What is a Mental Health Counselor?
Are you considering enrollment in a mental health counseling degree program in Alabama? This major can lead to a wide variety of engaging and impactful career opportunities in the state. While anyone can pursue education in this field, this subject area is ideal for prospective students who feel compelled to help others work through and overcome various emotional and behavioral disorders.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is expected to increase by 22% from 2021 to 2031. This is much faster than the average for all occupations and will result in an additional 43,600 new job openings throughout the nation each year.
The educational services, healthcare, and social assistance industry is the fourth largest in Alabama. It accounts for $17.7 billion in revenue each year. As of May 2021, the state employed 2,770 of these professionals with an annual mean wage of $43,250. Graduates may also qualify for work in many community and social service occupation. Employment for these jobs is projected to grow less, but opportunities may be more readily available. As of May 2021, Alabama was home to 20,220 workers in this field, with an annual mean wage of $45,860. Notably, the state’s annual mean wage for all occupations in 2021 was $48,110.Read More
Many colleges and universities offer degrees in mental health counseling, although standard counseling programs may be easier to find. This is especially true for degrees at the undergraduate level, and other related majors may also be available.
Virtual learning is becoming more and more popular among students, as online programs often allow more flexible scheduling options. Those interested in this field are more likely to find hybrid degree programs, however, as in-person instruction and practicums are often required.
Prospective students planning to work in Alabama after graduation should strongly consider selecting academic institutions located in the state, online or otherwise. Local colleges and universities typically have a better understanding of licensure education requirements for their region, which can greatly impact the credentialing process. Schools often adjust curriculums to ensure graduates are properly prepared. Additionally, many academic institutions colleges and universities work to establish good relationships with nearby companies and organizations. This can lead to more opportunities for internships and/or professional employment.
It’s important to realize that mental health counselors are not psychologists or psychiatrists, although they do engage in psychotherapy and offer psychological treatment services to patients. Typically, these professionals use their training, knowledge, and problem-solving skills to help people manage various mental health issues. While it’s possible for them to specialize in working with a select population, most are capable of treating children, adolescents, the elderly, disabled individuals, military personnel, and more. Services may be offered to single persons, couples, families, and/or groups.
While job specifics can vary, mental health counselors are generally licensed to provide care for patients with emotional and behavioral issues.
They are often capable of diagnosing and treating the following:
- Mood Disorders
- Personality Disorders
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Eating Disorders
- Behavioral Addictions
Responsibilities can include client evaluation, treatment readiness assessment, skills development, education, and treatment plan management. They often help patients unpack complicated emotions and behavioral patterns, as well as offer guidance through various recovery and/or therapeutic practices. These professionals may also make referrals to other sources of help such a support groups, out-patient clinics, and healthcare providers.
Mental health counselors can find employment in many different workplaces. Some of the most common opportunities are available in outpatient mental health facilities, individual and family service centers, hospitals, and residential mental health and substance abuse homes.
While a career as a mental health counselor can be extremely rewarding, those interested in the field should realize that the work can also be stressful and/or emotionally draining. These professionals often manage large workloads and hours are sometimes irregular, especially when assigned to on-call emergency duty rotations. Most work full-time, but part-time employment is also fairly common. As a result, those interested in this field should consider their own dispositions carefully before enrolling in academic programs.
Mental Health Counseling Education in Alabama
While there are counseling, community, and social service occupations available at every level in Alabama, some amount of higher education is often required. Those interested in the field can choose from relevant associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs.
It’s important to realize that the state also varying academic standards depending on the profession sought. The minimum necessary to become a licensed mental health counselor, for example, is a master’s degree. There are opportunities for those with associate degrees, but the best-paying positions are typically reserved for those more education, training, and experience.
Associate Degree in Mental Health Counseling (AS)
Notably, associate degrees in mental health counseling are relatively rare. In most cases, students will need to select a related major such as counseling, mental health, human services, behavioral science, social science, or psychology. These degrees generally consist of 60 credit hours of coursework that take full-time students approximately two years to complete. As undergraduate-level programs, they typically include both general liberal arts and major-specific classes. Curriculums vary, but those enrolled can expect to gain a strong academic foundation for future learning, as well as a basic introduction to their field of choice. Instruction in behavioral health and various psychological theories and models is likely.
