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Working in behavioral health can lead to several rewarding career paths that provide vital support for those in need. There is a heightened demand in this field due to the shortage of workers contributing to Virginia’s overall healthcare workforce crisis. These roles can span clinical work, research, social work, addiction treatment, and even policy advocacy. Each role is critical in addressing Virginia’s growing need for mental and behavioral health services.

Read on to explore the diverse professional opportunities for behavioral health careers, including:

• What Is a Behavioral Health Specialist?
• Behavioral Health vs Mental Health
• Virginia’s Growing Demand for Behavioral Health Careers
• Behavioral Health Specialist Requirements
• Behavioral Health Career Pathways

Looking for the right career? Use On Board Virginia’s job board to explore available behavioral health opportunities!

What is a Behavioral Health Specialist?

Behavioral health specialists treat emotional, behavioral, and biological conditions to improve an individual’s psychological health. They commonly focus on behavioral and mental health issues including but not limited to:

• Substance use disorders
• Eating disorders
• Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders
• Post-traumatic stress disorder
• Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
• Counseling

Social workers, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners are just some of the roles within behavioral and mental health professions.

Behavioral Health vs Mental Health

Behavioral health and mental health are broad and related fields in healthcare. Both deal with a patient’s psychology, and you may see them used interchangeably. However, there are some notable differences.

• Behavioral health focuses on managing an individual’s actions related to their psychological condition. How does the person respond to a scenario? And what are the underlying reasons?
• Mental health refers to an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and biological factors that influence their mental state. Mental health falls under the umbrella of behavioral health.

A person may live with depression and anxiety, which are mental disorders. That individual may choose to self-isolate or self-harm, which are behavioral disorders. Effective treatment requires a holistic approach to both behavioral and mental health.

Virginia’s Growing Demand for Behavioral Health Careers

In general, behavioral health careers are projected to grow faster than average, due to increasing mental illness and behavioral health needs. A recent study by the Virginia Health Care Foundation identified:

• A disproportionate number of behavioral health specialists are at or near retirement age. The current rate of incoming licensed behavioral health specialists is not enough to meet behavioral healthcare needs.
• Nearly 70% of Virginia’s localities (93 out of 133) are federally designated as Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas.
• About one in five Virginians live in a community without adequate access to behavioral health specialists or telehealth services.

To compound this, a 2021 survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness revealed that 264,000 adults in Virginia report having a serious mental illness each year. 97,000 children aged 12–17 also report having depression each year.

It’s clear that behavioral health careers are in high demand across the board, from entry-level positions to more seasoned roles. Now is one of the best times to enter the behavioral health field!

Behavioral Health Specialist Requirements

All behavioral health professions require some form of education, but the level of education will depend on the role and specialty.

Some entry-level roles like the behavioral health technician will only require a high school diploma (or GED) and a registered behavior technician (RBT) certification. More advanced behavioral health professions, like psychologists, will require additional education.

You may start with a bachelor of science in psychology, counseling, social work, or a related degree followed by a master’s in a specific field. From there, you will need to complete postgraduate supervised experience, pass the appropriate professional examination, and obtain a state license from the Virginia Department of Health Professions along with any additional certifications.

Be sure to check your chosen profession’s requirements fully to ensure you have the correct education and credentials.

Additionally, take advantage of behavioral health work incentives, scholarships, and grants such as the Virginia Behavioral Health Student Loan Repayment Program to cover educational costs.

Beyond educational requirements, individuals pursuing behavioral health careers should be compassionate with a high level of emotional intelligence. Strong communication and mental fortitude are also key when working with various populations and settings.

Behavioral Health Career Pathways

Pursuing a behavioral health career can lead to several opportunities depending on your location, education level, experience, and specialty. You can find front-line and administrative roles in several settings, including:

• Hospitals
• Private practices
• Schools
• Addiction treatment centers
• Social work and human services agencies
• Government organizations

Salaries for professionals in behavioral health typically range from $35,000–$250,000 per year, though you should always compare the wage to local living costs. We’ve listed some of the most in-demand behavioral health specialist roles below.

