What Does a Behavioral Health Specialist Do?

A behavioral Health specialist is a mental health worker who helps people overcome personal and other obstacles so that they can live a healthy, happy life. To achieve this end, counselors can employ a number of therapies. Most of these rely on a psycho-therapeutic "talk therapy" model, but there are other modes.

For instance, some counselors employ animals in their therapeutic model. Equine therapy is a popular modality where patients interact with horses, who can be extremely sensitive and empathetic. Patients learn to explore their emotions based on how the horse responds to them. Other forms of therapy include art and music therapy where patients express themselves and explore their psyches by way of these art forms.

Who Do They Work With?

Behavioral health specialists can work with a broad spectrum of clients. When it comes to addictions, a therapist can specialize in substance abuse disorder and cultivate a client base that focuses on specific groups. For instance, some might focus on women with substance abuse problems or children.

Some counselors may find that they prefer working with a group dynamic and will then create a practice that centers around group therapy. Those groups might be intentionally diverse and include a broad range of ages, genders, and ethnicities. Others might be exclusive to those from a specific demographic, such as male survivors of sexual abuse, so that they can have a safe environment where they can more easily open up about their addiction, its triggers, and how they can avoid falling back into it.

Still others might wish to focus on couples or families who have been impacted by substance abuse disorder. Typically, counselors will see the group members as individuals and then seek to integrate their specific issues into the larger family dynamic.

Why Do We Need Behavioral Health Specialists?

Behavioral health specialists are a vital part of our society. They provide individuals with a way to process their feelings and overcome their difficulties. This need is perhaps most pronounced in the case of substance abuse disorder. Addicts are well-known for wreaking havoc in their families, relationships, and workplaces. In fact, an addict run amok can set off waves of chaos and discord that ripple throughout society.

Society specifically needs these behavioral health specialists because they address issues that are often causing trouble not only for the patient, but for those around them. A problem drinker may be disruptive at work and in the home. They also might pose a threat to everyone when they drive an automobile. Even people who suffer from depression might cause problems for those in their families or in the workplace. Depressed people can become agitated and lash out at others. They are also prone to long bouts of sleep which might impact their ability to arrive at work, causing problems for their bosses and co-workers.

When counseling is successful and a client emerges in a healthier state, everyone benefits. In the case of addiction, many recovered individuals proceed to help other addicts. In this way, the cured addict is able to produce positivity that can benefit everyone in their community. Counselors are thus vital to their local and wider communities.

What Issues Might Behavioral Health Specialists Deal With?

While a behavioral health specialist might focus their practice on those who suffer from addiction and substance abuse disorder, they frequently find that some primary disease is accompanied by other issues. Many of their patients will express that their problems originated in a traumatic event or chapter in their lives. Traumas can include long-term childhood sexual abuse, one or multiple rapes, familial dysfunction, or any number of other disastrous events.

Behavioral health specialists look out for a host of other mental health problems that may accompany an existing condition or addiction. Since addicts are often thought to be self-medicating other problems, those issues may be the primary cause of the problem. For instance, some with schizophrenia drink alcohol to quiet their minds. Bipolar people may use substances to enhance or prolong their mania, and then others to lessen their depression or lows. Depression is often tied in with alcohol use, which many feel temporarily eases the pain of depression, though in the long run it only causes more pain and sorrow.

Since many of their patients suffer from other disorders, behavioral health specialists may need to consult with psychiatrists. Once they diagnose a patient with an underlying disorder, such as bipolar disorder, they can refer them to a psychiatrist who can prescribe medications. Once the underlying mental health disorder is addressed, the behavioral specialist can address the addiction or other issues.

How to Become a Behavioral Health Specialist

Education

Bachelor’s

Any career in behavioral health begins with a bachelor’s degree. Though there are associate degrees in counseling, those are unlikely to launch a career. Even in states that provide licensure to associate degree holders, the available jobs are few and preference is given to those with a full four-year undergraduate degree.

Some states may allow those with certain bachelor’s degrees to attain licensure as addictions counselors. Baccalaureate degree holders can gain valuable experience working in rehabilitation clinics and facilitate addictions education courses, oversee recreational activities, and other functions. However, an undergraduate degree won't lead to licensure as a full counselor. However, to prepare for a career in mental health, students should consider taking the following courses:

  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Theories of Personality
  • Theories of Counseling
  • Research Methods
  • Psychology of Addiction

Master’s

After completing a bachelor's degree, aspiring behavioral health professionals should start considering a graduate degree. A bachelor's can be helpful in finding an entry-level position, but the options there are few, and advancement is limited. Thus, upon completing an undergraduate degree, students should create a plan that includes acquiring experience and then moving on to graduate school.

With a master’s degree, students can launch successful, satisfying careers as behavioral health professionals in a variety of environments. Provided that they take the proper courses and complete accredited degree programs, they can pursue state licensure. That process generally involves a period of supervised work under another licensed behavioral health professional or other counselor. Once the state's requirements have been satisfied, professionals can open up private practice and pursue their careers as they see fit.

