What Is Integrative Health in Mental Healthcare?

Integrative health diagram

One in every five adults in the U.S. struggles with a mental health disorder, and for one in 20 of them, the illness is considered serious.1 Mental illnesses, ranging from depression to schizophrenia, take a heavy toll on patients’ quality of life, affecting their relational health, socio-emotional wellness and day-to-day functioning. If you’re passionate about mental healthcare, you may be thinking of pursuing a career as a mental health counselor.

As an aspiring mental health counselor, you could focus your practice on integrative health, meaning a whole-person approach. Exactly what is integrative health and what’s the career pathway for becoming a counselor? Explore this in-depth career guide to find out!

What Is Integrative Health?

Integrative health is broadly defined as an approach to medicine that takes the whole person into consideration and involves the development of a multi-faceted treatment plan, incorporating all appropriate treatments that may include lifestyle modifications, complementary medicine and conventional treatments. First, let’s take a closer look at the concept of the “whole person.” A whole-person approach to medicine involves looking at not only that person’s symptoms, but also all possible influencers of health, such as lifestyle choices, spiritual wellness and emotional health.

An integrative treatment plan is one that is informed by evidence-based modalities, but also inclusive of complementary therapies and lifestyle modifications. For example, a patient with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) may have severe jaw pain and stiffness. Whereas a traditional treatment plan may involve a bite guard and medication, an integrative health plan may also include lifestyle modifications, such as yoga for stress relief, as stress is an underlying cause in many cases of TMD.

Integrative Health: Meaning and Manifestations in Mental Healthcare

Integrative health involves an approach that can apply to all areas of medicine, including mental healthcare. In the mental health counseling field, a practitioner who takes an integrative health approach understands that each client is a unique, highly complex, and multidimensional human being. A broad spectrum of factors may affect a client's emotional, mental, social, spiritual, relational, physical and environmental wellness.

The role of the mental health practitioner is to look beyond the symptoms of a client’s psychological and behavioral challenges to consider all possible influencing factors, as well as co-morbidities. For instance, a client who is receiving counseling for depression may also suffer from insomnia or fibromyalgia. It’s essential to treat the whole person, rather than just one issue, as health conditions are often linked or have the potential to influence each other.

A mental health counselor who follows an integrative approach will recognize that each client needs a unique, fully customized treatment plan, developed in collaboration with the client. For one client, a treatment plan may include referrals to a nutritionist, while another client’s treatment plan may include a recommendation to begin taking yoga classes.

The integrative approach to mental healthcare often incorporates the integrated approach, as well. The similar, but distinct concept of integrated healthcare refers to the collaboration of a patient’s various providers. For instance, a person’s mental health counselor, primary care physician and oncologist may work together to share information and fine-tune the treatment plan (with the patient’s consent).

What Does an Integrative Mental Health Counselor Do?

Mental health counselors work closely with clients to help them overcome a wide range of challenges. While taking a whole-person, collaborative approach, a mental health counselor may do any of the following:

  • Evaluate clients’ mental, physical, social, emotional, environmental and cognitive wellness.
  • Reach out to clients’ other healthcare providers to share information and collaborate on treatment plans.
  • Help clients develop strong coping skills and positive thought and behavioral patterns.
  • Work with clients’ families to educate them about their loved one’s challenges and to discuss how best to support the client.
  • Refer clients to community support resources, ranging from support groups to housing assistance to job placement services and beyond.

How To Become an Integrative Health Practitioner

If you’re still in high school and you’re thinking about pursuing a career in integrative mental healthcare, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your guidance counselor. Ask if you can add any courses that can help you prepare to study mental health in college. For instance, your high school may offer classes in introductory psychology, human development and social science.

At this point in your academic journey, it’s a good idea to explore job shadowing opportunities. Your guidance counselor can help you identify job shadowing opportunities in your area. By observing mental health professionals at work, you can get an insider’s look at the profession, and this can help you determine whether this is indeed the right career path for you.

As you begin looking ahead to college, you should research the licensure requirements for the state in which you plan to practice as a mental health counselor. Every state licensing board establishes their own licensing requirements for mental health professionals. By knowing these requirements ahead of time, you can be sure to choose degree programs that will enable you to meet them.

Future mental health counselors can expect to need a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as counseling or psychology. After graduation, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree, as well. Then, you’ll need to complete the supervised field hours required by your state licensing board, followed by acquiring licensure.

You may also decide to further enhance your career qualifications and professional knowledge by voluntarily earning a graduate certificate. Look for a graduate mental health certificate in integrated health. This can help you implement a strong integrated approach within your practice.

Earn a Relevant Undergraduate Degree

After high school, the first step in the process of becoming a mental health counselor who uses an integrative health approach is to earn an undergraduate degree. There is no rigid, universal bachelor’s degree requirement for aspiring mental health counselors. However, the degree you choose should be related to mental health.

For example, you could choose to major in psychology, counseling, behavioral health science or social work. Look for an accredited school that uses a curriculum that is aligned with standards established by a relevant professional organization. For instance, if you choose to major in psychology, look for a program with a curriculum that is aligned with the standards of the American Psychological Association (APA).