This type of degree is ideal for those who want to obtain the minimum knowledge and skills needed to pursue entry-level employment in community and social service occupations. However, it does not satisfy Alabama state licensure education requirements. As these programs are often offered by community colleges, students can generally acquire the knowledge and skills needed without spending a significant amount of money. Graduates also benefit from entering the labor force after only a couple years.
Alternatively, graduates can choose to continue their education by enrolling in bachelor’s degree programs. Notably, undergraduate class credits can be transferred to other accredited academic institutions. This means those with associate degrees may only need an additional two years of education before obtaining more advanced degrees.
Bachelor's Degree in Mental Health Counseling (BS)
Again, there are few mental health counseling degree programs available at this level. Instead, students will need to select a related major such as counseling, mental health, human services, behavioral science, social science, or psychology. These often consist of 120 credit hours of coursework that take full-time students approximately four years to complete. This is another undergraduate learning option, with students taking both general liberal arts and major-specific classes. Curriculums vary, but students can expect broader and more in-depth learning opportunities. Those enrolled can expect to develop basic academic skills and knowledge, as well as learn about behavioral health and various counseling theories and concepts.
This type of degree is ideal for individuals who plan to employment in various community and social service occupations. Notably, it does not satisfy Alabama state licensure education requirements. Graduates can also choose to pursue further education by enrolling in related master’s degree programs. Prospective students should be prepared to meet minimum grade point average (GPA) and Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) score requirements as set by institutions.
Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling (MS or MC)
Master’s degrees in mental health counseling generally range from 30 to 45 credit hours of coursework that take full-time students approximately two to three years to complete. Notably, undergraduate credits are not applicable toward these degrees. Curriculums vary, but most cover concepts related to lifespan development, attachment theory, group dynamics, interviewing techniques, counseling theories, diagnostic practices, and ethics. Those enrolled can also expect to complete supervised counseling experiences, which allow for hands-on learning and practice.
Prospective students should realize that the accreditation status of a mental health counseling program is important. Degrees offered by institutions accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) are preferable. In fact, starting in 2024, these will be the only programs accepted by the licensing board in Alabama. This type of accreditation indicates that the content covered meets the high standards set for the mental health profession.
This type of degree meets the minimum education requirements for mental health counseling licensure in Alabama. Graduates are generally qualified to begin the credentialing process, although additional supervised counseling experiences may be necessary prior to practicing without supervision.
PhD Degree in Mental Health Counseling (PhD)
A PhD or doctorate in mental health counseling may consist of between 60 and 120 credit hours that can take full-time students up to seven years to complete. Curriculums differ, although students can typically expect to spend time learning about qualitative and quantitative research. In addition to traditional classroom learning, those enrolled are likely to focus their attention on thesis preparation. Most colleges and universities require the defense of dissertations prior to graduation.
This type of degree may be useful for individuals interested in continuing to work with patients in clinical settings, as well as those who want to teach and/or mentor students in higher education. Those with doctorates will require fewer supervised hours for licensure and may be qualified to pursue other high-level professions in the field.
Become a Mental Health Counselor in Alabama
The first step to becoming a mental health counselor in Alabama is establishing your ultimate career goals. Not only can you choose to pursue licensure as a professional counselor, but you may qualify for many other professions in and related to the field. Identifying your preferred occupation will make it easier to determine the level of education necessary to meet minimum hiring qualifications. Additionally, you it will become more obvious which elective courses, minor areas of study, concentrations, and/or internship opportunities are most appropriate. Taking time to research and plan now can ensure you obtain the knowledge, skills, training, and experience needed to be successful in your chosen occupation.
In order to practice in Alabama, you will need to become licensed through the Alabama Board of Examiners in Counseling (ABEC). The board issues three credentials:
- Associate Licensed Counselor (ALC)
- Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
- Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) – Supervisor
It is necessary to become an associate licensed counselor before applying to become a licensed professional counselor. Associate licensed counselors are not permitted to practice without direct supervision by a licensed professional counselor and all supervision plans must be approved by the board prior to any actual performance of counseling. Applicants should be at least 19 years old and of good moral character. A master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution of higher education that primarily focuses on professional counseling is also required.
