Behavioral Health Jobs & Career Guide

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Are you interested in a career where you can make an impact in other people’s lives? Behavioral health jobs might be an excellent fit if you enjoy advising and counseling people. Behavioral health jobs and careers range from social work to substance abuse and addiction counseling

As your career progresses, you could also work in various settings. These include medical facilities, private practices, and recovery and rehab programs. Let’s explore what a career in behavioral health entails and what options you can pursue.

What Is Behavioral Health?

Behavioral health is a branch of medical and psychiatric care. It focuses on addressing behavioral, social, and emotional concerns. As a behavioral health professional, you may work with individuals who need guidance and those who need intervention services. Some clients or patients might only require counseling to change their harmful behaviors or lifestyle habits. 

Others may have deep-rooted issues, such as a history of mental illness or substance abuse, that require an interdisciplinary approach. Behavioral health jobs focus on the non-physical side through therapy or connecting patients with appropriate community resources. 

For example, a medical social worker may arrange long-term rehab for patients who visit the emergency room for detox. A social worker might offer or arrange family counseling for patients who are incapacitated or near death. However, other behavioral health occupations may involve a specialty or area of expertise. Marriage and eating disorder counselors are examples. 

Behavioral health professions focus on working with individuals and families to help modify destructive behaviors. The people in these roles also provide psychological and emotional support. Because there is a wide range of possible behavioral jobs and career paths, each position and employer may have different requirements.

An Overview of the Behavioral Health Industry

The types of behavioral jobs you can pursue include the following:

Of course, this list of occupations isn’t exhaustive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies behavioral health careers as substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors. However, you can start as a community health worker or case manager. You might choose to specialize in child welfare or work in the school system as a licensed psychologist.

A Day in the Life of Behavioral Health Professionals

No two days are alike when working with behavioral health problems and people. And what a typical day looks like as a behavioral health specialist or counselor will depend on where you work and your area of expertise. For instance, a counselor with a private practice will have different responsibilities than a social worker who works as a case manager.

An addiction counselor who operates a private practice will spend their day in sessions with current patients. They will also see potential new patients during initial consultations. A counselor with a private practice is also someone who operates their own business. So, besides taking and analyzing patient notes, they may also participate in core business activities.

These core activities include finance/accounting and marketing. Most of the time, a counselor with a private practice will work from an office or home location. They may hold virtual counseling sessions, attend conferences, and study to renew or obtain appropriate state licenses. 

On the other hand, a case manager will typically work for a county behavioral health or social services office. As social workers, they’ll get a caseload from their superiors or supervisors. They’ll meet with the families or individuals and work with them on their behavioral health issues or intervene with social services. Social workers who place kids in foster care are examples.

General Counselor Duties

While the above explanation provides contrasting examples, the majority of behavioral health jobs involve counseling. Counselors typically spend their days evaluating patients and developing treatment plans and recommendations. They’ll also help clients and patients identify harmful or unhealthy behaviors while guiding them toward better choices.

Counselors will usually document what happens in patient or client sessions. Counselors will also design discharge or termination plans, as counseling or treatment does not last forever. These plans may include follow-up treatment, check-ins, or referrals to support services. For example, a patient may need outpatient treatment for substance abuse after a rehab program.

Many counselors also participate in community outreach programs or extend their services to community health clinics. This is similar to nurses and physicians that maintain the same schedules. Some behavioral health counselors may also work with specific age groups, such as young children or aging adults. 

Where Do They Work? 

Behavioral health jobs can exist in medical facilities, public and private schools, rehab facilities and programs, and public health clinics. However, some career paths, such as social work, can be more dynamic in terms of work environments. For example, a social worker could become employed in one of the following settings:

  • A non-profit agency, such as a battered women’s or homeless shelter.
  • A hospital or outpatient clinic.
  • A private practice.
  • A community clinic or social services office.
  • Public and private schools.

A behavioral health nurse will have a choice of more limited work settings. Hospitals, medical clinics, or in-home healthcare organizations are the main options. That said, counselors can work in varied settings like social workers. Anywhere from private, small offices to major hospital systems and school districts are fair game.

What Degrees and Certifications Are Required to Work in Behavioral Health?

Most behavioral health occupations require at least a bachelor’s degree. Some career paths, such as social work, demand a master’s degree or MSW to be competitive. Since behavioral health careers involve working with sensitive information and situations, additional certifications and licenses may be necessary.

Each state and employer may have different certification and licensure requirements. You can check with the National Board of Certified Counselors if you’re interested in pursuing licensure as a behavioral health counselor. The organization maintains licensure requirements and information for each state. 

The undergraduate and graduate majors you want to pursue depend on your desired career path. For example, future counselors will want to enroll in psychology programs. However, aspiring social workers may choose to major in early childhood development or public policy. 

Clinical experience that a superior supervises may be part of licensure or certification. Some behavioral health positions may also require an internship, which is similar to clinicals. That being said, you can pursue some entry-level behavioral health jobs with less education than a four-year degree. A housing coordinator or a social services assistant are a few possibilities.

Behavioral Health Career Path Example

Here’s a potential career path example for a social worker.

  • Graduates with a bachelor’s degree and becomes a case worker for a battered women’s shelter.
  • After two years as a case worker, they become a program coordinator for the same employer.
  • While working as a program coordinator, the social worker attends graduate school and gets their MSW or master of social work degree.
  • After graduating with their MSW, they take a position as executive director of the women’s shelter.
  • They work as an executive director for four years and then move to a director position for a homeless shelter for families.
  • The social worker stays in that position for ten years and then decides to move into medical social work.
  • They become a licensed clinical social worker through their state and get a job at a local hospital.
  • After working as a clinical social worker for six years, they move on to a managerial position that oversees their former peers. 

This example illustrates a career path for someone who wants to eventually manage programs and others. It is possible to pursue non-managerial career paths that involve several lateral moves. A social worker may become a case manager after graduation. They then might make the switch to medical social work and stay there for the rest of their career. 

How Much Money Can You Earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual pay for behavioral health jobs is $48,520. However, yearly salaries can vary by employer, experience, and position. Behavioral health specialists working for the government make an average of $60450 a year. Professionals working for live-in substance abuse and mental health facilities make around $42,900 a year.

Most jobs require full-time work. However, you might find a few part-time or per diem positions at medical employers. Obviously, part-time or per diem employees might make less than their full-time counterparts. At the same time, experienced or seasoned workers may command salaries as high as $77,980 a year. Less experienced workers can earn only $30,870 annually.


Behavioral health careers are an excellent fit for people who are passionate about making a difference. However, these jobs can be emotionally and mentally demanding. More than likely, you’ll encounter stressful, ambiguous, and sensitive situations. Simultaneously, you will get the chance to change the course of people’s lives.

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