Although mental health issues have long been a taboo topic, mental health disorders are on the rise, as is the need for mental health providers. In fact, there’s currently a shortage of mental health providers, according to U.S. News & World Report, which makes the demand for key players in the mental health field stronger than ever. If you’re interested in helping clients address mental health issues and find improvement, there are many different paths you can take – and most of them don’t require you to go to medical school.

What Degree Do People With a Job in the Mental Health Field Have?

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Master’s in Counseling Degrees

Mental health practice in the field of counseling emphasizes listening, goal-setting and problem-solving to change thinking patterns and behaviors. Counselors work with individuals, couples, and families. They address everything from emotional and behavioral disorders, like anxiety and depression, to marital problems, substance abuse and addiction, grief, trauma and even career challenges and opportunities.

In most cases, aspiring counselors will need a master’s degree. Substance abuse and behavior disorder counselors are the exceptions, sometimes able to work in the field with a bachelor’s degree or no formal college education, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, roles and job duties for substance abuse counselors without a master’s degree are limited.

Other types of counselors and therapists need graduate degrees related to their intended field of practice. A general master’s in counseling degree, or a specialization in mental health, can prepare students for a role as a mental health counselor. Master’s degree programs in Marriage and Family Therapy, or MFT, are required for students who want to provide counseling services as a marriage and family therapist. School counselors complete specialized school counseling graduate programs that include fieldwork in an educational setting, while career counseling tracks in graduate programs prepare aspiring counselors to work with college students, veterans and other workers to develop a plan for a career that fits their life and their aptitudes.

Before you can practice as a counselor, you need to be licensed as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) or Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor.

Master of Social Work Degrees

Although you might not think of social workers as serving on the front lines of mental health treatment, clinical social workers account for the largest number of mental health practitioners. It’s important for students to note, though, that not all social workers are mental health providers. Only licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) can practice counseling, psychotherapy and other therapeutic interventions in a clinical role.

To attain your LCSW license, you will need to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Expect to study the models and perspectives clinical social workers use to diagnose mental health disorders as well as the practices and processes of treating those disorders. As an MSW student, you will learn to apply the perspectives and practices you have learned as you complete supervised clinical experience – a minimum of 900 hours of it, according to the Council on Social Work Education.

Earning your MSW degree is just one step on the path to becoming an LCSW. Most states require at least two years of supervised experience in a clinical setting after completing graduate school, the BLS reported.

Doctorates in Clinical and Counseling Psychology

Perhaps the field most commonly associated with mental health is that of psychology, or the scientific study of thought and behavior. Psychologists in clinical and counseling roles work with patients who have mental health disorders or who are struggling to cope with life events and situations. Generally, the biggest differences between clinical and counseling psychologists are the populations of patients they treat and their areas of focus. Clinical psychologists are more likely to focus on psychopathology and the treatment of severe mental health disorders, while counseling psychologists focus more on wellness and holistic ways of coping with problems.

If you want to offer mental health services as a clinical or counseling psychologist, you will need a license. Licensure for professional psychologists generally requires a doctoral degree, an internship and post-doctoral supervised experience, the BLS reported.

Healthcare Professions in Mental Health

Of course, there are mental health provider roles that require a medical, nursing or other healthcare background. Only the role of psychiatrist, or mental health physicians who are qualified to prescribe medication, necessitates a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. With a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, you could prepare for a job as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, an advanced practice role that may allow you to provide primary and secondary care and prescribe medications, depending on your state’s regulations. Psychiatric physician assistants (PAs) also work with patients with mental health issues alongside psychiatrists and other team members.

The biggest differences between the diverse roles in mental health practice are the perspective from which the provider approaches the field and the scope of job duties. Healthcare professionals have more expansive duties as well as a different outlook.

Additional Resources

What Are the Benefits of Pursuing a Degree in Counseling?

What Are the Benefits of Pursuing a Degree in Social Work?

The Hidden Benefits of a Degree in Psychology