What is Mental Health Counseling and How Does it Intersect with ABA?

Wellness and prevention are at the heart of mental health counseling, and all services are provided with this in mind.

According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, mental health counselors are qualified to assess and diagnose mental and emotional health, and provide psychotherapy, short-term solution-based therapies, treatment services for alcoholism and substance abuse, and assist in crisis management and interventions that can include education and prevention programs.

Today, mental health counselors view their practice as an interdisciplinary, holistic process that promotes healthy lifestyles and preserves and restores mental health.

Because mental health counselors are qualified to address the needs of the whole person, they often serve as valuable members of the integrated healthcare team, working in settings that include:

  • Hospitals
  • Private practice
  • Community services agencies
  • Behavior healthcare organizations
  • Trauma centers
  • Residential treatment centers
  • Social services agencies
  • Marriage and family clinics
  • Courts
  • Correctional facilities

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy has become one of the most innovative additions to counseling in recent years. Using ABA, mental health counselors consider negative behaviors and the environment in which these behaviors take place and then implement strategies that encourage or reward positive behaviors and discourage negative ones. Although ABA was originally targeted at children and adolescents with autism and other developmental disabilities, it has since earned a reputation as an effective form of therapy for patients across the lifespan in a variety of settings. Integrating ABA into the counseling process can help counselors treat patients who are struggling with a variety of issues affecting them socially or personally.

The human services field is full of professionals who are qualified to provide mental health counseling—psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counselors, and social workers. This can make the role of the mental health counselor rather ambiguous – Are they therapists? Psychologists? Social workers?

The answer is none of the above. Mental health counseling is a distinct profession carried out by professionals who are master’s-prepared, certified, and licensed to provide mental healthcare services in a community setting.

The History of Mental Health Counseling

Mental health counseling is a pretty young professional field, first gaining prominence in the years following WWII. It was during this time that a number of behavioral and cognitive therapies within the field of psychology began to take shape.

But it wasn’t until 1963 that mental health counseling, through the creation of the Community Mental Health Centers Act, began to earn recognition throughout the U.S. The goal of the Act was to commit funding to the development of community-based mental healthcare programs in which interdisciplinary teams would provide care.

This shift in mental healthcare opened the doors for master’s-level mental health practitioners, many of whom were employed under a number of titles within hospitals, private practices, and community mental health centers. However, their role in the healthcare system wasn’t yet clearly defined.

But in 1978, a grassroots movement resulted in the formation of the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), which finally provided these professionals with the credibility and recognition they long sought. The AMCHA was the driving force behind establishing the roles, activities, and identity unique to mental health counselors.

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How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Similar to other master’s-level mental health practitioners like social workers and therapists, the road to becoming a mental health counselor involves earning a master’s degree, completing specific post-clinical supervised work, and earning state licensure.

Degree Requirements

Mental health counselors are primarily practice-based professionals; therefore, the widely accepted degree (and requirement among all states for licensure) is a master’s degree in counseling or a closely related mental health discipline.

The practice of mental health counseling lends itself to ABA therapy, as both are focused on the promotion of learning socially appropriate behaviors in social settings. The integration of counseling and ABA has resulted in a number of graduate programs that combine the two, thereby allowing students to become effective mental health counselors and ABA practitioners.

Typical master’s degrees in counseling include:

  • MA in Mental Health Counseling
  • MS in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling
  • MA in Counseling and Guidance
  • MA in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness
  • MS in Counseling
  • MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • MS in Clinical Counseling with ABA Concentration

Many master’s programs in mental health counseling provide opportunities for specialization in areas such as:

  • Addiction counseling
  • Marriage/couple/family counseling
  • Trauma and crisis counseling
  • Clinical rehabilitation counseling
  • Child and adolescent counseling

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements for these programs includes a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. While specific undergraduate degrees are not usually required, most schools require a minimum undergraduate GPA (usually 3.0) and the completion of specific undergraduate courses (usually general psychology or an equivalent, research methods, and statistics).

Other requirements often include minimum GRE scores and letters of recommendation.

Program Requirements

Master’s degrees in counseling usually consist of about 60 credits that include both theory (classroom) and practical learning experiences. A practical clinical placement in a setting of interest to you is a common requirement of these programs.

Typical coursework usually includes:

  • Human Development
  • Counseling Skills
  • Foundations in Counseling
  • Theories in Counseling
  • Career Development
  • Assessment Techniques in Counseling
  • Research Methods
  • Psychological Testing and Assessment
  • Psychotherapy
  • Research and Program Evaluation
  • Group Counseling

What to Look for in a Master’s Degree in Counseling

When choosing a master’s degree program, it is important to choose a program that’s:

  • Nationally accredited – The Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredits counseling degrees programs in the U.S. at the graduate level; in virtually all cases, CACREP accreditation satisfies the accrediting standards for state licensure.
  • Meets the standards for licensure in your state – Because so many counseling master’s degrees are offered through online study, it’s important to ensure the program you choose meets the requirements for state licensure, particularly if it is located out-of-state.

State Licensure Requirements

Following the successful completion of a master’s degree in counseling, most states require the successful completion of the following to qualify for state licensure:

(1) Two years post-master’s clinical work that’s completed under the supervision of a license clinical mental health counselor (most states require about 3,000 practice hours); AND

(2) A state-developed or national certification examination (most states use the National Counselor Examination offered through the National Board for Certified Counselors)

Your professional title may vary based on the state in which you are licensed:

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

National Certification Opportunities

Achieving a national designation is often a great way to boost your resume, increase you earning potential, and display a commitment to your profession.

NCC Certification

The National Board for Certified Counselors offers the National Certified Counselor (NCC) and three specialty certifications:

  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor
  • Masters Addiction Counselor
  • National Certified School Counselor

BCBA Certification

Completing a master’s program in applied behavior analysis (ABA), or a stand-alone Verified Course Sequence (VCS) if you already hold a master’s degree, will allow you to learn the fundamentals of behavior therapy and the methods for integrating it into your counseling practice.

Currently, the Behavior Analysis Certification Board’s Board Certified Behavior Analysis (BCBA) requires the completion of one of the following: (1) a master’s degree in psychology, education, or behavior analysis that includes a verified course sequence (VCS) or (2) a VCS that’s completed either during or after the completion of a master’s degree in one of these three fields.

But thanks to upcoming changes from the BACB, a host of other master’s-prepared professionals, including mental health counselors, will soon be admitted to VCS programs and be allowed to qualify for BCBA certification.

That’s because in January 2022, the BACB will remove the degree restrictions, opening up the BCBA to a wide variety of practitioners in the human services field. In anticipation of this change, many schools that offer the VCS (as a stand-alone course sequence, as part of a master’s degree, or as a graduate certificate) have already removed the degree restrictions. This means that you’ll be able to complete the VCS now. Once the degree restrictions are removed in 2022, you’ll then have the option of completing the experiential and exam requirements and earning the BCBA.

Salaries for Mental Health Counselors

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earned the following salaries at the 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles, as of May 2021:

  • 25th percentile: $38,520
  • 50th percentile: $48,520
  • 75th percentile: $61,660
  • 90th percentile: $77,980

Mental Health Counselors earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • Utah: $66,190
  • Alaska: $65,090
  • District of Columbia: $64,920
  • Rhode Island: $64,640
  • New Jersey: $63,430

The top-paying metropolitan areas for Mental Health Counselors, according to mean salary, were:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $74,560
  • Carson City, NV: $73,200
  • Reno, NV: $71,690
  • George, UT: $70,630
  • Salt Lake City, UT: $68,370
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.