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What Does a Clinical Mental Health Counselor Do?

Clinical metal health counselors support the emotional and psychological well-being of their clients through a variety of techniques. They document their sessions, which can take place in group, family or individual settings, and they also dedicate time to continuing their education.
A clinical mental health counselor taking notes on a clipboard while talking to a client.

With the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reporting that 1 in 5 adults grapple yearly with mental illness, the need for professional care is clear.

Enter clinical mental health counselors, equipped with the expertise to create a safe haven for clients using therapeutic, evidence-based techniques. And just as importantly, the potential to reshape society's perception of what it means to be well in both body and mind.

Intrigued by the possibilities of this life-changing profession? Read on to explore whether it could be the right fit for you.

What Is Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and Why Is It Important?

According to Dr. Matt Glowiak, a clinical faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), clinical mental health counseling is a therapeutic process in which licensed professionals help their clients address and manage emotional, psychological and behavioral challenges. It serves to promote well-being, enhance coping skills and facilitate personal growth through talk therapy, assessment and the development of effective management strategies.

In addition to its individual importance, Glowiak emphasizes clinical mental health counseling's high cultural importance. He specifically notes the ability of those in the profession to advocate for positive social change by spreading mental health awareness and empowering marginalized voices.

Jareb Kinney with the text Jareb Kinney

And many clinical mental health counselors work hard to do so. Take Jareb Kinney '16 '20G, a licensed professional clinical counselor and educator, for instance. As a graduate of SNHU's clinical mental health counseling program, he mindfully fosters inclusive environments that respect and nurture culturally diverse populations.

"By working collaboratively with other healthcare providers, community leaders and organizations, clinical mental health counselors can promote awareness and enhance access to inclusive services, bridging gaps in communities that experience a lack of healthcare," said Kinney said.

The demand for experts in the field reflects its importance. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the employment for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors is projected to grow 18% through 2032 — six times faster than the average for all occupations.*

The BLS indicates this rigorous rate is anticipated, in part, as a result of people continuing to seek addiction and mental health counseling services, states seeking treatment and counseling services, and the continued need for counselors to provide military veterans with appropriate care.

What Does a Clinical Mental Health Counselor Do?

The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) defines clinical mental health counselors as "highly-skilled professionals who provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy" and "combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical problem-solving approach" to create a path for change.

Dr. Matt Glowiak with the text Dr. Matt Glowiak

"Mental health counseling is housed within the medical professions, as the issues we address with clients are ones in which lives may be at stake," said Glowiak. "Consider, for instance, imminent harm to self or others. If unprepared, one cannot possibly possess the competence and wherewithal to respond accordingly."

The National Career Development Association (NCDA) notes the day-to-day responsibilities of a clinical mental health counselor tend to vary based on their clients, work environment and specialty.

Kinney echos this sentiment. "The day in the life of a clinical mental health counselor (particularly in my experience) varies tremendously, mirroring the diversity and complexity of the roles we assume," he said.

However, Mood Health illustrates that the bulk of any clinical mental health counselor's day is typically spent with clients.

According to Glowiak, sessions can be held in one-on-one, couples, family and group settings, depending on individualized needs. Outside of scheduled appointment times, explains the AMHCA, some clinical mental health counselors may be on call for crisis situations. This could include helping a client manage acute distress or making them a referral to emergency services.

Since every client session needs to be carefully chronicled, the American Counseling Association (ACA) highlights documentation as another important element of a clinical mental health counselor's day. Paperwork generally includes assessments, progress notes, treatment plans and the like.

According to Glowiak, mental health counselors repeatedly set aside time to attend workshops, research seminars, and events held by industry-based organizations. This grants them the opportunity to learn the latest research and therapeutic approaches and, in turn, treat their clients most effectively.

Some clinical mental health counselors may also take it upon themselves to help raise public mental health awareness, notes Counseling Today. This can include things like organizing workshops, speaking in public forums or leading support groups.

As the role of a clinical mental health counselor can be particularly demanding, the importance of daily self-care should not be overlooked. Glowiak deeply agrees and said, "Self-care is a major theme of the profession, as without it, we cannot give our all to others. As they say, 'One cannot pour from an empty cup.'"

