Types of Counselors: Clinical and Nonclinical Roles

A counselor leads a group counseling session.

One in 5 U.S. adults — approximately 57.8 million people — had a mental illness in 2021, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Mental health counselors play a pivotal role in helping people with mental illness improve their well-being by providing them with quality mental health care and support.

The mental health field distinguishes between clinical roles and nonclinical roles, both of which focus on promoting mental health and wellness. Those interested in pursuing a career as a counselor should learn about the different types of counselors, including their responsibilities, work settings, and educational and licensure requirements, such as earning an advanced counseling degree.

What Is a Counselor?

Every person’s mental health varies over time and can be adversely affected by factors such as stress, unemployment, or significant loss. While this is not uncommon, when symptoms such as extreme mood changes, sleep issues, or detachment from reality become persistent, they might indicate a more serious mental illness. Counselors diagnose these conditions in their clients, help them identify their needs, and craft effective treatment plans for them. 

Examples of different types of counselor responsibilities include the following: 

  • Providing guidance and resources to clients to help them navigate and overcome their mental health challenges, promoting positive change and recovery 
  • Using psychotherapy to address clients’ mental and emotional disorders, offering them insights and strategies for personal growth 
  • Establishing safe, positive relationships with clients to facilitate the creation of real-life solutions to their problems and encourage the development of coping mechanisms and behavioral changes 

Counselors work with clients individually, as families, and in groups to help them achieve wellness and overcome life’s challenges.

Key qualities for effective counselors include empathy, active listening skills, and clear communication skills. Problem-solving skills enable counselors to guide their clients through challenges, while being able to maintain emotional stability ensures they can provide a supportive environment. Cultural competence and ethical standards also are crucial for working with diverse clients, while having self-awareness fosters a nonjudgmental atmosphere. 

Counselors also must be flexible to be able to adapt their approach to meet their individual clients’ unique needs. And they need to have the capability to collaborate with other healthcare providers so they can expand their access to resources. These qualities, combined with a commitment to upholding professional standards, help build trust with clients and foster safe and supportive counseling environments to help individuals overcome their mental health challenges.

Defining the Different Types of Counselors

Counselors work in both clinical and nonclinical roles. Clinical counselor roles involve direct client care, such as providing therapy for addiction, mental health issues, or medication management challenges, often in primary or specialized healthcare settings. These counselors address clients’ complex mental health needs through clinical assessments, diagnoses, and extended care. Nonclinical counselor roles focus on promoting mental wellness, preventing mental health issues, and offering short-term support, peer counseling, and success coaching. 

Requirements for specific positions vary, but they may involve obtaining specialized training and certification. Adding credentials through experience, networking, and ongoing learning can help counselors advance their skills to match the ever-evolving mental health care landscape.

Defining the different types of counselors reveals how a comprehensive approach is needed to cater to diverse mental health requirements. It also illustrates the vital roles that clinical and nonclinical professionals play in the broader healthcare field.

Clinical Counselors

Clinical mental health counselors help clients improve their mental and emotional well-being; they work in various settings such as outpatient centers, hospitals, and residential facilities. They address a wide range of issues, from mental health and interpersonal relationship challenges to career and educational decisions, employing therapeutic methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to support their clients’ recovery and growth. CBT is a form of psychotherapy focused on assisting individuals in regulating their thoughts and behaviors. CBT can be effective in addressing various mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse.

Clinical counselors work with individuals, families, and groups, focusing on improving their clients’ emotional, psychological, and behavioral well-being. Their goal is to foster coping mechanisms, personal development, and behavioral changes through diverse therapeutic techniques. Clinical mental health counselors also play a vital role in advocating for individuals with mental health issues, promoting mental health awareness, and supporting marginalized communities.

Requirements for entering counseling occupations vary. Clinical counselor roles require at least a bachelor’s degree, and many positions require a master’s degree, which typically includes a supervised internship. Licensure is mandatory for counselors who want to work in private practice. Licensure requirements include obtaining a master’s degree, completing supervised clinical hours, passing a National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) examination, and completing a set amount of continuing education each year. The specific requirements vary by state.

The demand for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is growing, with an expected job growth rate for these professionals of 18% from 2022 to 2032, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This underscores the increasing recognition of their critical contribution to individual and societal well-being. The median annual salary for these clinical mental health counselors was $49,710 in 2022, according to the BLS.

Following are some examples of different types of clinical counselors.

What Is an LPC?

Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) are highly trained mental health specialists with a master’s degree in mental health counseling or clinical psychology. They complete over 3,000 hours of supervised clinical practice, akin to a medical residency, under the guidance of licensed professionals. This extensive training equips them to diagnose and address a broad spectrum of emotional and mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, across various demographics. LPCs may specialize in a specific form of counseling, such as mental health counseling or family therapy.

For those interested in what an LPC is and does, it’s important to highlight that LPCs commit to ethical standards and participate in ongoing education to ensure their practice remains current. State and federal regulations require LPCs to continuously update their skills. 

As of March 2024, LPCs had a median annual salary of approximately $56,000, according to Payscale.

What Is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor?

