Mental health counselors play a vital role in the lives of millions of people. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, in a given year, 1 in 4 adults in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Mental health care professionals help them cope with their illnesses. By providing patients with strategies, techniques and support for a wide range of mental health concerns, counselors can make a positive impact in their communities and guide patients to a greater sense of well-being.
Those looking to help provide professional mental health services may ask themselves if earning a master’s in mental health counseling is worth it. Learning how to diagnose, treat and connect with patients can be complex, and each case presents new challenges, which can make an advanced degree such as a Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) with a concentration in community mental health hugely beneficial. By developing the advanced skills they need to provide quality care, graduates can make a positive difference and reach their professional goals.
What Is a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling?
A master’s in mental health counseling is an advanced degree that builds upon the foundational knowledge students gain during their undergraduate programs. By homing in on counseling methods and theories, research methods, and prevention strategies, students can specialize in different areas of mental health counseling. They can also learn how to implement care strategies and take them from theory to real-world skills and abilities.
An MAC with a mental health concentration can help prepare students for concepts focusing on specific demographics or relational dynamics, such as family, couples and child counseling. These areas require specialized education and generally aren’t taught in depth in the four years of a bachelor’s degree program. A mental health focus can also help counselors take a holistic approach to care, enabling them to excel in various counseling roles and build programs that provide care to their communities.
Advanced Skills Gained with a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling
A master’s in mental health counseling is worth it for individuals looking to build upon their undergraduate education and deepen the competencies needed for success in mental health counseling and building strong relationships with their clients. Some of these competencies include:
- Strong Communication and Active Listening: Counselors build relationships by encouraging open and honest communication while ensuring that patients feel heard and understood.
- Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving: Counselors working in mental health provide appropriate care methods and strategies for potentially complex and specific cases.
- Empathy: Counselors must understand the perspective and emotions of their patients, particularly those of different backgrounds, demographics or life experiences.
- Compassion: Counselors must develop their own coping skills to hold space for themselves, as well as their patients.
- Emotional Intelligence: Counselors who can identify the emotions behind actions and reactions are better able to provide patients with the skills to identify or manage their emotions.
Career Opportunities in Mental Health Counseling
Pursuing a career as a mental health counselor can be both challenging and fulfilling. In many cases, earning a master’s in mental health counseling is worth it for the varied specializations and career options it can lead to.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Licensed mental health counselors work in many different work environments and treat patients of all ages, backgrounds and demographics. They provide essential care in a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, private practices, government agencies, social services and community health agencies. Their duties can vary depending on patient cases but can include:
- Assessing and diagnosing patients
- Providing psychotherapy
- Working with patients to set goals
- Administering treatment plans
- Referring patients to other professionals when applicable
Mental health counselors must be licensed to practice in their state after completing at least a master’s degree. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), licensed mental health counselors earned a median annual salary of $47,600 as of 2020. The BLS projects the number of mental health counselor jobs to increase by 23% between 2020 and 2030.
Substance Abuse Counselor
A master’s in mental health counseling is worth it for those who want to become substance abuse counselors. An advanced degree can help students build nuanced skills and knowledge of the challenges surrounding substance misuse and treatments for high-risk patients. Substance abuse counselors may work in residential or outpatient treatment centers, as well as hospitals, detox centers, halfway houses or private practices. Their duties can include helping clients to:
- Develop healthy coping systems
- Rebuild professional relationships
- Identify triggers
- Maintain sobriety
- Improve personal relationships through open communication
Substance abuse counselors must be licensed to practice in their state after completing at least a master’s degree. According to the BLS, substance abuse counselors earned a median annual salary of $47,660 as of 2020. The BLS projects the employment of substance abuse counselors to grow by 23% between 2020 and 2030.
Clinical Social Worker
As specialized practitioners of social work, clinical social workers aid in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness and disturbances. Working in private practices, hospitals, primary care facilities and agencies, they treat individuals, groups and families. Their responsibilities can include:
- Providing psychotherapy to clients
- Developing treatment strategies with patients for changing behavior
- Encouraging healthy coping systems
- Referring clients for external services as needed
To practice, clinical social workers must obtain a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) certification in their state after completing a master’s degree. According to the BLS, mental health, behavioral disorder and substance abuse social workers earned a median annual salary of $48,720 as of 2020. The BLS projects the number of jobs for mental health and substance abuse social workers to increase by 15% between 2020 and 2030.
Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Counselor
Employee assistance programs can help employees struggling with work and/or personal problems through confidential counseling services, assessments and referrals. EAP counselors provide support for a broad variety of issues, such as substance misuse, mental health disorders and other circumstantial challenges. EAP counselors usually work in professional offices for their specific EAP programs. Their duties may include:
- Providing mental health assessment and counseling
- Helping clients identify and address personal and professional challenges
- Consulting with employee managers and supervisors
- Reporting compliance
- Making referrals for external services as needed
EAP counselors are typically therapists who have obtained licensure in their state after earning at least a master’s degree. As of 2021, the average salary for EAP counselors in the United States was approximately $58,000 according to PayScale. The BLS projects the employment of mental health, behavioral disorder and substance abuse counselors — including EAP counselors — to grow by 23% between 2020 and 2030.
For those who want to treat patients in later stages of life, a master’s in mental health counseling can be worth it to build the specific skills to do so. Geriatric counselors and social workers may work in retirement or care facilities, hospitals, hospice care, private practice, or outpatient centers. Their responsibilities can include:
- Providing therapy to clients
- Guiding clients through end-of-life challenges and circumstances
- Providing mental health assessment and diagnosis
- Developing treatment plans
Depending on whether they want to go into mental health counseling or social work, geriatric counselors will need to get relevant certification or licensure in their state after completing a graduate degree.
According to PayScale, the median annual salary for geriatric social workers with counseling skills was around $49,100 as of 2021. The BLS projects jobs for geriatric counselors and social workers, who fall under the umbrella of social workers, to increase by 12% between 2020 and 2030.
Pursue a Role That Makes a Difference
Mental health counselors can guide clients through coping with mental health conditions and challenges. For those who are passionate about helping others and wondering if a master’s in mental health counseling is worth it, learning more about how to make a positive difference may be the right first step.
Featuring four specializations, including Community Mental Health Counseling, along with a fully online curriculum and a faculty of industry professionals, the online Master of Arts in Counseling from the University of North Dakota can give you the real-world skills you need to succeed. Discover how you can reach your professional goals and begin a fulfilling new career in counseling with an advanced degree.