Career as a Mental Health Counselor

Getting a Job as a Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counseling is a rapidly-growing field, and one with much potential to find a niche.

A job-seeker's background, experience, and prior employment can all offer ways to stand out among other practitioners. Nothing beats proactivity.

Consider the experience of Duane K. L. France, a clinical mental health counselor in Colorado: “I recognized that I had a unique opportunity to serve a significantly underserved population," he told ValuePenguin. "Many veterans hesitate to seek out mental health treatment, and when they do, are frustrated that they need to explain their military experiences to someone who doesn’t understand what they went through. While some very skilled counselors can get over this resistance, the fact that I am a combat veteran myself provides a significant shortcut through that resistance.”

For those of us without an inherent connection to a potential population of clients, here is our guide to finding employment in the field.

The Application

No employer or position is the same, but most in this field will want to see the following materials as part of your portfolio.

a resume or curriculum vitae that includes contact information, employment and education history, volunteer experience, awards and publications
letter of interest (plus a special statement, if requested. e.g., a statement on your understanding of and experience working with and promoting diversity)
a copy of a current state license
membership of a state or regional or special interest association
letters of reference from previous employers and colleagues
proof of additional training, such as a specialty in HIV/AIDS, child abuse prevention, participation in the Drug and Alcohol Program
written verification from the National Board for Certified Counselors of passing the NCE or NCMHCE examination

The Interview

Once your portfolio has been pieced together, the next step is preparing for interview questions that you might encounter. We pulled the most salient questions asked of mental health counselor applicants, according to What would your answers be?

How do you feel about restraining patients?What would you do with a suicidal client?
How will your experience help you work with eating disorder patients?What counseling theories do you align with?
What methods of counseling do you use?

Job Boards for Counselors

Beyond making your own connections -- and leveraging your graduate program's -- putting in your application online is the most common way to go. Here are some additional best job boards for mental health counselors.

Where to Be a Mental Health Counselor

Here at ValuePenguin, we have multiple definitions for the word "place." Where you work can refer to your environment, your city and your state. With that said, here are our best places for MHCs to live and work.

Areas of Practice

Only 9% of mental health counselors work for state and local governments (which doesn't include schools and hospitals). They're among the best paid, earning a median annual salary of $51,380. The 11% of mental health counselors who work in hospitals, for comparison, earn $45,870 on average.

"Talk to as many counselors in as many settings as you can. Counseling is a broad field that includes specialties, such as crisis counseling, substance abuse counseling, vocational counseling, grief counseling, life coaching and dozens of other niche markets."

Nicki Nance, Ph.D., LMHC

Capella University, 2011

Best Cities

At ValuePenguin, we classify the best cities for professionals as those that score well in metrics that all mental health counselors care about: number of jobs, median salary, cost of living and location quotient.

Of the 276 cities reporting enough data, we ranked the top 100. We also asked mental health counselors about what it's like to work in their cities. Click on the red checkpoints to see what they said.

See Top 100 Cities for MHCs

Best States

Look to the the Bureau of Labor Statistics' data for advisement on the state level. For every profession, the BLS breaks down the following.

States with Highest Employment of MH Counselors


States with Highest per Capita Employment


States with Highest Annual Average Salary


Q&A: Mental Health Counselor for the Military

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can dispense medication. And a psychologist has earned a Ph.D. and often works in the abstract. But what about the mental health counselor? "We generally have a 60-credit master's degree, which is equivalent to two years of graduate school," Suzanne L. Walker, now the president-elect of the American Mental Health Counselor Association, told ValuePenguin. "We don’t prescribe medications, but we are licensed to be able to diagnose, evaluate, and treat the A-to-Z of compendium of mental health issues: substance abuse, to depression, to providing testing and assessments."

Walker is a walking, talking example of this, having counseled children, families, even juvenile sex offenders in six states and as far away as Korea. She took a break from her work at Fort Bragg, N.C., where she is working with U.S. military members suffering from addiction issues and co-occurring disorders, to teach us about the career of counselors and their special role in the armed forces.

  • What is the nature of your work now?