Clinical mental health counselors address a spectrum of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral challenges with their clients, including substance abuse issues, through psychotherapy. They practice in diverse settings ranging from private practices and community-based mental health centers to hospitals and treatment centers. They work with clients individually, as couples, as families, or in groups to help them improve their mental wellness, manage their stressors, and support their recovery. 

Skilled in various therapeutic approaches such as CBT, psychodynamic therapy, and interpersonal therapy, these professionals tailor their treatments to their individual clients’ needs. Clinical mental health counselors typically provide treatments over a period of 12 to 16 weeks.

Clinical mental health counselors need to be licensed by the state in which they practice. Depending on the state, these counselors may be classified as an LPC, a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC), or a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC). To gain licensure, counselors must pass one of the NBCC’s licensure exams — the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) — depending on state requirements.

NBCC also offers optional certifications for counselors, such as the certified clinical mental health counselor (CCMHC) credential. To qualify for CCMHC certification, clinical mental health counselors are required to complete a minimum of 60 semester hours or 90 quarter hours of graduate-level academic credits in counseling through an accredited program. Counselors also must have 100 hours of postgraduate supervised experience, secure professional endorsements, and complete 3,000 hours of clinical work. They must adhere to ethical standards set by the NBCC and pass the NCMHCE as well.

The median annual salary for clinical mental health counselors was approximately $43,000 in March 2024, according to Payscale.

What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

Substance abuse counselors, also known as addiction counselors, help individuals overcome substance use disorders. Counselors in private practice must be licensed, which requires a master’s degree. They can also hold certifications to work in settings such as detox centers and therapy programs, where they focus on the causes of their clients’ addictions, develop coping strategies for them, and support their emotional needs. They assess the severity of their clients’ addiction, craft personalized recovery plans for them, and sometimes address their co-occurring mental health conditions for a holistic approach. 

The route to becoming an addiction counselor includes meeting state-specific educational and clinical experience requirements, completing internships, and, frequently, passing a licensure exam to gain a credential such as the licensed alcohol and drug counselor (LACD) credential. Requirements can vary by state, but it is typical for substance abuse counselors to be required to complete anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 hours of clinical practice, based on their degree level, to be qualified to become licensed practitioners. 

Upon meeting their state’s licensure mandates and gaining the requisite experience, professionals also can pursue professional certifications such as the Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) credential or the National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC) credential, enhancing their expertise and therapeutic capabilities. Substance abuse counselors typically need to maintain their licensure or certification through continued education to ensure they are growing professionally and adhering to current standards of practice. 

According to Payscale, the median annual salary for certified substance abuse counselors was approximately $61,000 as of February 2024.

What Is a Marriage Counselor?

The divorce rate in the U.S. is 2.4 per 1,000 marriages, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This statistic underscores the need for marriage counseling and couples therapy. 

What is a marriage counselor, and what is their role in helping couples? Marriage counselors provide a safe environment where couples can explore and resolve their conflicts under professional guidance. They aim to foster a shared understanding within their relationship and to equip the couple with conflict resolution skills, which are useful in any relationship. According to the American Psychological Association, marriage counseling has demonstrated positive effects, as reported by 70% of couples who have gone through treatment. 

Issues tackled in marriage counseling include financial disputes, communication challenges, trust, intimacy, infidelity, parenting disagreements, and decisions about divorce or separation. The work settings for marriage counselors include private practice offices, community mental health centers, and social service agencies.

Recognized by the federal government as a core mental health profession, marriage counseling is pursued through a master’s, doctoral, or postgraduate program that is accessible to individuals from diverse fields such as social work and nursing. In the U.S., licensure requirements for marriage counselors are universal across states and typically include earning a degree from an accredited program, completing two years of supervised experience, and passing a licensing exam, ensuring that counselors meet the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy’s standards for professional practice. 

The median annual salary for marriage counselors was approximately $72,000 as of October 2023, according to Payscale.

What Is a Disability Counselor?

Disability counselors, also known as rehabilitation counselors, assist individuals who have physical or mental disabilities or chronic illnesses in overcoming challenges and achieving their personal goals. These counselors tackle a variety of issues with their clients, from employment and education concerns to life and social skills, and advocate for their rights and needs. Work settings for disability counselors range from private practices and hospitals to substance treatment facilities and schools.

Clinical rehabilitation counselors develop tailored plans for their clients that help them gain independence, informed by a thorough understanding of disability laws and regulations. Disability counselor roles typically require a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related field, with licensing requirements varying by state and service type. This may include earning a master’s degree, completing 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, passing a licensing exam, and completing ongoing education to maintain certification. Aspiring disability counselors need to consult their state’s licensing board or the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) for the specific licensing details of their state. 

According to Payscale, the median annual salary for rehabilitation counselors was about $52,000 as of January 2024.

Nonclinical Counseling Roles

Nonclinical counseling roles that do not require licensure encompass a range of positions that focus on support, advocacy, and guidance. These types of counselor roles include policy advocate, grief counselor, youth pastor, and childcare administrator.

What Is a Policy Advocate?

