The mental health workforce in the United States is barely keeping up with the growing need for its services.
According to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are more than 577,000 mental health professionals practicing in the U.S. today whose main focus is the treatment (and/or diagnosis) of a mental health or substance abuse concern. The data, the latest available, are from the 2016-2017 period.
As people become more aware of the value of good mental health, they’re finding it increasingly difficult to access mental health services. Since 2011, the mental health professional workforce has only grown 4 percent while the population during the same time period has grown 3.5 percent.
Psychologists continue to make up the largest segment of mental health professionals who can diagnose and treat mental disorders and other mental health concerns. More than 34 percent of psychologists are self-employed, mainly as private practitioners and independent consultants.
Job opportunities for a psychologist should be the best for those with a doctoral degree in a specialty, such as health psychology, neuropsychology or forensic psychology; those with a master’s degree will have good prospects in industrial-organization; bachelor’s degree holders continue to have limited prospects working within the field.
The worst news comes from the number of physicians who go into psychiatry. Psychiatry has suffered a devastating 36 decrease in its ranks since 2011. The lack of psychiatrists can be attributed largely to a medical school curriculum that devalues psychiatry and psychiatric services coupled with the lowest median pay of virtually any other physician group.
Mental Health Professionals Statistics
Here is the breakdown for 2016-2017:
- Clinical and counseling psychologists – 166,000 (8.4% increase from 2011)
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers – 112,040 (23% decrease)
- Mental health counselors – 139,820 (19% increase)
- Substance abuse counselors – 91,040 (5% increase)
- Psychiatrists – 25,250 (36% decrease)
- Marriage and family therapists – 42,880 (37% increase)
Psychiatrists make up approximately 3.5 percent of all 713,800 physicians and surgeons employed in the U.S. in 2016. This proportion has declined 1.5 percent since 2011 — meaning that fewer physicians are choosing to become psychiatrists. The rate of psychiatry as a specialty is similar to OBGYN and pediatricians.
Another 271,350 people are educational, vocational, and school counselors, while rehabilitation counselors account for 119,300 people.
Social Worker Statistics
Social workers, who often assist a family in a mental health capacity, accounted for more than 682,100 jobs in the U.S. in 2016. The largest employers of social workers are: individual and family services (18%); state government (14%); ambulatory healthcare services (13%); local government (13%); and hospitals (12%).
While a bachelor’s degree is necessary for entry-level positions, a master’s degree in social work or a related field is necessary for many positions. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) make up about 52-55 percent of all social workers.
Their breakdown from 2016 looks like:
- Child, family and school social workers – 317,600 (8% increase from 2011)
- Medical and public health social workers – 176,500 (21% increase)
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers – 123,900 (10% decrease)
- Social workers, all other – 64,000 (14% decrease)
The job outlook for virtually all the mental health professional fields is positive for the coming decade, especially for psychiatrists. Professionals who specialize in a specific area of mental health usually have better job prospects than those who are generalists.
Our previous article on mental health professionals’ career data is here (from 2011).
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019). Occupational outlook handbook. Retrieved from bls.gov on April 3, 2019.
Salsberg et al. (2017). Profile of the social work workforce report. Profile of the social work workforce report (PDF).