Behavioral Health Technician

A behavioral health technician, or a registered behavioral technician (RBT), are paraprofessionals who work under the supervision of a certified behavioral analyst. As front-line workers, they’re responsible for collecting patient data and following treatment protocols according to a behavioral plan.

The average annual salary for a behavioral health technician (RBT) in Virginia is $37,000. A high school diploma or equivalent and an RBT certification are required.

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

A licensed professional counselor (LPC) provides counseling services, defined as a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals. Counselors usually work on specific, short-term challenges with clear goals.

The average annual salary for an LPC in Virginia is $50,800, which may increase with a specialty.

A master’s degree in counseling (at minimum), including supervised clinical work, is required. LPCs also need a state licensure from the Virginia Department of Health Professions and a state certification from the Virginia Board of Counseling.

Specialization may require further education and certification. Common specialties include:

• Mental health counselor
• Substance abuse counselor
• Rehabilitation counselor
• Career counselor
• Marriage, couple, or family counselor

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) specializes in social work, defined as the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness, emotional, and other behavioral disturbances. Counseling may be part of an LCSW’s scope of work, but responsibilities also involve helping individuals find necessary resources to better their quality of life and address life challenges.

The average annual salary for an LCSW in Virginia is $78,000.

A master’s degree in social work (at minimum), including supervised clinical work, is required. LCSWs also need to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical-level exam to receive a state licensure from the Virginia Department of Health Professions.

Clinical Psychologist

A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional who diagnoses and treats psychological conditions, including mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. They work in tandem with psychiatrists and counselors to develop effective treatment plans. Given the depth of their education and training, they’re equipped to take on the most serious mental health disorders.

The average annual salary for a clinical psychologist in Virginia is $114,000.

A doctorate of philosophy or psychology from an accredited program, including supervised clinical work, is required. Clinical Psychologists also need to apply for state licensure from the Virginia Department of Health Professions and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

Occupational Therapist (OT)

Occupational therapists (OT) typically work with individuals who have physical, developmental, social, or emotional conditions that impact their everyday activities. An occupational therapist helps the individual function independently within specific environments, working in a long-term capacity.

The average salary for an OT in Virginia is $95,170.

A master’s or doctoral degree, including fieldwork from an accredited educational program, is required. OTs must obtain a state licensure from the Virginia Board of Medicine and a national Registered Occupational Therapist certification from the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNP) are trained to assess, diagnose, and treat individuals with mental health or psychiatric conditions. Their scope of work overlaps with a psychiatrist’s, though the education requirements differ.

The average annual salary for a PMHNP in Virginia is $124,900.

Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners must hold an active RN license for at least 1–2 years before seeking appropriate graduate- or doctorate-level programs to become advanced practice nurses. This includes supervised clinical work. In addition, candidates must complete the psychiatric-mental nurse practitioner exam administered by the American Nursing Credentialing Center (ANCC) and obtain a license from the Virginia Department of Health Professions.

Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in mental health. They’re responsible for evaluating, diagnosing, and creating treatment plans for individuals with psychiatric needs. As medical doctors, they have the authority to prescribe medications to treat mental health disorders.

The average annual salary for a psychiatrist in Virginia is $249,000.

It takes at least 12 years to become a psychiatrist. You must complete medical school as well as a residency program in psychiatry. Medical school graduates must take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) to obtain a license followed by a certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). Specialization may require further education and certification.

Pursuing a Career in Behavioral Health

With mounting mental and behavioral health needs from communities across the state, behavioral health specialists have significant opportunities to grow their careers while making a difference in people’s lives.

Entry-level roles, such as behavioral health technicians, may only require a high school diploma and a certification program. However, more advanced roles will require additional education and licensure to ensure quality care.

Virginia is passionate about helping professionals in the behavioral health industry by covering educational costs for those who qualify. Find out if this applies to you and learn more about the repayment program’s highlights!

Ready to explore more behavioral health roles? Use On Board Virginia’s job board to find available opportunities!