Behavioral Health Specialist: Career Information for Educators

Behavioral Health Specialist: Career Information for Educators
Robbie Bruens August 16, 2012

Article continues here

Behavioral health therapy and counseling is one of the fastest-growing medical sectors in the 21st century. It’s challenging work because many people need help with changing their patterns of behavior. Schools, in particular, are grappling with the psychosocial needs of their students. If somebody’s behavior poses a danger to themselves or other people, effective change can be a matter of life and death.

Behavioral health specialists grapple with these challenges every day. They observe, assess and provide treatments that aim to improve individual health and well-being by confronting behavioral issues, which in children can affect learning.

Helping people overcome their life obstacles can be highly rewarding work. If you want to make a profession of providing this kind of help, check out the rest of this guide. You’ll find the facts on job duties, required education and likely salary of a behavioral health specialist. Browse the article or use the links to jump to what interests you most:

> Behavioral health specialist job description
> Who makes a good behavioral health specialist?

Different types of behavioral health specialists
> Behavioral health technicians
> Behavioral therapists
> Mental health counselors

Professional development
> Continuing education

Best of the web
> Sites and Twitter handles to follow

At-a-glance: behavioral health specialists

  Behavioral health technician Behavioral therapist Mental health counselor
Education Associate degree; bachelor’s preferred; licensing sometimes required Bachelor’s Master’s
Median annual salary $31,140 (BLS)
$30,895 (
$24,610 (
$32,363 (
$39,980 (BLS)
$36,336 (
$32,000 (
$70,266 (SalaryExpert)
$32,000 (SimplyHired)
$43,190 (BLS)
$39,505 (
$45,000 (
$53,550 (SalaryGenius)
$40,850 (U.S. News and World Report)
Job growth outlook +5% (BLS) +22% (BLS) +19% (BLS)

Behavioral health specialist job job description


Specialists in behavioral health provide counseling and direction to people dealing with challenges like addiction, physical limitations and mental illness. The profession includes psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health counselors, behavioral therapists, licensed social workers and other healthcare providers.

People who become behavioral health specialists often work with a team of specialists to provide recommendations for a person’s emotional and behavioral care. They may also work with people referred to them by other healthcare providers to determine which options are available.

In schools, behavior specialists also ensure programs comply with guidelines and individual student goals, particularly for special needs students. They may be called upon to facilitate classroom management training for dealing with behaviorally or emotionally disturbed students..

In the past, it was typical for people to “self-diagnose” and call on the practitioner they thought would best serve them. A person experiencing depression might work with the family physician, a mental health specialist or a behavioral counselor. These providers are all trained to treat various conditions in different ways.

Who makes a good behavioral health specialist?


Someone who is:

  • Empathetic and caring
  • Patient and kind
  • Good at planning and organizing
  • Creative and flexible
  • Enthusiastic about healthcare
  • Passionate yet pragmatic
  • Qualified with the proper credentials and degrees

Interested in becoming a behavioral health specialist?

Different types of behavioral health specialists


Behavioral health technicians, behavioral therapists and mental health counselors deal with specific components of helping people with behavioral issues. Let’s take a look at each of these roles in more detail.

Behavioral health technicians


Behavioral health technicians work with doctors and nurses to implement treatment plans for people facing behavioral problems.
Continue reading to learn more about behavioral health technicians

What behavioral health technicians do


Behavioral health technicians (also known as psychiatric technicians) work alongside doctors, nurses and counselors to help people who suffer from psychological, physical and addiction-related ailments. They deal directly with patients suffering from behavioral problems by helping them stick to treatment plans designed by doctors and nurses.

Behavioral health technicians interact daily with patients facing serious challenges including:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Physical and emotional abuse
  • Psychological diseases
  • Mental and physical disabilities

To help their patients heal, a behavioral health technician must understand and help execute each patient’s individualized treatment plan. They must also monitor and keep detailed records of patient behavior as well as their patients’ adherence to treatment plans.

Behavioral health technicians must serve as supportive advocates for their patients’ health and well-being, and ensure their patients receive treatment in a safe environment. They also may help their patients with simple daily activities and errands.

Behavioral health technicians work in hospitals, psychiatric treatment facilities, halfway houses, shelters and private residences.

Education and certification requirements


Behavioral health technicians usually need at least an associate’s degree, though most employers prefer a bachelor’s degree in a field related to mental health or medicine. Licensure or certification may be required.

