Job Description of a Mental Health Specialist

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One in four American adults will have a mental disorder in a given year, according to an estimate by the National Institute of Mental Health. Many of these individuals could be helped by a mental health specialist, another name for a mental health counselor. The U.S. Army uses the first title, while other organizations might use either term. The duties of mental health specialists and counselors are similar, however – to provide basic counseling to people with mental illnesses or behavior problems.

Go Army

  • Army mental health specialists assist in the management and treatment of mental illness. They collect and record data such as a patient's vital signs, mood and behavior and help care for patients who receive treatment for psychiatric, drug or alcohol problems. In addition, they provide counseling to people with personal, behavioral or psychological problems. The mental health specialist is part of a team that includes psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals and typically works under the supervision of a licensed professional.

Counseling for Change

  • Like mental health specialists, mental health counselors also provide treatment. But in addition, they diagnose mental and emotional disorders and coordinate treatment with other mental health professionals. Counselors might make referrals to other health care professionals and services in the community. Many use what is called cognitive-behavioral therapy to help clients learn different ways of managing emotions, dealing with relationships and solving problems. The mental health counselor is a sounding board and safe audience for a patient to discuss and process emotions, experiences and plans for change.

Secondary Responsiblities

  • In addition to their ordinary responsibilities, mental health counselors and specialists must also be able to respond to emergencies and crisis situations. In addition, they record their findings in the medical record and must have good written and spoken communication skills, attention to detail and be accurate in their documentation. While either might specialize in a particular area, such as substance abuse, counselors can also specialize in working with specific patient populations, such as the elderly or homeless.

Education and Other Requirements

  • Army enlisted personnel need either a high school diploma or a GED, and a license is not required for an Army mental health specialist. The Army provides 10 weeks of basic training and an additional 20 weeks of special training for the job. In civilian life, a counselor needs a master’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most states require counselors to be licensed. To become licensed, a counselor must have 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, according to BLS.

Money Matters

  • GoArmy.com reports that the average total compensation for all active duty service members – including mental health specialists – is approximately $99,000 annually when benefits such as housing, health care, retirement and subsidized food are figured in. Non-cash benefits are approximately 60 percent of the total, which leaves $40,000 in salary. In the civilian world, mental health counselors earned a median salary of $41,500 annually in 2012, according to BLS. Mental health counselors typically work for organizations that provide benefits, such as government agencies, hospitals and outpatient care centers, although some work in private practice and do not have benefits.

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