Jobs in Behavioral Healthcare: Options, Requirements and Outlook

Sep 20, 2019

Behavioral healthcare is a field encompassing various degree paths, both undergraduate and graduate. Continue reading for an overview of the programs, as well as career and salary info for some career options for graduates.

Behavioral healthcare focuses on treating patients with behavioral, emotional and mental disorders. It's possible to enter this field as a healthcare social worker, a psychiatrist, or a substance abuse and behavior disorder counselor. The specific requirements and duties vary, depending on which career is pursued.

Essential Information

Behavioral healthcare programs train students to provide counseling and other types of treatment to adolescents, adults, children and their families. Graduates may work with individuals, groups or couples with mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. Since there are many different types of behavioral healthcare professionals, education and licensing requirements differ (though education generally ranges from a bachelor's degree to a professional degree).

Healthcare Social Workers Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors Psychiatrists
Required Education Master of Social Work Bachelor's or Master's Medical Doctorate
Other Requirements License License preferred License
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 17% 22% (for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors) 16%
Mean Salary (2018)* $56,200 $44,630 (for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors) $208,000 or more

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Healthcare Social Workers

Career Options for Healthcare Social Workers

Healthcare social workers are employed in hospitals, health clinics and in patient's homes. Career options include working as a generalist or working with a specific population, such as teens, families or the elderly. They may also choose to work with a specific behavioral or social problem, such as stress, family discord, mental health or substance abuse.

Career Requirements for Healthcare Social Workers

A bachelor's degree in social work or psychology is helpful for healthcare social workers, and a master's degree in social work is frequently required. Master's degree programs should be earned from an institution accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Healthcare social workers must obtain a state-issued license before practicing. Certification is available from the National Association of Social Workers.

Career Outlook for Clinical Social Workers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2018 that there were 707,400 social worker jobs. Employment within the state and local government sector accounts for 28% of these positions; individual and family services is second at 18%, with ambulatory healthcare services and hospitals at 13% and 11%, respectively. Mental health and substance abuse social workers are employed primarily by outpatient care centers, while healthcare social workers are most employed by general hospitals. The BLS projects job growth of 11%, much faster than the average for all occupations, for social workers in general from 2018-2028.

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors provide help to those with behavioral, emotional or social problems. Counselors work with individuals or groups to identify behaviors, create behavior modification plans and help patients set achievable goals. Counselors are trained in making recovery plans to encourage healthier attitudes and helping patients to establish healthy, independent and productive lifestyles.

Career Options for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Counselors can work in a wide variety of places, such as schools, health clinics, hospitals and private offices. They can specialize in a particular behavioral disorder, such as depression, substance abuse or anxiety. A counselor's job is similar to that of a clinical social worker, but a counselor is not required to have as much education or experience as a clinical social worker and a counselor may not perform psychotherapy.

Career Requirements for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

A minimum requirement for counselors is completion of a bachelor's degree program. No specific area of study is necessary, but a psychology or social work degree is helpful. A master's degree in counseling is preferred, and most states require that a candidate hold a state license. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers voluntary certification programs.

Career Outlook for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

A report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselor jobs would increase 22% between the years 2018 and 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment among mental health counselors was reported to increase by 20% during the same time period, which is also much faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS predicts that job openings will likely surpass the number of graduates from counseling programs, and thus the job outlook is favorable.


Psychiatrists are medical doctors that assess, diagnose and treat people with mental illness, including behavioral disorders. Some psychiatrists specialize in behavioral disorders like addictions. Unlike counselors and social workers, psychiatrists may prescribe drugs for treatment purposes.

Career Options for Psychiatrists

A psychiatrist's specialization may determine where he or she seeks employment. For example, a psychiatrist with a specialization in geriatrics may work in a nursing home. Among the many places doctors of psychiatry can work are hospitals, prisons, schools, clinics and in private practices.

Requirements for Psychiatrists

Because psychiatrists are medical doctors, they must go to medical school and earn a Doctor of Medicine degree (MD) from an accredited medical school. After completing an MD, aspiring psychiatrists complete a psychiatry residency in a hospital or accredited medical facility. All states require psychiatrists to obtain a license to practice psychiatry and to prescribe narcotics.

Outlook for Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are part of the job category including all physicians and surgeons and, as a group, job openings were projected by the BLS to grow by 7% between the years 2018 and 2028 (psychiatrists specifically can expect 16% growth). The BLS reported as of May 2018 that psychiatrists in the United States made an average annual salary of $220,380.

Substance abuse and behavior disorder counselors are required to have at least a bachelor's degree and a state license. Healthcare social workers need to complete a master's degree in social work, while psychiatrists must earn a Doctor of Medicine degree. Social workers and psychiatrists must also be licensed to work in their fields.

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