Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, & Mental Health Counselors

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected this job category would grow by 25% in the next ten years. Shepard Search Partners is confident previous predictions could double based on the hiring plans we’re seeing developed today.

What Do Counselors Do?

These mental health professionals help clients navigate a wide range of behavioral disorders and substance abuse issues and often obtain specialized certification to do so. Dual certification in behavioral disorders and substance abuse allows for a wide range of flexibility when searching for job opportunities. However, the demand is high for counselors with any state accepted certification.

In general, counselors work with their clients to:

  • Evaluate treatment needs
  • Identify behaviors standing in the way of successful treatment
  • Learn techniques to better adapt to stressful situations
  • Develop treatment plans
  • Set obtainable goals

Behavioral disorder, substance abuse, and mental health counselors may work either one-on-one with clients or in group settings. In order to best treat their clients, counselors may work closely with psychiatrists, physicians, nurse practitioners, or social workers. Counselors may also refer patients to more intensive inpatient facilities or monitored outpatient programs if a patient is in crisis. They do not prescribe or recommend medications.

Where Do Counselors Work?

Counselors can set up an independent practice, work in an office with other counselors, or be employed by a hospital, clinic, inpatient psychiatric facility, residential facility, or outpatient program. Some counselors work in prisons, probation or parole agencies, juvenile detention facilities, halfway houses, detox centers, or employee assistance programs.

While residential and intensive outpatient programs increase the likelihood of intervening in crisis situations and dealing with agitated patients, they also offer the opportunity to teach patients a wide range of therapeutic techniques they can use long term to better cope with external stressors. Counseling is a gratifying career for people motivated by making a meaningful impact on others’ lives.

Salary Range

The average pay for counselors varies by the degree of specialization, location, and the type of employment they elect to pursue. National average salaries by employment type are:

  • Hospitals: $56,000
  • Private Practice: $98,000
  • Outpatient Centers: $45,000
  • Residential Facilities: $40,000

Why Are Counselors in High Demand?

Mental illness is a prevalent struggle among Americans. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year
  • 1 in 25 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year
  • 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34

When calculating the number of psychiatric beds per 100,000 people, the United States ranks 29th among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. States are also reducing penalties for drug offenses, which will increase the number of people referred to mandatory residential treatment.

Despite insufficient resources, attitudes about mental health are improving. The stigma surrounding mental illness and substance abuse is declining, albeit slowly. More people are seeking treatment when they need help.

A high number of patients combined with current shortages and projected increases in demand make the job outlook extremely promising for counselors in any discipline.

How to Become a Counselor

Requirements vary significantly state by state.

We recommend you visit the American Counseling Association Division websites and the National Board of Certified Counselors for specialized resources.

As an example, mental health counselors in the state of Wisconsin are required to complete:

  • A graduate or doctorate degree in professional counseling from a program accredited by the Council on Rehabilitation Education or the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
  • Three semester-hour supervised practicum in providing counseling to clients
  • 3,000 hours of supervision for holders of master’s degrees, with 1,000 hours of face-to-face client contact. Applicants with a doctorate degree are required to complete 1,000 hours.
  • A passing score on either the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam
  • A passing score on the Wisconsin Statutes and Rules Examination
  • License renewals every 2 years
  • 30 hours of continuing education within each 2-year license period (at least 4 hours must focus on ethics and professional boundaries)

Where to Obtain an Education

Because license requirements vary so much by state, we recommend choosing which state(s) you would like to practice in and then narrow your education options to programs that meet the requirements. Check state counseling associations for recommended programs. We’ve linked Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota resources here.

Many grants and scholarships are available for people interested in entering this field. Check out the “Education” section on the American Counseling Association’s resource page and the U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool.