The concept of competency generally means the knowledge, skills, and attitudes (or KSAs) necessary to perform a task. The task is the work to be done. The competency is the ability to complete the task correctly. The term core competency refers to a competency that is considered essential, or is common among different types of workers.  

A competency model or competency set contains all the competencies necessary to adequately perform a complex task or an entire job. The competencies within a model are often organized into competency categories, which group related competencies together. Advanced competency models may contain different sets of competencies for different levels of workers (e.g., entry level versus more experienced). Models may also have behavioral descriptors that describe the knowledge, skills, and attitudes at difference levels of proficiency (e.g., unsatisfactory, satisfactory, exceptional). Professions within mental health often use the concept of professional standards interchangeably with the concept of professional competencies.

Increased Focus on Competencies

In mental health, as in all of healthcare, the interest in formally identifying competencies has occurred primarily over the past two decades. Historically, those who trained the workforce developed a curriculum based on their own professional opinions or the opinions of other experts as to the content that was important. Concerns at the turn of the century about the quality of healthcare prompted efforts to identify and teach a recognized set of competencies, which has created more consistency and uniformity in workforce development efforts.

Functions of Competencies

Competencies have many potential uses. These include: providing guidance on the content of pre-service or continuing education; informing standards for licensure and certification; influencing the design of behavioral health programs and services; shaping job descriptions; setting goals for professional development; and measuring performance through competency assessment.

Competencies in Mental Health

There are multiple ways in which competencies have been developed and used in the field of mental health. Here are three examples:

To strengthen a profession: Most of the mental health professions have major initiatives related to competencies. Professional psychology has a wealth of resources on this topic. There is a guidebook on implementing competency-based education and training; a competency assessment toolkit with information on methods and measures; documents, such as remediation plan templates, for working with individuals who have competency deficits; and information on collaborations with other professions on interprofessional competencies.

To build a new segment of the workforce: In 2015, SAMHSA sponsored the development of Core Competencies for Peer Workers in Behavioral Health Services to advance the development of this workforce. Using an expert panel, the BRSS TACS center identified a dozen competency categories, each defined by a number of specific competencies. As an example, Category II is Provides support. The category is comprised of five competencies:

  1. Validates peers’ experiences and feelings
  2. Encourages the exploration and pursuit of community roles
  3. Conveys hope to peers about their own recovery
  4. Celebrates peers’ efforts and accomplishments
  5. Provides concrete assistance to help peers accomplish tasks and goals.

To increase competency in a specific intervention: Competency models are often identified to foster the teaching and assessment of a particular therapeutic approach. The founders of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) have developed competencies for this modality and use them to assess individual professionals. Those deemed qualified receive formal certification.


There are thousands of resources on the topic of competencies in mental health. Here are a few:

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