The topics you’ll study depend on your school and degree choice. In general, however, if you’re majoring in psychology you can expect to study topics such as the following:

  • Introduction to the history of psychology and the fundamental functions of the brain, including perception, motivation, emotion, learning and sensory functions
  • The nature and causal determinants of human behavior, with a study of theories such as Neo-Freudian, biological, psychodynamic, cognitive and behavioral
  • The stages of development of children and adolescents, including their cognitive, biological and socioemotional processes
  • The social, cultural and group factors that can influence individual behavior, with a look at aggression, cooperation, stereotypes, prejudices, social awareness and group roles
  • Research methodologies and experimentation design, including theoretical and applied aspects

You will also likely have a capstone course during your senior year. Capstone courses are intended to showcase everything that you’ve learned up to that point. They are typically comprised of a research-and writing-intensive project under close faculty supervision.

Practical experience in the field is crucial for this career path. While you’re working toward your degree, it’s strongly recommended that you pursue internship opportunities at mental health clinics, addiction treatment centers and other relevant settings. Talk to the team at your school’s career services department for help finding local internship opportunities.

Earn Your Master’s Degree in Integrative Health

In order to acquire licensure as a counselor, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree. It’s not strictly necessary to earn a master’s degree in integrative health. You could earn any type of master’s degree in mental health counseling.

However, if you already know that you want to emphasize integrative health in your professional practice and you do have an integrative health degree available to you, this type of degree is certainly a good choice. Depending on the specific program and your enrollment schedule, it may take about two years of full-time study to complete a Master of Science in Mental Health and Wellness with an Emphasis in Integrated Health.

This type of degree will enable you to develop solid competencies in professional ethics and related laws, leadership skills within a mental health facility, emotional first aid and best practices in integrated healthcare. Some of the specific topics you are likely to study include the following:

  • Cultural diversity and awareness in the mental health field, as well as professional ethics as they relate to client confidentiality and legal standards
  • Research methodologies, evidence-based application of theories and proper documentation
  • The integration of the mental health, healthcare and wellness fields, with a look at common mental health disorders, therapeutic approaches and community support services
  • The design, development and implementation of community-based preventive programs, including funding, administration and evaluation

You may also be required to complete a capstone course for your master’s degree. If you’ve chosen a master’s degree that can lead to state licensure, it will likely encompass a certain number of practicum hours, or supervised field experience hours. You’ll be required to deliver mental health services to individuals and groups within an approved setting and under the close attention of your supervisor.

Complete the Required Number of Supervised Field Hours

In order to obtain state licensure, you’ll need to meet your state’s requirement for supervised field hours or practicum hours. The requirements vary from one state to the next, but aspiring counselors can generally expect to need a few thousand supervised hours. Even if your master’s degree program did include practicum hours, you might need additional hours beyond those you’ve already earned.

Supervised field hours are an opportunity to put what you’ve learned into practice. It’s ideal to choose a work setting that will enable you to work with a wide range of patient populations, or to choose one that allows you to focus on your particular professional interests (e.g. chemical dependency or pediatric counseling). Pay close attention to the feedback your supervisor provides and actively work on incorporating that feedback into your counseling practice.

Acquire State Licensure in Mental Health Counseling

Once you meet the state requirements for licensure, you can apply to officially become a mental health counselor. Expect to submit extensive documentation, such as official transcripts and documentation of your supervised field hours.

You’ll also likely need to pass a criminal background check, and possibly complete a training course on identifying and reporting child abuse. Depending on your state, you may also need to pass an examination administered by your state licensing board.

Earn Your Graduate Mental Health Certificate

Although you can acquire licensure without an additional credential, it can be a smart move to earn a graduate mental health certificate in addition to your master’s degree. A graduate certificate isn’t a degree. Rather, it’s an extra credential that demonstrates your in-depth mental health knowledge and your commitment to professional excellence.

Look for a graduate mental health certificate that focuses on integrated health. You will likely study concepts such as best practices when developing and implementing the integrated health model. You’ll also study the latest research and trends in integrated health concepts and delivery models, as well as their impact on patient outcomes.

Are Mental Health Counselors in Demand?

There is a considerable demand for mental health counselors, both now and for the foreseeable future. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors to increase by about 23% from 2020 to 2030, faster than average, accounting for an estimated increase of 75,100 jobs in the field.2

This robust hiring rate is partially due to the number of currently practicing counselors who are expected to retire or transition to other professions in the coming years. However, there is an increasing demand for counselors to work with military veterans and clients who struggle with substance abuse. In addition, many criminal court systems are increasingly relying on mental health treatment programs in lieu of jail time for defendants whose offenses are related to addiction or other mental health disorders.

If you’re passionate about integrative health and wish to pursue a career as a mental health counselor, Grand Canyon University (GCU) offers degree and certificate programs that can help you achieve your dream. Learn about our undergraduate and graduate programs, including the Master of Science in Mental Health and Wellness with an Emphasis in Integrated Health and the Graduate Certificate of Completion in Mental Health and Wellness with an Emphasis in Integrated Health. GCU provides a highly supportive and academically stimulating setting for aspiring mental health counselors. 


Retrieved from:

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health By the Numbers in October 2022

COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, retrieved on 02/01/2022. 


Approved by program manager for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Jan. 6, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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