Mental Health Counselor Salary and Career Outlook

Mental health is a growing area of focus in the healthcare field. Peoples’ mental and emotional needs are widely recognized as an essential part of the diagnostic, therapeutic, and healing processes. As such, the need for mental health professionals continues to grow.

There are a number of different points of entry into careers in counseling. Therefore, pursuing a career in the mental health field depends on where you live, where you work, and your educational background.

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Mental Health Counselor Careers

A variety of specializations fit under the umbrella of mental health counseling. Each has its own educational and licensing requirements (some which vary by state). The salary potential and work environments also vary for mental health counselor careers.

Mental Health Counselors in Hospitals

Mental health counselors are quickly becoming an essential part of hospital patient care. Counselors work in both inpatient and outpatient capacities to help patients with psychological issues, rehabilitation from a procedure, or behavioral changes. Counselors are often called upon to support patients’ family members through struggles such as lifestyle changes or grief.

Most hospitals require counselors to hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree is often preferred.

Mental Health Counselors in Residential and Substance Abuse Facilities

Sometimes referred to as addiction counselors, these professionals help clients cope with addiction as well as the underlying causes and triggers of addictive behavior. Substance abuse counselors work in either inpatient or outpatient settings and some focus on specific demographics (like veterans, minors, or elderly adults) and/or patients receiving compulsory interventions.

Another critical component of substance abuse counseling is providing care for patients’ families, friends, and coworkers. Cultivating a personal support network is crucial for recovery.

In some states, it is possible to serve as a substance abuse counselor with a high school diploma and a state-issued license. However, positions with the highest pay and professional authority require a bachelor’s degree and/or a master’s degree.

Mental Health Counselors for Individual and Family Services

When most people think of mental health professionals they think of the archetypal psychiatrists – counselors with clipboards and pens jotting notes as patients share their concerns. While psychiatry is certainly a lucrative career in and of itself, it requires a doctoral degree and all the residency and educational time investments that go with it.

In actuality, it is possible to offer this style of mental health care to patients without an MD degree. Many states offer licenses for mental health care practice that can be obtained after completing a relevant bachelor’s and/or master’s degree program.

Mental health counselors specializing in individual and/or family services work in public or private settings and help patients work through issues including (but not limited to):

  • Relationship/marriage issues
  • Social conflicts
  • Anxieties
  • Abuse
  • School concerns
  • Career struggles
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Destructive decisions
  • Unhealthy dependencies
  • Grief

How Much do Mental Health Counselors Make?

The median annual mental health counselor salary was $44,630. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s figures from May 2018, the top 10% earners in mental health counseling careers had a median annual salary of over $72,990. The lowest 10% earned less than $28,240 a year.

However, mental health counselor salaries vary based on a number of factors:

  • Education – Higher-level degrees usually correlate with higher earning potential and mental health counselor salaries are no exception. The highest paying positions are typically reserved for those with post-secondary and/or graduate-level degrees in mental health counseling.
  • Specialization – The median pay varies depending upon the counselor’s field. For example, careers in school counseling and family counseling tend to have higher earning potential than careers in rehabilitation counseling. Psychiatrists and other associated careers requiring a master’s degree in psychology are among the highest paying in mental health care.
  • Experience – Employers are willing to pay more for professionals with longer tenures in their area of expertise. Many mental health counselor vocations have higher than average burnout rates due to the intensity of the work; while burnout can happen at any point of a career, many employers will pay a premium for mental health professionals who have achieved a combination of success and longevity in the field. Similarly, private practitioners can command higher salaries based on their work history.
  • Industry – There is a notable discrepancy in the median counselor salary figures depending on where counselors are employed. Here’s a breakdown of median mental health counseling salaries  as of May 2018:
EmployerMedian Salary
Hospitals; state, local, and private
Individual and family services
Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities

Job Outlook for Mental Health Counselors

Employment is expected to grow 23% from 2016 to 2026. The combination of increased public awareness surrounding mental health and a high rate of occupational burnout will keep demand for careers in counseling high.

Most master’s degree programs for mental health counseling include the state licensure requirements in specializations like substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling. Therefore, entering the field with a comprehensive mental health education background will likely increase employment opportunities and earning potential.