Income projections


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated that behavioral health technicians earned a median annual salary of $31,140 in May 2015. The BLS projects average job growth for this profession, rising 5 percent through 2024.

Here are a variety of estimates of what you might earn as a behavioral health technician:

  • BLS: $31,140
  • $30,895
  • $24,610
  • $32,363

Pros and cons of being a behavioral health technician


As you consider becoming a behavioral health technician, take into account the good and the bad that come with the job.


  • Minimal education requirements
  • Can be very rewarding to help people with serious problems


  • Above-average work-related injury rate
  • Low pay compared to other behavioral health professions
  • Can include menial work such as changing bedpans
  • Work can be unpleasant when dealing with uncooperative or violent patients
  • Work hours sometimes include nights, weekends and holidays

Behavioral therapists


Behavioral therapists provide their patients with therapeutic treatment to cope with behavioral disorders.

Continue reading to learn more about behavioral therapists

What behavioral therapists do


Behavioral therapists teach their patients how to modify their behavior and cope with mental and emotional disorders. They work with patients to limit or eliminate negative behaviors and substitute them with positive alternatives.

Their work begins with an analysis of the patient’s behavior. Once they have identified problem behaviors, they use appropriate therapeutic techniques to address them and ultimately improve the patient’s health and well-being. If one technique doesn’t yield satisfying results, they will try other approaches until they find an effective solution.

Some unwanted behaviors that a behavior therapist may address include:

  • Inability to focus
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse and addictions
  • Panic attacks
  • Compulsions and obsessions
  • Social anxieties
  • Violent tendencies

Behavior therapists often work one-on-one with their patients, though in some cases they may operate in group settings. They may treat different ailments or specialize in treating particular disorders such as autism, anorexia/bulimia, depression or posttraumatic stress disorder

Mental health clinics, assisted living facilities, academic institutions, private medical practices and hospitals offer growing employment opportunities for behavioral therapists.

Types of behavioral therapy


While all behavioral therapists help their patients combat unhealthy behaviors, they may rely on specific therapeutic techniques. These three are among the most common:

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) guides patients to alter how they think about and react to life’s challenges. Behavioral therapists using CBT encourage patients to think more positively and challenge their unhealthy thought patterns. In addition, they  discuss their desires and address obstacles to achieving their goals in life. CBT works to change patients’ mindsets with one-on-one consultations and homework assignments.

Dialectical behavior therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is generally used to treat patients with severe behavioral problems, including suicidal depression, compulsive self-harm and borderline personality disorder. The technique helps patients identify their strengths and build on them to improve their self-esteem.

At the same time, DBT challenges patients to recognize and resist negative thoughts, beliefs and assumptions that make life more difficult. DBT may include role playing to help the patient develop new ways of interacting with others. In some cases, DBT may teach patients to use meditation, mindfulness and deep-breathing exercises to deal with situations where they become upset and/or overly stimulated.

Applied behavior analysis

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) helps patients with significant emotional and mental disorders develop healthy response behavior. Applied behavior analysts teach people involved in the patient’s life to help change response behavior. ABA prioritizes teaching patients useful life skills and addressing negative behaviors that may harm them. ABA is frequently used to help autistic individuals, including children on the autism spectrum.

Educational and certification requirements


Most behavioral therapy jobs require a bachelor’s degree at minimum. However, some employers may require only a high school diploma while others may require a master’s degree or additional clinical training and certification. Behavioral therapists with more education and training can provide more services to patients and usually require less supervision than those with less education. They typically earn more as a result.

Depending on the specific job and location of the employer, you may need a state license to practice therapy. Many state licenses require a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of clinical experience. Licensure requirements may include passing a state-issued exam and completing continuing education every year.

Annual income projections


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted a 22 percent increase in jobs for behavioral therapists through 2024. This profession is growing with plenty of opportunities available.

The BLS also reported that the median annual wage for this field in May 2015 was $39,980. Here are a handful of estimates of what you might earn as a behavioral therapist:

  • BLS: $39,980
  • $36,336
  • $32,000
  • SalaryExpert: $70,266
  • SimplyHired: $32,000

Pros and cons of being a behavioral therapist


Consider the advantages and disadvantages of working as a behavioral therapist.