Find Your Program

Where Do Clinical Mental Health Counselors Work?

Clinical mental health counselors work in a variety of settings. The BLS specifies the largest employers of substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors in 2022 were as follows:

  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
  • Individual and family services
  • Offices of other health care practitioners
  • Hospitals — state, local and private
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities

Other settings may include prisons, probation or parole agencies and juvenile detention facilities. Clinical mental health counselors may also choose to establish their own private practice and work for themselves.

In terms of time commitment, the BLS notes that "most substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors work full time, although part-time work is common. In some settings, such as inpatient or residential facilities, they may need to work evenings, nights or weekends."

How Much Do Clinical Mental Health Counselors Make?

The BLS reports the median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $49,710 in 2022, with the highest 10% earning more than $82,710.*

Of the top industries in which substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors work, hospitals (state, local and private) paid the highest median annual wage in 2022 at $54,740, followed by the offices of other health care practitioners at $50,260, according to BLS.*

How Do You Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

"The process toward becoming a mental health counselor is multifaceted and ongoing. Even when one does become a clinical mental health counselor, continued education (among other requirements) is necessary to maintain licensure," said Glowiak. "One must also abide by federal and state law as well as governing body and institutional policies and standards."

He notes the initial road to becoming a clinical mental health counselor typically adheres to standardized steps, with some variation depending on your jurisdiction:

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree: A bachelor's degree in psychology, counseling, social work or another related field will help you gain a strong understanding of human behavior and psychological principles.

  2. Continue on to a master's degree: In addition to your bachelor's degree, you'll need to pursue a master's degree in counseling or a closely related field.

  3. Gain supervised clinical experience: Most candidates earn their state-required hours through an internship or practicum placement while pursuing their master's degree. Depending on state requirements, additional post-graduate clinical hours may be required.

  4. Pass licensing exams: All states within the U.S. require candidates to pass one or more exams developed by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). You may also need to pass state-specific exams.

  5. Apply for licensure: Once you've completed all of your state's licensure requirements, you can apply for your official license to practice.

Depending on the state in which you practice, your official title may differ. The AMHCA lists the following as some of the most common:

  • CMHC: Clinical Mental Health Counselor
  • LPC: Licensed Professional Counselor
  • LMHC: Licensed Mental Health Counselor
  • LPCC: Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
  • LCPC: Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
  • NCC: National Certified Counselor

After officially obtaining your license, you're free to begin taking on clients in a professional capacity.

What’s the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Clinical Counselor?

Though psychologists and clinical mental health counselors are both mental health professionals who work to help others with emotional, psychological and behavioral challenges, there are several key distinctions between the two professions.

According to Glowiak, these distinctions include but are not limited to:

  • Education: While psychologists typically hold a doctoral degree in psychology, clinical mental health counselors often hold a master's degree in counseling or a closely related field.

  • Focus: Psychologists are trained to conduct comprehensive psychological assessments, including cognitive, personality and emotional evaluations. Conversely, clinical mental health counselors are trained in counseling techniques, therapeutic interventions and client-centered approaches.

  • Scope of practice: In most cases, psychologists have a broader scope of practice than clinical mental health counselors, as they are authorized to conduct formal psychological assessments and diagnose mental health disorders.

  • Client needs: Psychologists frequently work with clients who struggle with mental health concerns deemed more severe and pervasive than those of a clinical mental health counselor.

These professional differences create collaborative opportunities for psychologists and clinical mental health counselors, as they may refer clients to one another to ensure they receive the most comprehensive care.

Ready to Make a World of Difference?

When it comes to pursuing a career in clinical mental health counseling, many feel the reward is worth the effort.

"Being a mental health counselor is among the most fulfilling careers a person can have," said Glowiak. "Though the work is challenging, the fulfillment received in helping someone get to a better place cannot be understated."

And Kinney very much agrees. "This journey is rich with opportunities for connection, empowerment and healing, and it is one that I am honored to walk alongside my clients, students and colleagues," he said.

Discover more about SNHU’s master's degree in counseling: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Kelly Hamilton is a copywriter in higher education. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.