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Mental Health Overview


For more information on careers in this field, see the list on the right. For salary ranges, schooling requirements and more, check out the Career Explorer.

Mental health is a broad field with a wide range of career choices.  In general, it involves counseling patients or clients to help them deal with mental health issues.

Working with individuals and/or groups of all ages, health professionals in this field help children, adolescents and adults deal with a variety of life stresses and problems, including addiction/substance abuse; problems with self-esteem; aging-related mental health issues; family, parenting or marital problems; grief, anger or depression; and other emotional or behavioral issues. 

Some mental health practitioners – specifically, professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers and psychiatric nurses – hold advanced degrees with special training in brain function and human behavior. These professionals help patients with clinically diagnosed mental illnesses and emotional problems, and their approach to care may be purely medical, psycho-therapeutic, psycho-social or a combination of therapies. 

The mental health field encompasses a variety of professions, each of which has a number of different career avenues:

  • Professional counselors provide mental health and substance abuse care to millions of Americans nationwide.  These master’s-level professionals work in partnership with individuals, families and groups to treat a wide assortment of mental, behavioral and emotional problems and disorders.  The counseling profession as a whole utilizes mental health, psychological and human development principles to address issues of wellness, personal growth and career development, in addition to pathology.  Although professional counselors are employed by a variety of organizations across a wide range of work environments, they make up an especially large percentage of the workforce in community health centers and agencies. They are both employed in and covered by managed care organizations and health plans. In addition, many professional counselors operate private practices.  In some states, professional counselors are known by the title licensed professional counselor or licensed mental health counselor.
  • Psychiatric nurses treat patients diagnosed with mental illnesses. They are trained in behavioral therapy so they can also provide patients and families with methods to use to cope with the challenges mental illness can present. 
  • Psychiatrists are advanced-practice physicians. They evaluate a patient’s mental condition in conjunction with his/her physical condition. In many states, only psychiatrists and other physicians can prescribe medications to treat mental illness.
  • Psychologists hold a Ph.D. and may choose to be counseling psychologists, who help people cope with everyday life issues, or clinical psychologists, who work in more clinical settings, hospitals, criminal justice, etc.
  • Social workers assist individuals, groups or communities to restore or enhance their capacity for social functioning. The approach to care is oriented toward problem-solving and promoting positive social change.

Note: The American Counseling Association has reviewed and approved this overview.