Mental Health Therapist Career Requirements

Mar 19, 2019

Learn about the educational requirements for a mental health therapist. Explore job duties and necessary skills in addition to salary and employment outlook to make an informed career decision.

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Career Definition for a Mental Health Therapist

Mental health therapists, or mental health counselors, work with clients to overcome mental illnesses like anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, depression or addictions. Mental health therapists encourage clients to discuss feelings and emotions in order to diagnose and treat mental disorders. They also guide clients through the decision-making process and help them to develop strategies to cope with difficult situations. The therapeutic tools most frequently used by mental health therapists are medication and psychotherapy, but a variety of other psychological and sociological treatments are also used.

Required Education Typically, a master's degree in counseling, an internship and supervised practical experience
Job Duties Include working with clients to overcome mental illnesses like anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, depression and addictions
Median Salary (2017) $42,840 (all mental health counselors)
Job Outlook (2016-2026) 23% growth (all mental health counselors)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Required Education

Mental health therapists typically pursue a master's degree in counseling followed by an internship and several years of supervised practical experience. Additionally, mental health therapists must complete a state-recognized exam and continuing education to become licensed mental health counselors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Skills Required

The basis of psychotherapy is a dialog between therapist and client, so a mental health therapist needs the listening and verbal skills of a debater, coupled with a diplomat's persuasive abilities and a dogged persistence. They must also have compassion to empathize with clients, as well as people skills to build positive relationships with clients. Organizational skills are also necessary to complete office tasks like appointments and billing.

Economic Outlook and Career Growth

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the projected job outlook for mental health counselors was 23% from 2016-2026, which is much faster than the average. This projected increase is expected to stem from the fact that counselors are less costly than psychiatrists and insurance company reimbursement. The median annual salary in 2017 for mental health therapists was listed by the BLS to be $42,840.

Alternate Career Options

Here are some examples of alternative career options:


For those who prefer the ability to prescribe medications as a treatment option for the mentally ill, becoming a psychiatrist is a career possibility. In addition to prescribing medications and providing counseling sessions, these mental health professionals explore theories behind mental illness and study disorders of the brain and the effects on human behavior. Psychiatrists are physicians, so education includes obtaining a graduate medical degree and completing residency training in psychiatry. All states also require professional licensure that includes passing an examination. In 2017, the BLS estimated that psychiatrists earned an average of $216,090. They also project a 11% increase in employment for psychiatrists during the 2016-2026 decade.

Behavioral Disorder Counselor

If a career helping individuals with mental health issues is desired, but extensive education is intimidating, an option is working as a behavioral disorder counselor. Many of these professionals work in correctional facilities and mental health clinics, helping those with emotional needs and issues. Education to enter this field ranges from a high school diploma to a master's degree. Those with graduate degrees can offer individual counseling in a private practice and are required to obtain a state license to practice. A 23% increase in job opportunities for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is predicted between 2016 and 2026, according to the BLS, and these workers received a median salary of $43,300 in 2017, including mental health counselors.

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