What is a Mental Health Counseling Degree?

Mental health disorders account for several of the top causes of disability in established market economies, and include major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. One in four American adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.

Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time. Approximately 9.5% of American adults aged 18 and over will suffer from a depressive illness each year. Most people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. These statistics speak to the vital role that mental health counseling plays in society.

Degree programs in the field teach students to take a holistic approach to helping people deal with issues that impact their mental health and overall well-being. They prepare them to be mental health counselors committed to treating the whole person, to connecting the biological, psychological, spiritual, and socio-cultural dimensions of human behavior.

Learning outcomes include knowledge and skills in ethical practice, social and cultural diversity, human growth and development, career development, helping relationships, group counseling, assessment, research and program evaluation, diagnosis, and crisis intervention and trauma.

Mental health affects how we think, how we feel, and how we act. It influences how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices at every stage of our lives, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. Mental health counseling can be the life raft that helps us stay afloat in a demanding and often chaotic world.

Program Options

It is important to select a mental health counseling program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.

Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling – Two Year Duration
The master’s program in mental health counseling prepares students for the National Counselor Examination (NCE). Practicum experiences and internships in mental health settings are a large part of the curriculum. A thesis based on original research is the final requirement of the program.

Education Specialist (Ed.S.) Degree in Mental Health Counseling – One to Two Year Duration
This credential in mental health counseling is a specialized degree designed for individuals who already hold a master’s degree in education. Ed.S. programs do not require completion of a thesis or dissertation, but typically include one or more projects, an internship, and competency exams.

Despite the differences described above, both the master’s and Ed.S programs develop skilled counselors to meet the mental health needs of their clients. Here are examples of courses that these programs offer:

  • Research Methodology and Applications – research methods, statistical analysis, needs assessment, and program evaluation used in counseling, education, and human services administration; the use of research to inform evidence-based practice in decision making
  • Interpersonal Behavior and Organizational Leadership – theory and practice related to interpersonal communication, organizational behavior, and leadership; analysis of leadership on the levels of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship; mentoring, conflict resolution, and work group dynamics
  • Loss and Grief Counseling – managing the feelings of grief, including sadness, guilt, yearning, anger, and regret; the process of adapting to significant loss
  • Human Growth and Development – the nature and needs of persons at all developmental levels and in multicultural contexts; common theories of growth and development, neurobiological behavior, models of resiliency, exceptional abilities, factors that affect normal and abnormal behavior, and wellness over the life span; hands-on experiences emphasizing personal contact and on-site work with people of different ages and stages of physical and psychological development
  • Substance Abuse Counseling – theories and causes of addictions and addictive behaviors; strategies for prevention, intervention, and treatment
  • Counseling Diverse Populations – introduction to value systems and diverse groups and the use of theories and models of diversity in establishing helping relationships
  • Career and Life Planning across the Life Span – basic counseling skills for career planning, exploration, and decision making across the life span
  • Counseling Ethics and Law – the study of ethical standards of professional organizations and credentialing bodies; application of ethical and legal considerations in professional counseling; ethical decision making and critical thinking
  • Pre-Practicum in Counseling – skill development in interviewing and counseling through instruction, demonstration, practice, and evaluation
  • Theories and Techniques of Counseling – overview of counseling theories and models that facilitate understanding of the client’s problems, selection of appropriate interventions, and development of a personal model of counseling
  • Principles of Group Counseling – supervised practice and experience in group counseling as a leader and as a participant; facilitation skills for a multicultural society
  • Diagnosis and Treatment of Mental Disorders – causes, diagnosis, classification, treatment, referral, and prevention of mental and emotional disorders
  • Crisis Intervention Counseling – effects of crises, disasters, and other trauma-causing events on persons of all ages; principles of crisis intervention, emergency management systems, and psychological first aid
  • Pyschopharmacology in Counseling – basic classification, indications (reasons to use a certain treatment), and contraindications (reasons not to use a certain treatment) of commonly prescribed medications for the treatment of mental health conditions
  • Neurcounseling: Bridging Brain and Behavior – how physiology and the brain affect behavior and emotions and therefore impact counseling
  • Clinical Supervision – understanding the supervisory process, different models of supervision, integration of neurocounseling
  • Assessment in Counseling – individual and group approaches to assessment and evaluation; standardized and non-standardized testing; statistical concepts and social / cultural factors related to assessment and evaluation
  • Consultation in the Helping Professions – demonstration of knowledge and skills needed to deliver consulting services in schools and clinical mental health agencies
  • Couples and Family Counseling – theories and techniques of couple and family counseling; working with couples, families, and children to promote human development; the role of the family counselor in schools and mental health settings
  • Practicum / Internships – comprehensive supervised experiences
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling – prevention, intervention, consultation, and advocacy in mental health counseling; programs and networks that provide mental health in a multicultural society
  • Counseling and the Dynamics of Aging – the mental health dynamics of aging and its impact on the human services profession; practical skills of gerontological counseling and their relationship to the concerns of aging
  • Professional School Counseling – the history and development of elementary and middle school counseling programs; cognitive, experiential, and social-emotional learning skills; methods for individual and group counseling; methods for counseling students with disabilities and students from diverse populations

Degrees Similar to Mental Health Counseling

Art Therapy
Art therapists use art as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. This degree is of particular interest to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for art, the science of healthcare and rehabilitation, and the psychology that connects them.

