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Mental Health Counselors Salary & Career Outlook

Mental health counselors use a variety of skills and techniques to evaluate, assess and treat people with emotional, behavior and substance-abuse problems. Mental health counselors are well-trained professionals -- every state requires practitioners to hold at least a master's degree. Typically, they listen to their client's issues in private or group settings and use different counseling methods and psychotherapy to help them advance their mental health, interpersonal relationships, careers and other aspects of their lives, including crisis prevention. Mental health counselors may work in private clinical settings, substance abuse centers or state-run mental health facilities.

Mental health counselor salaries

Mental health counselors earned a national median annual salary of $39,190 in 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, bls.gov, 2012) reports. Mental health counselors in the bottom 10 percent earned under $25,000 annually, while the upper 10 percent took home up to $65,660.

Mental health counselor salaries depend on several factors including field of work, geographical location, education and experience. The following industries paid the highest mean salaries nationally in 2011, according to the BLS:

  • Insurance carriers: $62,100 mean
  • State government: $55,990 mean
  • Facilities support: $52,580 mean

The states with the highest mean wages for mental health counselors in 2011 were as follows, according to the BLS:

  • Alaska: $55,080 mean
  • Nevada: $51,640 mean
  • Arkansas: $51,150 mean

While the cost of living in Alaska (#46) is higher than average, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (using ACCRA statistics), Nevada (#18) and Arkansas (#4) rank among the top 20 states for cost-of-living affordability.

Mental health counselor schools and training

In addition to holding a master's degree in counseling, mental health counselors also must be licensed in the state in which they practice. Counseling programs are designed to provide students with the skills necessary to recognize the often complicated symptoms of emotional and mental disorders and the means and strategies with which to help their clients find resolution to their issues.

Licensure requires between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, according to the BLS, as well as successful completion of a state-recognized test and continuing education in the field. Licensure is done through the National Board of Certified Counselors.

Mental health counselor job outlook

Employment for licensed counselors is projected to grow by as many as 43,600 new jobs, or 37 percent, from 2010 through 2020, the BLS reports. The sharp rise in expected employment stems from two factors:

  1. Recognizing the need for a more healthy workforce, some employers may be making the services of mental health counselors available through company insurance rather than sometimes-more-costly sessions with psychologists and psychiatrists.
  2. Society seems to be getting past the stigma of seeking help with mental and emotions issues and may be turning in growing numbers to counselors.

The largest spike in employment is projected to be in individual and family services, followed by residential and substance abuse facilities and outpatient centers.