  • Higher pay than behavioral health technicians
  • Rewarding to help clients change their lives for the better
  • Get to work one-on-one with interesting people
  • Satisfying to see patients make progress and eventually overcome problems


  • Higher education requirements than behavioral health technicians
  • Difficult to remain compassionate, understanding and professional at all times
  • Work is often emotionally charged and tense
  • Often large workloads
  • Stressful to work with agitated patients or those who resist treatment

Mental health counselors


A mental health counselor provides psychological care to patients dealing with depression, generalized anxiety disorder and other life challenges.

Continue reading to learn more about mental health counselors

What mental health counselors do


Mental health counselors help patients work through a variety of life challenges. Some work with people who have normal cognitive processes but face difficult life events such as physical illness, grief, job loss or divorce. Others help patients manage serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.

The patients of mental health counselors may suffer from a wide range of difficulties including:

  • Aging
  • Parenting
  • Low self-esteem
  • Interpersonal relationship problems
  • Stress
  • Addiction
  • Phobias
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety
  • Uncontrollable rage
  • Constant panic
  • Chronic unexplained pain
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anhedonia
  • Psychotic depression

Mental health counselors provide services such as assessment, diagnosis, therapy, substance abuse treatment and crisis management. The day-to-day duties of a mental health counselor include:

  • Helping patients discuss their emotions and experiences honestly
  • Advising patients making decisions about the future
  • Diagnosing mental and emotional disorders such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, phobia and addiction
  • Helping patients learn to modify their thoughts, behaviors and reactions to difficult situations
  • Referring clients to other resources or services, such as support groups or inpatient treatment facilities

Mental health counseling happens in a wide variety of settings. Patients may see the counselor one-on-one, in couples’ sessions or in family therapy. Mental health counselors may also lead group therapy sessions.

Educational and certification requirements


To become a mental health counselor, you will need a master’s degree in psychology, clinical mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, or a related mental health field. You will also need a license to provide mental health counseling services. Licensure requirements vary by state, but typically include a master’s degree, a certain number of hours of clinical work, and an exam.

Annual income projections


Here are estimates of what you might earn as a mental health counselor:

  • BLS: $43,190
  • $39,505
  • $45,000
  • SalaryGenius: $53,550
  • U.S. News and World Report: $40,850

Pros and cons of being a mental health counselor


Here are some things to keep in mind when thinking about getting a job as a mental health counselor.


  • Highest pay of behavioral health specialist jobs
  • High-growth field (increase in employment of 19 percent in the next decade)
  • Work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, mental health facilities and private offices
  • Constantly interact with interesting people
  • Make a meaningful difference in people’s lives


  • Advanced education required
  • Complex and stringent state licensing requirements
  • Can be high stress and emotionally exhausting, particularly if patients are suicidal or prone to crisis
  • Evening and weekend hours may be required

Professional development for behavioral health specialists


There are many ways to pursue professional development as a behavioral health specialist. You can get involved in an organization such as the National Council for Behavioral Health or join a professional association like the American Mental Health Counselors Association.

You may also pursue certifications that can boost your resume and increase your earning power in the behavioral health field. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers a number of options for certification, including:

  • The National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential
  • The Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) designation
  • The Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) designation

To earn these certifications, you will have to pass an examination and demonstrate a certain number of hours of clinical experience.

Many behavioral health specialists also continue to take courses to keep up-to-date on skills and knowledge in their field. Classes or workshops on the treatment of individual conditions may be particularly valuable. Chronic and acute depression, substance abuse, anger management and coping with disabilities are all good topics for supplemental training. Some states require behavioral health specialists to complete continuing education courses annually to maintain their license. And there’s always the option to go back to school to earn an additional degree, which will expand your job opportunities in the behavioral health field.

Benefits of continuing education


The best behavioral health specialist jobs require advanced training. While degree and training requirements differ for each position, those who earn a master’s degree or even an MD or PhD will be the ones qualifying for the highest-paying jobs.

Getting sophisticated training and education rooted in the behavioral sciences is key. You must develop a deep understanding of how people behave and the emotional challenges they face every day.

Best of the web: our favorite behavioral health blogs, websites and Twitter handles


The web makes it easy for us to stay connected to prominent behavioral health specialists. Here is a list of our favorite websites and Twitter handles, in no particular order.

Favorite behavioral health websites and blogs

Favorite behavioral health Twitter handles

You may also like to read