Serving Humanity: Careers in Mental Health

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A mental health counselor with a pen and notebook talks with a patient sitting on a couch.

Mental health counselors play an important role in helping individuals and families deal with complex emotions. For example, they may provide counseling services for someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, a child whose parents are going through a divorce or a patient who suffers from anxiety, depression or an eating disorder.

Individuals who are interested in learning more about careers in mental health should know that earning an advanced degree, such as an online Master of Arts in Counseling with a focus in Clinical Mental Health, can provide them with the skills and professional acumen to pursue jobs in this field.

What Is Mental Health Counseling?

Before exploring a possible career in mental health, it’s crucial to understand what mental health counseling is. Mental health counselors may help patients overcome difficult emotions such as anger or grief, or deal with major life changes such as the loss of a spouse or child. Others help patients who are working to overcome alcohol or drug addiction, or individuals who suffer from a behavioral disorder such as compulsive shoplifting.

Counselors work in a variety of settings, depending on the type of patients they see. Examples include hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, mental health clinics, drug rehabilitation centers and private practices. Most mental health counselors work full time, Monday through Friday, although professionals who work at inpatient facilities may need to work nights, holidays or weekends.

Why Are Careers in Mental Health Important?

A career in mental health offers an opportunity to provide compassion and support to those in need. One of the greatest benefits to those who pursue this type of career is the direct impact it can have on the lives of patients.

These careers also can make a difference at a local and global community level. The issues that mental health practitioners help tackle are widely prevalent and have a considerable impact on society.

  • The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports more than one in five (21%) adults in the United States — 52.9 million people — experienced mental illness in 2020.
  • SAMHSA also indicates that in 2020, people with mental illness had an average unemployment rate of 6.4%, compared with 5.1% for the population at large.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates about 5% of the global population, or approximately 280 million people, struggles with depression.

By providing assistance to those with mental health problems or those struggling with substance use, behavioral disorders, or marriage and family concerns, mental health professionals can address a broad range of issues that affect individuals and their communities.

Careers in Mental Health

Reflecting the nation’s growing interest in mental and behavioral health, the career outlook for the counseling field is very promising. Depending on an individual’s interests, they can pursue a variety of positions, such as mental health counselor, substance abuse counselor, college counselor, marriage and family counselor, and behavioral disorder counselor.

These in-demand careers call for competencies that an online master’s degree in counseling can provide, including:

  • Analytical skills
  • Compassion
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Listening skills

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors provide treatment to patients of all ages in a one-on-one or group setting, although some work with specific populations such as children or the elderly. They treat a variety of conditions, including stress, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that as of May 2021, the median annual salary for mental health counselors was $48,520, although earners in the top 10% reported an annual salary of more than $77,980. The BLS projects employment of mental health counselors will grow by 22% between 2021 and 2031, which is significantly faster than the average growth projected for the U.S. job market as a whole (5%).

Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors, also known as addiction counselors, focus on helping clients overcome addictions to alcohol or drugs in both individual and group settings. They work to determine how clients’ mental health impacts their addictive behaviors and then use that information to develop treatment and recovery plans.

Annual earnings for substance abuse counselors are similar to mental health counselors, with a median salary of $48,520, the BLS reports. Employment in this field is also expected to grow by 22% between 2021 and 2031. Demand for substance abuse counselors will also grow as states increasingly opt to provide treatment and counseling services — rather than jail time — to individuals struggling with addiction, according to the BLS.

College Counselor

College counselors provide advice and guidance to individuals engaged in the college admissions process. They work with clients one-on-one to help them make choices about postsecondary education, such as determining which schools are likely to be a good fit based on their size, location and the strength of their academic programs. Professionals who choose this path also help clients craft individualized admissions strategies for each school they plan to apply to.

The BLS indicates that as of May 2021, the median annual salary for school and career counselors, including college counselors, was $60,510. However, earners in the highest 10% reported salaries in excess of $98,190. The BLS projects employment of college counselors will grow by 10% between 2021 and 2031.

Marriage and Family Counselor

Careers in mental health also include marriage and family counseling roles. Marriage and family counselors work with individuals, couples and families in a private practice setting. They help clients overcome emotions associated with difficult life changes such as divorce, job loss or the death of a loved one.

As of May 2021, the median annual salary for marriage and family therapists was $49,880, according to the BLS, although earners in the top 10th percentile earned more than $96,520. Job growth in this field is forecast at 14% between  2021 and 2031. This growth will be partly driven by the increasing use of integrated care, in which a group of specialists — such as counselors — work in conjunction to treat patients with multiple problems.

Behavioral Disorder Counselor

Behavioral disorder counselors help clients identify and overcome negative behavior patterns, such as compulsive lying, shoplifting or substance abuse. They work to identify the cause of the problem — such as low self-esteem or a sudden life change — and help clients develop plans to overcome their disruptive behaviors. Behavioral disorder counselors work with individuals and groups, although some prefer to work with specific populations such as veterans or teenagers.

According to the BLS, as of May 2021 the median annual salary for behavioral disorder counselors was $48,520, with earners in the top 10% reporting salaries of more than $77,980. The BLS projects 22% job growth in this field between 2021 and 2031.

Benefits of an Online Master of Arts in Counseling

Professionals interested in advancing in their counseling careers are likely to find that earning a graduate degree can help them achieve that goal. Wake Forest University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program offers tracks in Clinical Mental Health and School Counseling. The program’s diverse curriculum includes coursework in research and statistical analysis, theories and models of counseling, lifespan development, and crisis management.

The program is designed to help graduates pursue a wide range of careers in mental health counseling. Explore how Wake Forest can help you advance your career and help those in need.

Recommended Readings

What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor? A Career Path in Clinical Mental Health

What Is Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Why Is It Important? The Importance of Counseling


Houston Chronicle, “The Role of Mental Health Counselors”

Houston Chronicle, “What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor?”

Indeed Career Guide, “How to Become a College Counselor (with FAQ)”

Mental Health America, Therapy

National Association for College Admission Counseling, Association Overview

PhysicianOne Urgent Care “The Importance of Mental Health Services”

PsychPros, “Why Is a Career in Behavioral Health So Extremely Rewarding?”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Detailed Tables

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors and Advisors

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Verywell Mind, “Mental Health Counselor Training, Skills, and Salary”

World Health Organization, Depression