Counseling is the process of resolving personal, social or psychological issues through discussion and guidance. It can be provided by a number of mental health specialists, with counselors primary amongst them. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the counseling profession is on track to grow much faster than average, by 29 percent from 2012 to 2022, increasing the number of counseling jobs from 166,300 to 214,527.
What’s fueling this astonishing growth in the demand for counselors? Two things: veterans and the Affordable Care Act.
Counseling and Veterans
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, up to 20 percent of the more than 2 million Americans who have been deployed under Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (the global war on terrorism) have returned home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These 400,000 veterans require treatment, the most effective of which is counseling.
Unfortunately the VA only employs 21,000 behavioral care staff, which serve the entire population of veterans, numbered at 22.3 million. Although the department has attempted to hire more of such staff, the lack of qualified candidates has left vacancy rates at 20 percent. This in turn has produced wait times of up to 37 days before veterans can receive necessary psychiatric treatment. It’s suspected that this delay in access to care is a driving factor in the high rates of veteran suicide (twice that of civilians), which leave 22 former service members dead by their own hands each day.
The math is clear: If the VA is to adequately treat veterans suffering from PTSD, and thereby stem the tide of suicide drowning former service members, it must enlist at least 5,250 more behavioral care staff. To that end, new federal legislation has been enacted to grow the pool of qualified candidates by providing loan repayment for psychiatry student debt and to cover the costs of veterans seeking counselors in the private sector. Unfortunately this later provision is unlikely to fully address the issue, as the private sector has its own shortage of counselors.
Counseling and the Affordable Care Act
The Affordable Care Act extended health care coverage to 16.9 million previously uninsured Americans, while also making mental health care an essential benefit required of all new insurance plans. Between these two aspects of the legislation, it’s estimated that mental health benefits have been extended to 62 million Americans – undoubtedly an impressive feat. Unfortunately the increase in access has not come with a corresponding rise in the number of service providers.
While the one in five American adults who experience mental illness each year may now have insurance covering appropriate treatment, the number of counselors to actually treat them remains shy of 200,000. Worse yet, 55 percent of counties across the country have no practicing mental health professionals at all, contributing to the 91 million Americans who live in federally designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas.
In response to these shortages, some states are considering reforms that would assist aspiring counselors with fellowships, expand counseling degree programs and introduce younger students to the profession. Regardless of the approach, the goal is clear: to create more counselors.
How to Become a Counselor
Entry-level counseling positions require a master’s degree in counseling or a related subject, such as psychology, social work or therapy. Admission to a Master of Arts in Counseling program typically requires the completion of a bachelor's degree, preferably in psychology or human services, and practical volunteer or professional experience in psychology, sociology or human services. A Master of Arts in Counseling degree program includes coursework on clinical practice, human growth and development, and psychopathology, along with hands-on clinical training. Some degree programs may also offer concentrations in Substance Abuse, Clinical Mental Health, Child Counseling and School Counseling.
As demand is currently so high and predicted to grow, the employment prospects of counseling graduates are looking up, to say the least. Median pay for counselors in 2012 was $41,500 per year (significantly higher than the median of $34,750 for all workers), and that is only expected to rise. Combine this with the knowledge that America’s most deserving – veterans – and our most desperate – those suffering from mental illness – need counselors, and it is obvious that this is a profession which is rewarding in more ways than one.
Roslyn Tate is an editor on 2U Inc.'s Counseling website. A recent Goddard College MFA she enjoys helping people achieve their goals through academics and art.