    I'm a counseling psychologist for the army and work with addictions and co-occurring disorders. Primarily it’s soldiers, because I’m in an army installation –- that’s how they refer to army people, as soldiers, male or female. I do a screening and assessment. The screening is kind of the preliminary, and then the assessment part is to look at what level of impairment they may be having, and if it’s caused by substances. Sometimes it’s pretty clear; it’s soldiers telling you they’re shooting up heroin, that’s not hard to figure that one out. We have ones that have been deployed three or four times, and they may have been in for 15 years, and have a wife and kids, and they’re having trouble sleeping, so they start drinking… and drink a little bit more, and a little bit more… and then before you know it, they’re drinking way too much. We kind of run the gamut. The biggest problem we see here is usually alcohol. That’s probably throughout the military; all the different branches, the biggest problem is alcohol. It’s a career-stopper for a lot of them, if they get a DUI, because that’s considered a misconduct. If it’s an off-post DUI, it’s a little bit different: they let the civilian authorities handle it. But if it happens on post, it’s even worse.

  • How do you combat something like alcoholism?

    We have to determine if the soldiers need medical attention because there are several substances that are very dangerous to come off of. Alcohol and benzodiazepine can kill you if you are physiologically addicted to them, and you suddenly stop using them, so we have to get medical attention. But if they’re not at that level, what we usually do is get them hooked up with a residential program. If command concurs with it, and it’s medically necessary, we’ll get them 30 days of inpatient -- not quite what the Hollywood celebs get, nothing overlooking Pebble Beach or anything like that. They come back, and most of the facilities we use are now military facilities, because of the stringent budget measures that are in place. There are naval places that we use down in Florida, Virginia and Georgia.

    For the most part, when a person wants help it makes a big difference. There’s a paradigm that’s called motivational interviewing, and there’s another called stages of change that we use that helps people; it's used in obesity, or any kind of chronic illness, even with people stopping cigarette smoking. It’s a change model. When somebody wants to do something different, you meet them where they’re at, and develop a plan for how they’re going to make some changes in their life. We also work with soldiers that have some very bad PTSD. They can be severely stressed, to the point that they’re actually suffering from depression, and have to be on some short-term medications. So we work concurrently with what we call the behavioral health people.

  • Are men and women in the military more or less willing to work with you, trust you, and engage in the counseling process?

    I would say more. Most service members, for the most part, are very proactive people. There’s a lot of pride they take in what they do; their reputation; their level of functioning; their overall sense of personal competence.

    It is difficult for them to ask for help. So I always try to focus on congratulating them to have the courage and the wisdom to ask for help, that they’re taking care of their business. Because asking for help is very, very difficult, regardless of who you are. Going and sitting in front of somebody that you don’t know and being asked to bare your soul, that’s not easy.

    With the military work that we do, they have to keep coming until it’s been determined that they’ve made sufficient changes. What happens is command gives them that time to come for treatment. It’s kind of like an opportunity, a privilege. What command wants is to have the soldier restored to a higher level of functioning, so they can go back and be deployable. A lot of times when they’re having difficulties, they get singled out; it’s not necessarily a high-risk list, but they do look at risk factors. If the soldiers have certain risk factors, they’re considered non-deployable. So what they want -- and need -- is as many deployable individuals as possible.

  • How does working with the military compare to working with civilians?

    The main thing to understand is that the army is not a democracy. It operates and defends a democracy. Even though you are defending a democracy and you do have rights, there is a command structure that operates that tells you when you have to be at work. In the civilian world, you could not show up for your work, and you may or may not have your job. In the military, if you don’t show up for work, you can have UCMJ, which is Uniform Code Military Justice; you can have charges brought up against you. A lot of people who are unfamiliar with a military installation like Fort Bragg might say, “The sergeant is just being mean,” and I would tell them, “No, they’re not being mean. They’re trying to get them mission-ready.”

    There's another difference: In the civilian world, if somebody threatens to kill somebody, depending on the state you’re in, most states have a duty to warn, to let somebody know. But in the civilian world, if you commit a criminal act -- like say you’re selling weed out of your house -- I have no duty, as a licensed professional, to report that to the police. It’s kind of like attorney-client privilege, where there’s no need to. There’s no danger to anybody; it’s just a criminal act. In the military, that changes, where if they are engaging in something criminal, we have to report that to command. I’ll give you an example: I had one soldier that was using opioids and was also trafficking in opioids. Generally, in the civilian sector, you wouldn’t be reporting that to anybody, just because they’re trafficking. But I had to report that to his command, that he was engaging in narcotics trafficking. It doesn’t mean we’re not complying with our license ethics, but there are some subtle differences that operate when you work on a military installation that don’t necessarily apply in the civilian sector.

Read the full @VP_Careers Q&A here.

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