Mental Health Counselors: If You Want to Help People

by Ainoura Oussenbec

January 5, 2018

The terms mental health counselors (MHC) and therapists are often used interchangeably but for the professionals there is a difference. MHC represents the foundational level in the field of mental health. After completing a Bachelor’s (four years) and a Master’s (two years) in mental health, graduates may start working as counselors, advising people in various areas of life, from marriage to self-improvement.

However, when clients suffer from complex trauma, they may require an in-depth, long term therapy with a licensed therapist. To become a licensed therapist, counselors have to work under supervision of a licensed therapist for two to three more years before taking an exam to earn her license. In Oregon, the Board of Licensed Professional Counselors and Therapists is the licensing authority to issue and renew (every two years) licenses for counselors/therapists.

In the Rogue Valley, aspiring counselors can enroll in Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs in Mental Health Counseling at Southern Oregon University (SOU). In addition, Rogue Community College (RCC) offers one to two year award/certificate training in substance abuse counseling for those choosing this particular specialization.

Mental health professionals tend to select an area of specialization, for instance, in addiction treatment, because it is impossible to be good at everything in this field. Areas of specialization usually require additional training. Mental health counselors and therapists should not be confused with psychiatrists who are medical doctors and can diagnose mental health disorders and prescribe medications. Job seekers interested in the mental health field have to be ready for a lifetime of learning and study, because the challenging field of the human mind is constantly evolving.

Employment Projections Indicate High Demand, with Wages Above Average

According to OED’s estimates there are 2,635 mental health counselors (and therapists) employed in health care facilities and non-profit organizations in Oregon. In addition, an undetermined number of such professionals are self-employed, i.e. they operate their own businesses.

Average wages for mental health counselors are $20-30 per hour around the state, with the average wage of $23.56 per hour in the Rogue Valley. Despite the arduous educational efforts required in this field, the 10th percentile wage (a proxy for starting wages) can be as low as $11 per hour in Douglas County. The starting wages can be as high as $19 per hour, in this case, in the Rogue Valley, which may be an indication of a high demand for MHC locally, or a different mix of mental health services being provided in these local areas. The Rogue Valley’s median wages for all occupations are about $16 per hour.

Statewide the projected growth rate from 2014-2024 for mental health counselors is 22.2 percent, significantly higher than the 14 percent growth rate for all occupations. Projected growth rates, just like wages, vary around the state.

Different Work Settings, Rewarding Career

Mental health counselors (and therapists) can work in hospitals, in government organizations such as the Veterans Administration, or in many non-profit organizations.

Maha Snell is a Licensed Therapist/Supervisor at the Redemption Ridge Center in Medford, a non-profit with the mission to help survivors of sex trafficking. Maha supervises two other therapists in training, in addition to her own therapy work. This small center works closely with a wide network of local organizations, such as Addictions Recovery Center, Access Food and Housing program, Community Works Dunn House (for victims of domestic violence), and local hospitals and churches to provide comprehensive healing programs for their clients.

Maha believes that this profession is not for those who want to make lots of money or have a predictable work schedule and career. However, those who want to help people, to facilitate profound positive changes, can look forward to a highly rewarding career.

The Redemption Ridge Center offers personalized outpatient and inpatient programs that promote healing on all levels, from physical to emotional and spiritual. The clients, women and girls, are encouraged to finish high school, get a GED, or attend post-secondary courses at RCC or SOU. The residential clients are offered regular physical activities such as yoga, dance, and strength training at the local gym. Art classes are an integral part of the recovery program. The ultimate goal is to help return these clients back to society as productive and contributing members, successful in their careers and personal lives. The belief, supported by experience, is that only when clients become stronger mentally and emotionally, they can embark on and maintain meaningful careers for life.

Counselors and Therapists, Walk the Talk!

Aspiring counselors usually possess a high degree of self-awareness of their own personal issues, who want to help others. The biggest challenges for counselors and therapists seem to be a high risk of burnout, and also the healing principle they adhere to, which requires them to “walk the talk.” A nutritionist can advise patients in healthy eating and practice the opposite in her own life, because all they need to do is convey information. Therapy and counseling is beyond sharing information and expertise. It is believed that only those professionals who have successfully done what they ask of their clients, can facilitate real and lasting changes.

Another challenge in this occupational field is modest wages, in view of the lengthy education and training. The entrance barriers and demands on this profession are high. Therefore, it is no surprise that the local shortage of licensed therapists/counselors has been reportedly ongoing, beyond the current general workforce shortages.

Maha Snell believes that the ultimate solution for these challenges has to do with education and prevention. If all of us, employers, HR professionals, citizens at large, were educated in mental health basics it would help us cope with our own issues and above all, help prevent or reduce trauma for the next generations. These preventative efforts could eventually reduce the need for resource-intensive intervention later in life. Like with many illnesses, in mental health, prevention is the most cost effective alternative for individuals and society overall.


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