There is a broad awareness that we are in the throes of a mental health crisis in this country. Open discussions of increases in depression, anxiety and suicide attempts are common among news outlets and social circles, while the real impact is being felt in the homes of those suffering every day. When discussing the mental health crisis, the typical focus is the increasing incidence of mood disorders and suicidality. What has been consistently and systemically overlooked is our lack of providers. This article is going to delve into the financial reality that contributes to our mental health crisis.
When someone needs a counselor, the counselor is “worth their weight in gold.” Why is it then that counselors may be the most underpaid, advanced-degree medical professionals in this country? Recently, I was talking to a couple of peers who are also professional counselors, and one stated that a new professional they know was just offered a job starting at $29,000. The other shook their head, looked down and then back up in frustration, and stated, “Last week when I was driving through Michigan, a fast-food place was offering $1,000 sign-on bonuses and $18 an hour.” We will get into the whys later, but this is the disparity that is also a reality in our field.
By the numbers
Let’s start by looking at how much counselors actually make. According to the CareerExplorer website, the average salary of a mental health counselor in the United States is around $35,642 per year. The bottom 20% are placed at $29,800, whereas the top 20% are placed at $57,100. CareerExplorer also offers breakdowns of the average mental health counselor salary by state, with Tennessee coming in at a low of $31,000 per year and Alaska being at the top of the chart with an average salary of $63,900. My current home state of Ohio shows an average salary of $44,100 for mental health counselors, with the bottom 20% at $31,800 and the top 20% at $65,100.
CareerExplorer appears to offer the most accurate of the pay ranges I found in my search because it focuses on master’s-level mental health counselors providing direct care services in a variety of settings. Several other resources show salary ranges of $33,000-$75,000, with some going as high as $100,000, but most of these blur the lines by including Ph.D.-level psychologists, testing, and a number of services that significantly skew the average salary.
As professional counselors, we know what it takes to enter this field, but the general public does not. Educational and experiential requirements can vary somewhat state to state, but for many of us, it starts with a 60-credit-hour master’s degree, which also typically includes an unpaid 100-hour practicum and a 600-hour internship. State boards, the National Counselor Examination, background checks and ongoing supervision get you in the door. Then you must continue with supervised hours, continuing education, training in models and additional hurdles. These are not bad things; they build our body of knowledge, increase standards for the field and lend us credibility. They also come at a cost of both time and money, which are valuable commodities in our field.
With an understanding of the rigor and length of the educational requirements of clinical counselors, and the additional information of what the typical salary range is, how does this compare to national averages? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2021), the average salary for someone in the U.S. with a master’s degree is $77,844. The average salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree is $64,896. These are not starting salaries, but average salaries, just as the average salary for a master’s-level counselor in Ohio is $44,100 and nationally is $35,642. If you reference Northeastern University’s Education Pays Chart, you are able to see where counselors fall.
Now that we have established that counselors are significantly underpaid, it is important to explore likely implications.
The first implication is burnout, which affects the field twofold in that it shortens careers significantly and impairs providers who continue to actively work. The average counselor has a productive life span of 10 years before burnout is almost inevitable.This does not account for increased stress in our society due to the COVID-19 pandemic, politics or a volatile social environment.
Why does average salary impact burnout? Because the lower the income, the more stress is created. According to Matthew Killingsworth (2021), drawing on 1,725,994 experience-sampling reports from 33,391 employed U.S. adults, the results demonstrate that both experienced and evaluative well-being increased with income. Factors include being able to pay student loans, afford housing and not worry about how a master’s-level medical professional will pay for a child’s sporting or extracurricular activities. It also extends professionally, in that increased reimbursement allows for lower caseloads, increased preparation time, and more funding for training and professional development.
This creates a natural transition to the second implication — the link between better care for the professionals and improved patient care. If we are supporting our professionals through decreasing caseloads to more manageable levels, increasing purposeful training and promoting more professional development, we are going to see improvements in patient care. Research demonstrates that when using researched-based interventions, we see significant increases in client care, but also accountability in the profession. Effective care means improved outcomes and reduced durations of service, which not only means happier people, but also healthier and more productive people.
