How to Become a Behavioral Health Counselor

Any prospective student wanting to know how to become a behavioral health counselor should realize that one is committing to an extensive course of study in the sciences of mental health.   As a counselor, s/he is held to a somewhat less rigorous standard than that of a physician or specialist; however, the training and aptitude for the work both begin early. 


Behavioral health counselor jobs are, like those of any mental health counselor, prefaced by an education that includes mathematics and the sciences (the student should have an aptitude for these as early as high school; no algebra or chemistry skills translates to little skill in the mental health field).   The potential counselor will need not only a Masters level degree in their specialization (although they can begin internships with an Associates degree), but also numerous clinical and counseling hours (at least 1000 to be competitive in the behavioral health counselor employment market).   One answer to the question of how to become a behavioral health counselor is to practice the craft, supervised and finally unsupervised, at every opportunity during the educational process.  This is a primary requirement for licensure and certification as a behavioral health professional under the auspices of the AMHCA (American Mental Health Counselors Association).

The nature of the work

A behavioral health counselor is not a social worker or psychologist.  The approach of a behavioral health specialist to disorders such as depression, drug or alcohol addiction and similar substance abuse, stress and grief, low self-esteem and suicidal tendencies is a holistic one, using numerous different therapeutic techniques to achieve success in ameliorating or overcoming these conditions.   

In addition to the overall diverse nature of the treatments, the behavioral health counselor will apply the behavioral methods of therapy and modification to a patients problems.   Using the models of learning and conditioning as created by such pioneers as B. F. Skinner (who took his theory from the studies of Pavlov), the behavioral health counselor will attempt to show the patient, through both demonstration and conversational therapy, the consequences for the behaviors in which the patient is engaged.

An example of treatment

For example, the behavioral health counselor may approach an alcoholic patient with the model of operant conditioning, in which the counselor and patient set behavioral boundaries, and decide the actions performed in the real world that will result in positive reinforcement (a cessation of alcohol abuse will result in a new job and better home life), negative reinforcement (a return to abuse will destroy what little life the patient has left) and reinforcements by contingent stimulation (what activitiesAA meetings, personal counseling with successfully abstinent alcoholics will result in abstinence). 

Similar therapies exist for troubled marriages, for depression, suicidal tendencies and any human condition where the modification of the behaviors can result in an improvement in the patients outlook and well being.   

Behavioral health counselor employment is on the rise, like many of the offshoots of mental health counseling; the average salary for a mental health counselor nationwide is $46,000, and the job growth in this area, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, is going to experience an approximate 27% increase in the United States, where there are currently over 85,000 behavioral health counselor jobs and mental health counseling opportunities for employment and advancement in this field. 

So in answer to the query as to how to become a behavioral health counselor, one can reply that the opportunities are there, the training is available and the job market more than willing to take on new candidates.  One should, however, be prepared to make the field a dedication and career for life, and a life study as well.

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