Policy advocates work closely with policymakers, community stakeholders, and other professionals to promote legislative and social reforms that will improve mental health care access and quality. They engage in advocacy through public speaking, lobbying, and media efforts, often partnering with nonprofits and mental health experts to highlight necessary policy changes. Staying abreast of the latest mental health research and legislation is crucial to their effectiveness. 

Typically, policy advocates hold a degree in public policy, public administration, social work, or a related field, with many pursuing graduate education to enhance their advocacy skills. Mental health policy advocates play a vital role in driving systemic change in mental health care. 

As of March 2024, the median annual salary for policy advocates was approximately $59,000, according to Payscale.

What Is a Grief Counselor?

Grief counselors help individuals navigate their emotional upheaval after a loss, recognizing grief’s varied manifestations. They aim to aid their clients as they move toward acceptance, process their grief, adapt to changes in their lives, and maintain their connections while moving forward. Grief counselors use techniques that include discussing loss, expressing emotions, developing coping strategies, and fostering new relationships. The American Psychological Association estimates that grief can last six months to two years after a loss. Certified grief counselors, who are often licensed professionals and degree holders, support individuals through this journey.

Grief counselors can obtain certification from the American Academy of Grief Counseling (AAGC) to demonstrate their proficiency in working with clients experiencing loss. To obtain grief counselor certification from the AAGC, candidates must complete 100 hours of study in an AAGC-approved program. Eligibility extends to individuals with a graduate degree in educational counseling; a college degree in human services, psychology, human behavior, or a related field; or substantial professional experience in grief counseling. 

Grief counselors had a median annual salary of approximately $42,500 as of March 2024, according to Payscale.

What Is a Youth Pastor?

Youth pastors work within faith-based communities, nurturing young believers in their faith journeys. They collaborate with church leaders on crafting engaging lesson plans and organizing charitable activities. Key skills of youth pastors include communication, creativity, and organizational skills, along with strong faith and a dedication to mentoring youth. They need to have experience in youth mentorship and religious education, as well as familiarity with church environments. 

Youth pastors often work unconventional hours to accommodate the schedules of the school-age youth they work with. They typically pursue further theological education, as well as additional training in counseling or a related field to enhance their role by aiding in youth counseling and development. 

Payscale reports that youth pastors had a median annual salary of approximately $42,000 as of March 2024.

What Is a Childcare Administrator?

Childcare administrators oversee programs that focus on children’s development, education, safety, and well-being. They direct preschool and childcare center operations, managing the staff, the budgets, and regulatory compliance. Balancing their administrative tasks with direct oversight of their programs, they engage in office work, classroom visits, and parent meetings. 

Childcare administrators need strong coordination and communication skills, along with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. Some positions may require additional credentials like the child development associate (CDA) certification and state-mandated licenses in skills such as CPR and first aid. Experience in early childhood education and counseling empowers administrators to lead and innovate in educational settings, enriching the lives of the children in their care and their families.

The median annual salary for individuals with a childcare administrator license was approximately $50,000 as of March 2024, according to Payscale.

Educational Requirements for Different Types of Counselors

To become a counselor, individuals must be dedicated to helping individuals manage and overcome their mental health, emotional, and behavioral issues. Additional requirements for clinical counseling roles generally include earning a master’s degree in counseling or a related field, gaining 2,000 to 3,000 hours of clinical experience under supervision, and passing a licensing exam from a body such as the NBCC or CRCC. Each state’s licensing board has its own requirements for the different types of counselors. Following these steps allows individuals to apply for licensure and start their counseling careers.

Outside of these general requirements, different types of counselors have different educational requirements. For example, since marriage counselors focus on relationship dynamics, they are required to have two years of graduate study in marriage counseling, family therapy, and child psychotherapy, to be able to employ a holistic approach to mental health within family contexts. 

In another example, since licensed professional counselors treat clients with a broad spectrum of mental health issues, they are required to complete coursework in human development, counseling theories, and ethics, to prepare them to provide various types of mental health care to clients, including individual therapy and crisis intervention.

These two paths underline how important it is for counselors to gain a solid educational foundation, prioritize ethical practice, and pursue ongoing professional development to be equipped to impact clients’ lives positively. 

Embark on the Path to a Fulfilling Career as a Counselor

Understanding the different types of counselors and the educational and licensure requirements specific to each can help people select the mental health career path that best matches their interests and aspirations. As demand for mental health services increases, so does the opportunity for individuals to specialize within the field. With various paths to choose from, a role as a counselor can be rewarding both professionally and personally. 

Individuals considering a career in counseling must weigh the educational commitments and the time needed to fulfill the required licensure and certification criteria to become a counselor. Earning an advanced counseling degree from an accredited institution such as Mid-America Christian University can provide students with the foundational training and preparation needed to become licensed in the U.S. While licensure requirements vary by state, the program offers students the flexibility to customize their practicums and internships based on their state’s standards.

MACU’s counseling programs focus on empowering students to become compassionate guides for those in need. The Master of Science in Counseling program at MACU not only helps prepare students for practice, it also offers them the flexibility to determine which career path to pursue. Students can choose to specialize in one of four concentrations: 

Find out how Mid-America Christian University can help you pursue a career with meaning and help others find a path forward.