A third implication is the impact on recruiting and retaining quality professionals in our field. Unfortunately, in the past decade we have witnessed a tremendous number of counselors shifting to other professions and fields. Some have moved to aligned fields, such as school counseling or education, and many have moved to much different venues, including real estate, IT and software development.
As mentioned previously, we are often experiencing a productive span of 10 years after an education that required seven years to achieve. This is, by any standard, a very poor return on investment. These moves are frequently the result of burnout and the desire to improve their financial situation.
In a similar vein, it can be difficult to attract individuals to the field when it is widely known how stressful and underpaid the profession is. This is even more complicated, as in the past two years we have seen an unprecedented spike in need, with such limited resources and an extended training period.
If the field is to continue to recruit the best and brightest, it also has to offer them competitive wages. If the goal is to increase our recruitment, that point is even more important. It goes beyond simple difficulty and pushes into societal values and ethics when highly educated counselors are starting at significantly lower salaries than individuals with entry-level positions in business.
As we consider education, recruitment and wages, it is also important to examine this topic in terms of social justice. Counseling is a field that has disproportionately high numbers of women and marginalized populations, while also demonstrating disproportionately low wages. Nothing has been found in the literature to demonstrate a causal relationship, but the correlation is difficult to deny. With a workforce that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2021), is 73.3% female (compared to the U.S. average of 46.8%) and nearly 40% nonwhite (compared to U.S. averages of 22%), this is a field composed largely of minoritized workforce populations.
The fact that counselors are, by nature, helpers and are often willing to give freely of their time does not mean that they should be treated unfairly as a labor force. This lends to revisiting the education required and a comparison with other professions.
The fact that a counselor has completed a 60-credit-hour master’s program is significant, as most master’s programs require 30 credit hours, with “more complex and in-depth programs” increasing this to as much as 40 credits. According to U.S. News & World Report (2021), the average master’s program requires 32 to 36 credit hours. It is also important to note that most programs do not have an intensive internship requirement like that of counselor education.
If we look at similar practitioners, such as nurse practitioners, a master’s in nursing is a minimum of 36 credits, and a doctorate in nursing is an additional 36. Another line of work that could be considered similar would be a physician assistant. To become a physician assistant, a master’s degree is required, which is a standard three-year program, as well as 2,000 clinical hours. As these three have the most similarities regarding education and clinical setting and resulting in jobs that include diagnosing and treating medical disorders, these are my base of comparison.
As we have already established, the average counselor in the United States makes $35,642 per year, while the average annual salary for nurse practitioner is $114,510 and the average annual salary for physician assistant is $115,390. It seems quite reasonable for the counseling field to be funded in a manner that allows for paid internships, starting wages in the $75,000 range, and average earnings to be in the range of a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant.
The solution is simple: to align the reimbursement rate for counselors to a rate commensurate with that of similarly educated professionals in the field of medicine, which would also realign income to that of similarly educated professionals in all fields. Well-run mental health offices carry much of the same overhead as other medical and professional offices, including clean and inviting environments, support staff to assist with clients and administrative needs, commercial-grade furniture to handle heavy use, and solid construction that also provides sound deadening for the space. Offices need technology, which continues to expand with electronic health records and testing, and the electronic health record systems themselves, along with constant upgrades and IT support.
The idea of moving the average counselor salary from $35,642 to the wages discussed above would seem to require reimbursement to triple, but it would not. If we were to share the burden, both by focusing on increased efficiency and increasing reimbursement, these changes could be implemented with a reimbursement increase of approximately 80% as opposed to an expected 300%. This would provide the opportunity for clinicians to decrease caseloads slightly, provide better care and make a wage commensurate with their work, education and ongoing educational requirements.
Ask yourself this question: When you are seeking help from a counselor for your child or significant other who is suicidal, do you want someone who is on the top of their game, or someone who is struggling to make ends meet and may be nearly as stressed out as those they are serving?
Derek J. Lee is the founder and CEO of Perrysburg Counseling Services and The Hope Institute. In addition to clinical work and administrative roles, Derek is finishing his Ph.D. in counselor education at Ohio State University and teaches in the Department of Clinical Counseling and Mental Health for Texas Tech University Health Science Campus.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.