Notably, education requirements for counseling licensure are changing in Alabama. Prior to January 1, 2024, master’s degrees in counseling are defined as a single conferred degree consisting of a minimum of 48 graduate semester hours at a regionally accredited college or university. Beginning January 1, 2024, however, master’s degrees in counseling are defined as a single conferred degree in counseling from a Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) accredited program that consists of a minimum of 60 graduate semester hours at a regionally accredited college or university. The master’s degree must also contain and encompass the following academic areas:
- Counseling Theory
- Human Growth and Development
- Social and Multicultural Foundations
- The Helping Relationship
- Group Dynamics, Processing, and Counseling
- Lifestyle and Career Development
- Appraisal of Individuals
- Research and Evaluation
- Professional Orientation
After you have obtained the associate licensed counselor credential and submitted an approved supervision plan, you will be able to begin your supervised experience, which is necessary to become a licensed professional counselor. Licensed professional counselor applicants must complete 3,000 hours of supervised professional counseling. You can, however, subtract 1,000 hours for every 15 graduate relevant semester hours earned beyond the required master’s degree. You will also need to demonstrate competence and knowledge in professional counseling by passing the National Counselor Examination (NCE) for Licensure and Certification. Scores must be requested from National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and sent directly to ABEC.
It's important to note that associate licensed counselors are required to renew their credential annually, while the renewal period for licensed professional counselors is two years. In both cases, you will need to submit a fee and evidence that relevant continuing education has been completed.
Careers for Mental Health Counseling Graduates
- Clinical Psychologist
Clinical psychologists evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients with psychological issues resulting from mental conditions, environmental impacts, and/or personal circumstances. These professionals commonly work with individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, and/or various behavioral problems. They carefully consider cases to determine the best possible care plan. According to PayScale, clinical psychologists make an average base salary of $83,550 per year.
- Counseling Psychologist
Counseling psychologists use various psychological techniques to provide care and treatment in order to improve mental, behavioral, and/or emotional health in patients. They often help people deal with depression, anxiety, and interpersonal conflicts, as well as may other conditions. These professionals also perform risk assessments, implement therapy plans, evaluate outcomes, and maintain accurate records. According to PayScale, counseling psychologists make an average base salary of $60,550 per year.
- Direct Support Professional
Direct support professional perform a wide variety of tasks to help people with disabilities. Responsibilities include maintaining updated patient records, administering medications, fostering community integration, and supporting social skills development. These professionals may also provide assistance with completing various daily routines such as personal care, transportation, and household chores. According to PayScale, direct support professionals make an average base salary of $34,900 per year.
- Organizational Psychologist
Organizational psychologists administer various rating scales and psychological assessments to help companies and organizations determine potential training needs. They often work with managers to ensure work environments are well organized to improve employee morale and productivity. These professionals may also oversee staff selection, placement, education, and performance programs. According to PayScale, organizational psychologists make an average base salary of $89,000 per year.
- Mental Health Counselor
Mental health counselors diagnose and treat mental health conditions and illnesses. The majority of their time is spent assisting patients work through various psychological difficulties with curative counseling or by encouraging new approaches to thinking. These professionals often specialize in particular areas of care, offering one-on-one counseling and group sessions. Notably, mental health counselors rarely have the authority to prescribe medications. According to PayScale, mental health counselors make an average base salary of $45,700 per year.
- Mental Health Technician
Mental health technicians provide direct assistance to patients when bathing, grooming, and eating, as well as during organized activities and therapy sessions. They often observe those under their care and strive to ensure a calm setting is maintained. These professionals may also administer medications, answer phones, keep records, and perform janitorial services. According to PayScale, mental health technicians make an average base salary of $34,650 per year.
Psychometrists administer and score tests that evaluate the cognitive, behavioral, academic, neuropsychological, and/or emotional status of patients. They record results carefully, noting anything that could impact outcomes. These professionals may also be responsible for various clerical duties including typing, billing, coding, and procuring office supplies. According to PayScale, psychometrists make an average base salary of $48,350 per year.
- Sports Psychologist
Sports psychologists provide help athletes, coaches, and referees manage the various mental and physical demands associated with athletics. They primarily help athletes deal with the consequences of sustaining injuries. In order to provide the best care possible, these professionals must be highly familiar with common challenges related to athletic training and competition. According to PayScale, sports psychologists make an average base salary of $76,950 per year.
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