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As is the case with most professions, it depends!
Mental health counseling is an umbrella title that includes a variety of counseling occupations. Since licensing requirements vary by state for these positions, mental health counselors are known by a few names: licensed professional counselors (LPC) and licensed mental health counselors (LMHC), to name a few.
The American Counseling Association (ACA) defines the occupation as: “Professional counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals”—a definition agreed upon by 31 counseling organizations to strengthen, unify, and advance the field.
What are the most common types of mental health counseling? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in the same occupational category, but their daily responsibilities vary since the word “counseling” includes mental health support for general or specific populations.
Depending on their specialization, mental health counselors may work one-on-one or in groups with people struggling with substance abuse, in schools with youth who are grappling with issues related to behavior, or in a general practice setting as a mental health counselor seeing adults, adults, or teenagers.
The future is bright for mental health counselors and occupational statistics show that job growth is trending high. There are 319,400 mental health counselors employed and the BLS predicts that careers in this field will increase by 25 percent between 2019 and 2029, a rate that is much faster than the national average for all occupations in the same time period (4 percent). Those craving a future career in helping people cope with the stresses of everyday life can be relatively confident that there will be job opportunities. In fact, the BLS (2020) estimates 79,000 new positions are expected to be created nationally in the next decade.
What’s the salary range for helping people cope with life’s challenges? Below is a percentile breakdown for how much mental health counselors and substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors are paid annually, according to the BLS (May 2019):
- Mean annual wage: $49,950
- 10th percentile: $29,520
- 25th percentile: $35,960
- 50th percentile (median): $46,240
- 75th percentile: $59,650
- 90th percentile: $76,080
By contrast, Payscale.com (2020), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, shows salary data specifically for mental health counselors. Comparing this data collected from 3,112 mental health counselors, Payscale found that not surprisingly, entry-level workers earn lower annual salaries while experienced and late-career workers earn more:
- Entry-level (0-1 years): $39,000 average annual salary
- Early career (1-4 years): $41,000
- Mid-career (5-9 years): $45,000
- Experienced (10-19): $49,000
- Late-career (20 or more years): $51,000
As always, education is a key component when considering earning potential. While the BLS classifies mental health counselors, substance abuse counselors, and behavioral disorder counselors as one occupation, O*Net Online, a data resource sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, illustrates the minimum requirements for each occupation. Sixty-two percent of mental health counselors have a master’s degree and 34 percent have a bachelor’s degree. By comparison, only 30 percent of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors have a master’s degree, while 19 percent have a bachelor’s degree and 16 percent have a two-year professional degree.
And while O*Net Online’s average annual salary data for all three position titles is the same as the BLS at $46,240, it can be assumed that positions requiring advanced degrees and a state license to practice will earn higher salaries.
Where do mental health counselors work? Places of employment vary for mental health counselors, but those working in private practice must have a master’s degree and a state license.
All 50 states require those working in private practice to have a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. Those specializing in substance abuse or behavioral disorder counseling may have different educational and licensure requirements. Mental health counselors work in a wide-variety of public and private settings, which are detailed below.
Beyond financial compensation, those considering a career in mental health counseling may wonder: what’s it like to go to work every day? The U.S. News & World Report ranks mental health counselors as the sixth-best social service job and ranks the position number 71 on the list of 100 best jobs.
While the stress levels are high due to the challenging nature of this work and heavy caseloads, USNWR also shows that opportunities for advancement and higher salaries are above average. Testimonials from Payscale.com support this, showing that most mental health counselors are highly satisfied with their jobs. More than 440 people collectively scored this occupation as a 3.79 out of 5, saying that some of the best parts of their jobs are working with other mental health professionals and helping clients cope with life’s challenges.
For those looking for a rewarding and challenging full-time career, read on to learn more about the top-paying cities and states for mental health counselors as well as most popular work environments and specializations.
Top-Paying Cities for Mental Health Counselors
Below is a list of the ten top-paying cities and metropolitan areas, which boast the highest salaries for mental health counselors. The number of employed professionals and annual mean wages is also reported from the BLS (May 2019). These cities pay between $66,070 and $81,600 per year.
|City or metropolitan area||Employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors||Annual mean wage (May 2019)|
|Salt Lake City, UT||1,610||$76,710|
|Mankato-North Mankato, MN||170||$71,230|
|St. George, UT||150||$67,510|
|San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, CA||130||$66,940|
It’s important to keep in mind that salary data often correlates with the cost of living which varies widely across the United States. MERIC (Missouri Economic Research and Information Center) shows the cost of living data for states and metropolitan areas including the average costs for housing, groceries, utilities, and transportation.
Top-Paying States for Mental Health Counselors
Below is a list of the ten states with the highest salaries for mental health counselors as reported from the BLS as well as the number of employed mental health counselors in each state. States on this list pay annual mean salaries between $54,870 and $67,410 per year (BLS May 2019).
|State||Employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, |
and mental health counselors
|Annual mean wage (May 2019)|
Most-Popular Work Environments for Mental Health Counselors
The BLS (2020) shows that employers of mental health counselors are spread out across public and private facilities. Here’s a list of the top five employment sectors and the percentage of mental health counselors employed in each work environment:
|Work environment||Percent of employed mental health counselors|
|Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers||19 percent|
|Individual and family services||16 percent|
|Hospitals; state, local, and private||10 percent|
|Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities||10 percent|
Top-Paying Specializations for Mental Health Counselors
As previously mentioned, mental health counselors can specialize in a wide-range of unique skill sets to serve their clients’ needs. Here’s a list of five mental health counseling specializations and their salaries from Payscale.com (October 2020):
|Specialization||Average annual salary|
|Diagnosis and treatment planning||$43,012|
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).