Behavioral Science
Behavioral science analyzes the impact of our actions and interactions on ourselves, our relationships, and our society at large. The field incorporates a mix of natural sciences and social sciences. It is based on physiology – the regular functions of human beings; psychology – how our mind’s functions influence our behaviors and decisions; sociology – the development, structure, and functioning of human society; and anthropology – the evolution of human societies and cultures.

Degree programs in behavioral science teach students to apply the fundamentals of each of these sciences to understand human habits, actions, and intentions. They prepare graduates to work as behavioral scientists in human behavior research or as hands-on practitioners trained to address individual and social problems.

Child Psychology
Degree programs in child psychology prepare students to work in one or more of the three main concentrations in the field.

Adolescent psychology is focused on issues relevant to children and youth between the ages of 12 and 18. These issues include behavioral problems, learning disabilities, depression, and eating disorders.

Developmental child psychology is concerned with the emotional and cognitive developments that impact children as they age. Among these developments are language, formation of identity, and understanding of morality.

Abnormal Child Psychology focuses on the treatment of children and adolescents dealing with atypical issues like physical abuse, trauma, personality disorders, and sociopathy.

Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychologists focus on pathological populations. In other words, they work mostly with people who have a mental illness or a psychosis – a severe disorder or disability that can incapacitate them, not merely diminish the quality of their life. Examples are schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and substance-induced psychotic disorder.

Human Development
Degree programs in this human development explore physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development through each stage of human life – prenatal, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, late adulthood, and death and dying.

The physical domain is concerned with growth and changes in the body and brain, the senses, motor skills, and health and wellness. Cognitive human development comprises learning, attention, memory, language, thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, and social relationships. Students learn how these three domains of human development influence and impact every aspect of our lives – from self-respect and self-esteem to how we interact with family, peers, and society at large.

Marriage and Family Therapy
Marriage and family therapy is psychotherapy that focuses on the relationships between couples and within family units. Degree programs in the field teach students how to lead and facilitate this kind of therapy.

Music Therapy
Music therapists use music as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. Depending on individual cases, they may be focused on helping a patient express emotion, express creativity, experience less pain and anxiety, be more relaxed and sleep better, or simply make their hospital stay more positive.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Degree programs in psychotherapy prepare students to work as psychotherapists. The curriculum covers the use of talk therapy to help patients manage various types of mental illness and emotional anxiety.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Special Education Teaching
Graduates with a degree in special education are qualified to teach students with physical or mental disabilities. They help students develop basic life skills and must be prepared to adapt their curriculum to do so.

Skills You’ll Learn

Active Listening
Mental health counseling calls for the capacity to pay attention, listen intently, and read between the lines. These are the keys to understanding individual cases and determining appropriate courses of action.

Mental health counselors learn the importance of speaking in support of their clients, especially when faced with issues of limited program availability and government funding.

Assessment and Report Writing
Mental health counseling involves tracking, assessing, and recording client progress. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills
Mental health counselors are consistently called upon to interact, to understand, and to support their patients and their patients’ families.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
The ability to assess situations, think critically, and find solutions is a significant part of mental health counseling.

Cultural Awareness / Appreciation for Diversity
Mental health counselors must work effectively with people from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender backgrounds.

Empathy and Compassion
The capacities to empathize and show compassion are especially needed in this field, because the journey from mental health issues to rehabilitation is a difficult one.

The work of helping people cope with their challenges is not easy work. And it is not fast work. The role calls for patience and an appreciation of small victories.

Social Perception
Clients’ internal ‘data’ – their feelings and emotions – may sometimes be accessible only through thoughtful observation of non-verbal cues. While people cannot always express what is wrong, their behavior often provides clues to what is affecting them. Mental health counselors become perceptive to these clues.

Stress Management
A good mental health counselor needs to be a good stress manager. Challenging situations will inevitably occur.

Trust Building
Building trust is vital when working with people struggling with mental health issues. The ability to build trust is valued in every kind of work, as well as in society at large.

What Can You Do with a Mental Health Counseling Degree?

Mental health counselors are employed in a variety of settings. Some choose to work on a freelance basis, contracting their services wherever they are needed. Counselors may choose to specialize and work with a particular segment of the population, such as adolescents and children, veterans, or individuals suffering from a specific type of mental illness, such as depression, phobias, or eating disorders.

Below is an alphabetical list of the most common workplaces for mental health counselors. Sectors with the highest levels of employment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are shown in bold.

  • Adolescent treatment facilities
  • Colleges and universities
  • Community health centers
  • Detention centers
  • Detox centers
  • Elementary and secondary schools
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs) – mental health programs provided by some employers
  • Halfway houses
  • Homeless shelters
  • Hospitals – state, local, and private
  • Human services – individual and family
  • Insurance carriers and managed care organizations
  • Local government – public health and social services
  • Methadone clinics
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Prisons
  • Private practice
  • Probation and parole systems
  • Residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance abuse facilities
  • Scientific research and development services


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