're most interested in pursuing could help you gain an edge over the competition.

Organizational Memberships

According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), membership in a professional organization can demonstrate your integrity and professionalism to employers and clients. By joining the AMHCA or other professional groups, you represent the standards of conduct and practice observed by the organization. In addition, you could receive benefits that can enhance your own practice, such as continuing education, networking, referral and career services.

Other Careers to Consider

School Counselor

Not so keen on the work environment of mental health therapists but still want to be in the counseling field? Consider working as a school counselor. Like those working in mental health, school counselors need a master's degree and licensure in their states. Their focus is on assessing and helping students with their academic, career and personal goals. The BLS predicted a 14% job growth from 2008-2018, which is lower than that of mental health therapists. However, school counselors tend to earn more, with an average salary of over $56,000 in 2011.

Social Worker

Becoming as a social worker, on the other hand, is an option that allows you to work with people by helping to find additional services for problems, such as housing, relationship issues or unemployment. As a social worker, you can find work in the same settings as mental health therapists. You could also find specialization options in such areas as child and family, school, elderly and healthcare social work. The job usually requires a master's degree and state licensure. Also similar to the mental health therapy field, job growth was expected to be around 20% for social workers, and the average salary ranged from about $43,000-$54,000, depending on your specialty.

Psychologist

If you'd like to earn a higher paycheck, you might want to look into becoming a psychologist. The BLS reported that clinical, counseling and school psychologists averaged over $73,000 in 2011. However, you could need a doctoral degree, and only a 12% growth in jobs was expected for the field. Psychologists usually participate in quite a bit more research than therapists and counselors, though they can still work with individual patients.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Ph.D. in General Psychology - Performance Psychology
      • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
    Master's
      • M.S. in Professional Counseling with an Emphasis in Trauma
      • MS in Professional Counseling
      • M.S. in Mental Health and Wellness with Emphasis in Grief and Bereavement
      • M.S. in Mental Health and Wellness with Emphasis in Prevention
      • Master in Christian Counseling
      • Master in Christian Counseling of Substance Use & Addictive Disorders
    Bachelor's
      • BS in Counseling - Addiction, Chemical Dependency, and Substance Abuse
      • BS in Health Care Administration
      • BS in Health Sciences: Professional Development & Advanced Patient Care
      • Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Science
    Certificate
      • Graduate Certificate of Completion in Life Coaching
      • Graduate Certificate of Completion in Mental Health and Wellness Emphasis in Community Health Administration
      • Graduate Certificate of Completion in Forensic Psychology
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Regent University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership - Coaching and Mentoring
      • Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling
      • Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership - Healthcare Management
      • Master of Business Administration - Healthcare Management
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Science in Psychology - Clinical and Counseling Psychology
      • Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Management
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD in Psychology - Mental Health Policy and Practice
      • Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology - Trauma and Disaster Relief
      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Therapy with Military Families
      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - General
      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Couple Therapy
      • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Medical Family Therapy
    Master's
      • M.A. in Marriage & Family Therapy
      • Master of Arts in Marriage & Family Therapy (MAMFT)
      • Master of Science in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
      • Master of Science in Forensic Psychology
  • Online Programs Available
    4. University of the Rockies

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MA Counseling - Clinical Mental Health Counseling
      • M.A. in Human Services - Mental Health Admin
      • MA Counseling
      • MA Counseling - Addiction Counseling
      • MA Counseling - Marriage, Couples, and Family Counseling
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Health Admin
      • MS Criminal Justice with Behavior Analysis Specialization
  • Online Programs Available
    6. University of the Southwest

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MSEd - Mental Health Counseling
      • MBA - Healthcare Management
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Penn Foster Career School

    Program Options

    Certificate
      • Career Diploma - Guest Service Agent
      • Career Diploma - Home Health Aide
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Herzing University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Project Management
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Colorado Technical University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Management - Health Care Management and Leadership
    Master's
      • MS - Healthcare Management
      • Master of Science in Management - Healthcare Management
    Bachelor's
      • BS - Business Administration - Health Care Management
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Trident University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Health Sciences (Ph.D. HS)
    Master's
      • Master's - Health Sciences
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor's - Health Sciences

Featured Schools

Grand Canyon University

  • Ph.D. in General Psychology - Performance Psychology
  • M.S. in Professional Counseling with an Emphasis in Trauma
  • BS in Counseling - Addiction, Chemical Dependency, and Substance Abuse
  • Graduate Certificate of Completion in Life Coaching

What is your highest level of education?

Regent University

  • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
  • Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership - Coaching and Mentoring
  • Bachelor of Science in Psychology - Clinical and Counseling Psychology

What is your highest level of education completed?

Northcentral University

  • PhD in Psychology - Mental Health Policy and Practice
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology - Trauma and Disaster Relief
  • M.A. in Marriage & Family Therapy
  • Master of Arts in Marriage & Family Therapy (MAMFT)

What is your highest level of education?

University of the Rockies

  • MA Counseling - Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • M.A. in Human Services - Mental Health Admin
  • MA Counseling

What is your highest level of education?

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS - Health Admin
  • MS Criminal Justice with Behavior Analysis Specialization

What is your highest level of education completed?

University of the Southwest

  • MSEd - Mental Health Counseling
  • MBA - Healthcare Management

What is your highest level of education?

Penn Foster Career School

  • Career Diploma - Guest Service Agent
  • Career Diploma - Home Health Aide

What is your highest level of education?

Herzing University

  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Project Management

What is your highest level of education?