Career as a Mental Health Counselor

How to Advance as a Mental Health Counselor

Longevity and success in the mental health counseling profession take three dimensions: a counselor’s relationship with clients; their relationship with the broader community and society; and their relationship with themselves.

Strategy must be defined by the needs of clients. Community involvement can build reputation and networks within a community, and can bolster the efficacy and reputation of the profession nationwide. Self-care is essential to avoid burn-out.

“I am sometimes surprised that some of my other colleagues do not take the time to blog, develop presentations for professional conferences, or pursue advocacy efforts on behalf of clients or the mental health profession," Duane K. L. France, a virtual therapy connect therapist at the Family Care Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., told ValuePenguin. "I recognize that everyone has their comfort zone, strengths and motivation; I have found it helpful to seek out mentors in the field, reach out just past my comfort zone.”

This is part of career advancement for mental health counselors: Professionals who care first about their patients must also tend to themselves. Here's how.

When it comes to "related," all is relative. In fact, the careers most connected to that of mental health counselor can be wildly different in terms of the education required, salary earned and common work activities. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are four somewhat similar jobs to keep in mind.


DegreeMedian Salary (2014)Notable
PsychologistsMaster's/Ph.D.$70,700Employment of psychologists is projected to grow 19% from 2014 to 2024.
Rehabilitation CounselorsMaster's$34,380Help people with physical, mental, developmental, and emotional disabilities maintain employment and/or live independently.
School and Career CounselorsMaster's$53,370School counselors help students develop scholastic and social skills. Career counselors may work in colleges, government agencies, career centers, and private practices.
Social and Community Service ManagersBachelor's$62,740Work for nonprofit organizations, private for-profit social service companies, and government agencies.
Social WorkersMaster's$45,500Social workers must have a bachelor’s degree, while clinical social workers must have a master’s degree, 2 years of post-master’s experience in a supervised clinical setting, and licensure.
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder CounselorsBachelor's$39,270Employment is projected to grow 22 percent from 2014 to 2024, in part spurred by increasing coverage by insurance policies.

Career Comparison: Mental Health Counselor versus Social Worker

Both mental health counselors and social workers use psychotherapy to help people in need. Both require state licensure. Professionals in either discipline may run a private practice. For some positions, either degree can qualify a practitioner; and counselors and social workers sometimes compete for the same clients. The main distinction between the two professions is that mental health counselors concentrate on the ability of an individual to cope with and navigate within challenging situations, while a social worker also focuses externally on the community and systems involved. For example, while a mental health counselor may help a client who feels overwhelmed with strategies to manage their emotions and make emotionally healthy choices, a social worker may connect that client with outside resources, or help them gain financial stability or take a leave of absence from work.

Which profession you choose is largely up to your personal preferences; whether you prefer to take a more personal or more systematic focus. But be aware of local conditions: Are there laws in your state that favor one profession over the other? Are social work programs in your area more focused on psychotherapy or on advocacy?

Three Steps to Advance

Poll: What Separates a Great Mental Health Counselor from an Average One?

Just as no two mental health counselors are identical, no two counselors are of the same caliber. What, then, is the difference between a great MHC and a so-so peer? Of course, there is no single correct answer. Here are four.

Eric Strömis (LMHC): “Counseling is a unique profession in that it requires a rare balance of art and science. A great counselor is a professional who masters the scientific basis of mental health and wellness while displaying intuitive skill in the art of creating and fostering a therapeutic alliance. Unfortunately, all too often it seems that success in this field has become tied to counselors’ marketing skills and their ability to self-promote. Instead, counselors should be able to remain focused on doing what they do best: providing quality care for their clients.”

Larry Shushansky (LICSW): “Being able to give each client who comes in what they need in terms of interaction, strategies and interventions. Giving clients what they need as opposed to working within the framework of any specific theory.”

Melanie Wells (LPC, LMFT): “An average therapist takes a rigid clinical perspective into each case, practices in isolation, and doesn’t connect well with clients. An average therapists acts with what I call ‘impersonality,' the opposite of personality. A great therapist is someone who’s sharp and can treat each case with a fresh eye while maintaining their sense of humor, using their personality in the room, connecting with clients on a real, genuine level and treating the whole thing with a degree of seriousness that befits the profession. People come to us because they’re in distress. We should take that very seriously. We should definitely not take ourselves too seriously. We work for them, not the other way around.”

Luis Maimoni (MFT Intern): “A fair amount of research has shown that one of the most important factors in creating a positive outcome is the relationship between the therapist and the client. While most of us think we get along with people fairly well, it can be challenging to create positive and trusting relationships with people who suffer depression, anxiety, anger problems, paranoia or psychosis. A great counselor creates the needed relationship, keeps the client safe, listens extremely well and provides the support needed to move the client towards his or her own goals.”

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