Graduate coursework can include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Diagnosis and Treatment
  • Family Dynamics and Counseling
  • Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Addictions Counseling
  • Theories of Counseling

Doctorate

Though a doctorate is not a requirement for pursuing licensure or a successful career in behavioral health, it does have certain benefits. One of the chief benefits of achieving a PhD is the elevated status. Patients might perceive the degree as indicating more counseling skill and knowledge. In fact, doctoral level counselors can charge more for their services and are paid more when they work for health systems. A PhD can also be helpful for those who wish to teach at the post-secondary level. Though it's difficult to land a tenure-track job these days, a doctorate will certainly be more beneficial than a master’s degree. On the other hand, a doctorate can be helpful when applying for research grants or seeking out publishing opportunities for books or articles.

Some of the courses students might take in pursuit of a doctoral degree include:

  • Research Methods in Counseling
  • Addictive Behavior and Counseling
  • Applied Psychodiagnostics and Psychopathology
  • Crisis, Trauma, and Grief Counseling
  • Counseling Diverse Populations
  • Dissertation
  • Externship

Experience

Though academic work is vital to becoming a licensed behavioral health specialist, experience is what truly molds a professional. In fact, state licensing boards require a certain number of practical hours under the supervision of a licensed professional. This supervised experience must be accurately recorded and often it requires as many as 2,400 hours, or one year of full-time, supervised counseling plus 400 hours logged as a graduate student.

Aspiring counselors should always check with their state licensing agency because each state has their own specific twist on the licensure process. Furthermore, licensing requirements are always subject to change. Those in graduate school should be able to learn their state's current requirements from their department.

Licensing boards often require that candidates pass an examination. Often, states will allow candidates to choose one of several exams for their licensure application. Applicants should investigate their options to see which exam best suits them. More verbose candidates may prefer an exam that features essay questions while others may prefer a 200-item exam comprised entirely of multiple-choice questions.

Exam options can include:

  • National Counselor Examination (NCE)
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE)
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRC)
  • State Rules and Laws Governing the Counseling Profession (often mandatory)

Exam

Each state requires that aspiring counselors take and pass a national, professional examination prior to receiving their license. They also require that applicants take at least one other exam that covers the state's rules and regulations regarding the profession. There may also be an ethics exam, though that is often covered by the rules exam.

The three most common examinations for licensure are:

  • National Counselor Examination (NCE)
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE)
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRC)

Many, if not all, states will also require a state-specific exam that covers the laws that govern the mental health profession. Most graduate programs will provide their students with the specific license and certification requirements for their state, including helpful information regarding the regulations examination.

Licensure

While graduate school prepares students to work with clients, each state requires that its mental health professionals attain and maintain licensure. Since every state has its own licensure requirements, it's vital that all counseling students review those requirements. Practicing without a license is a criminal offense that may come with severe fines and/or jail time for offenders.

Once licensed, counselors need to maintain their credentials with continuing education courses (CEUs) or other qualifying activities, including publishing articles. Professionals are responsible for completing their CEUs in a timely fashion. There are often penalties for those who do not fulfill their state's requirements for licensure. In some cases, a loss of license may result if the requirements are not satisfied by a certain deadline.

Where Do Behavioral Health Specialists Work?

There are many career opportunities for behavioral health specialists. While many think of these professionals as working only in a private practice, that is only one part of the profession. Some choose to work in a more clinical setting such as a hospital, addictions rehabilitation center, college health clinic, jails, or for a government social services agency. In fact, those who work in larger organizations might decide to forgo their counseling work and transition into an administrative position.

Others might decide to pursue a career in academia which might focus on teaching, research, or some blend of the two. Academics often focus a good deal of their energies on research and publishing. Those who are interested in academia as a full-time career should strongly consider a doctorate degree. Lastly, some psychologists make their living as consultants, writers, and in other freelance positions. Some specialize in a field such as forensic psychology and work within the legal system to assess and analyze criminals who are on trial or seeking parole.

Thus, this field offers professionals many fantastic opportunities to work in nearly any sort of environment they choose. For those who work in private practice, they can even add a part-time position for a non-profit or government agency. Others may perform consulting work to bring more variety to their workweek and career.

Salary

Behavioral health specialists often start their careers earning annual salaries around $43,000. Somewhere around their mid-career, their salary rises over $60,000, and their later career salaries average somewhere in the mid-high $90,000 range. These salaries can be positively impacted by the relative skill set a professional brings to the job. For instance, Payscale.com shows that counseling skills can add as much a 9% to a paycheck, while clinical assessments increase pay by as much as 64%.

Those with a bachelor's degree might pursue work as a behavioral health technician. These professionals earn an average salary of around $32,000 per year. Since their late-career earnings are only projected to increase their pay by 8%, according to Payscale.com, it's advised that they pursue a master’s degree, which will increase their status and pay dramatically.

Some counselors work with a master's degree in private practice and are able to make as much as $80 per hour. While they don't often work a full 40-hour workweek, their earnings still can near $100,000 per year. Naturally, they have various expenses and taxes to contend with, but their earnings are still quite healthy.

Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this field is slated to grow dramatically over the next decade or so. The BLS projects that between 2019 and 2029 there will be a 25% increase in the number of jobs in the behavioral health field. That amounts to a gross change of 79,000 new jobs. This can be attributed to the continuing Opioid Epidemic, expanded access to insurance and care, as well as an increased awareness of addiction and mental health in general.