Online Doctorate in Behavioral Health Leadership: PhD, PsyD, DBH

“A doctoral degree in behavioral health leadership, or the social sciences for that matter, can significantly enhance a career by providing advanced knowledge and skills that are critical for leadership positions in health settings. Graduates often gain a deeper understanding of policy, research methodologies, and organizational management.”

Damir S. Utrzan, PhD, LMFT, Chief Compliance and Strategic Development Officer, Horowitz Health

Psychology is a fascinating and diverse academic discipline that is often valuable to professionals pursuing various career paths. Knowledge derived from psychology can be applied in numerous industries, including business, human resources, child development, rehabilitation, education, and career counseling.

The need for trained counseling professionals is robust. Several factors contribute to this need. Some of these include the rapid pace of technological and societal change that creates feelings of profound dislocation and alienation for some people, the lingering societal disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and significant rates of substance abuse, addiction, heart disease, cancer, and trauma in the American populace.

Among the many pressing needs in the American healthcare system is the need for leadership. Counseling professionals are needed to provide individualized treatment, assess populations’ needs, and subsequently design and implement effective programs to meet those needs. One particular pathway to provide such services is in behavioral health leadership.

The theory that undergirds behavioral health leadership is that mental health programs and services can and should be proactive rather than reactive, designed to meet the needs of diverse populations and based on rigorous, evidence-based, diverse methodologies. People are isolated from the many structures and institutions that influence their development and quality of life. To provide timely and effective mental health care, practitioners must effectively assess both individual needs and the systems within which people live, collaborate across disciplines to design responsive programs, and be consistently open to ongoing assessment and redesign of programs in response to observed outcomes.

The practice of behavioral health leadership can be especially effective for populations whose needs are complex, urgent, and enduring. Client populations that can significantly benefit from skilled behavioral health leaders include military personnel, law enforcement personnel, medical professionals, and members of other high-risk, high-stress professions. Stated differently, behavioral health leadership is a discipline that seeks to normalize the need for mental health treatment and thereby create a welcoming atmosphere for those who would likely benefit from such care. Client populations that may especially benefit include those who work in high-risk or stressful occupations and those whose lives and histories are defined by complex social and economic circumstances.

Meet the Expert: Damir S. Utrzan, PhD, LMFT

Dr. Damir S. Utrzan serves as the chief compliance and strategic development officer at Horowitz Health, where he plays a key role in ensuring compliance with industry regulations and spearheading strategic initiatives geared toward treating co-occurring disorders. With a rich background that includes managing mental health and psychiatry services across six Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation sites, Dr. Utrzan has a proven track record in enhancing provider-patient outcomes and overhauling psychiatry service lines through meticulous market and best practices research. His experience extends to overseeing an intensive residential treatment facility under the Minnesota Department of Human Services, where he managed budgets, ensured financial adherence, and analyzed legislative impacts on service delivery. 

Beyond his primary roles, Dr. Utrzan contributes to the Human Services Performance Management Council and serves as an unaffiliated research scientist on the Institutional Review Board at the University of Minnesota, ensuring research compliance with federal standards. He is licensed as a marriage and family therapist in both Minnesota and Wisconsin and recognized as a board-approved clinical supervisor in Minnesota, showcasing his extensive expertise and commitment to the field. How has graduating with a doctoral degree in behavioral health leadership enhanced your career?

Dr. Utrzan: A doctoral degree in behavioral health leadership, or the social sciences for that matter, can significantly enhance a career by providing advanced knowledge and skills critical for leadership positions in health settings. Graduates often gain a deeper understanding of policy, research methodologies, and organizational management, which can prepare them for senior administrators, policymakers, consultants, or academic faculty roles. The degree also offers opportunities to contribute to the field through original research, potentially influencing practices and policies at a systemic level. Of course there is also the importance of analyzing complex systems effectively. What is one piece of advice you would give to a prospective doctoral student in behavioral health leadership?

Dr. Utrzan: One piece of advice for prospective doctoral students in this field is to recognize the power of networking. Cultivating a strong network of peers and mentors can provide support, foster collaborations, and open up opportunities for professional development and career advancement. 

Additionally, being proactive in seeking out practical experiences alongside academic studies, such as internships or part-time roles in relevant organizations, can be invaluable. This practical exposure complements academic learning and enhances understanding of real-world challenges and solutions in behavioral health leadership, empowering individuals in their career development.

What Do Behavioral Health Leaders Do?

Behavioral health leaders are skilled professionals who may perform various tasks and functions within their roles. Depending on their skills, specialization, client population, and the employing organization, a behavioral health leader may do any of the following:

  • Assess and monitor the mental health of populations such as soldiers, individuals within the correctional system, those struggling with substance abuse and addiction, or a local community
  • Create solutions tailored to the needs of a client population and subsequently track the administration of these programs
  • Evaluate the delivery of existing psychological programs
  • Prepare, carry out, and analyze studies focused on both urgent and non-urgent issues present within client populations
  • Apply leadership skills to improve the delivery of mental care services in a variety of settings
  • Train entry-level counselors, stakeholders, managers and executives in leadership skills
  • Formulate policies that positively impacts mental health services delivery
  • Follow ethical foundations of behavioral health leadership and mental health delivery to sustain and improve the delivery of services in an equitable manner
  • Improve the delivery of mental health/substance use disorder services by addressing issues such as service gaps, limitations in provider agency resources, and workforce development

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide salary and job outlook data specific to behavioral health leaders. However, the market for this job category can be reasonably extrapolated using related job series. The BLS (May 2023) reports mental health and services managers had an average annual salary of $134,440. Considering that individuals can accept a role with only a bachelor’s degree, a behavioral health leader holding a doctoral degree can reasonably expect to earn a fair bit more. As with any job, the salary someone ultimately can expect will depend on many factors, including the responsibilities of the job, specialized skills and knowledge typically difficult to find in candidates, and characteristics of the local job market in which the job is found.

Typical Admissions Requirements for Doctoral Programs in Behavioral Health Leadership

A typical doctoral program in behavioral health leadership features a rigorous program of study. The admissions requirements commonly found in such a doctoral program include some combination of the following:

  • Application materials: While doctoral program application materials do vary among schools, most schools will require a statement of purpose, a GRE examination score, a scholarly writing sample, a resume of curriculum vitae, letters of recommendation, official transcripts, and an application fee
  • International students may need to complete additional requirements, such as demonstrating English language ability sufficient to learn within their program effectively
  • Ability to successfully pursue doctoral-level work
  • Evidence of existing leadership skills or demonstration of strong potential to develop such skills
  • Post-master’s degree-related work experience
  • Demonstrated fitness for the profession as evidenced by emotional maturity, a healthy capacity for self-reflection and a willingness to undergo personal psychotherapy
  • Substantial oral and written communication skills
  • Sensitivity to the needs, challenges, and perspectives of diverse populations, including those who are disabled, those who come from historically marginalized and underserved populations, the poor, and many other client populations

Courses in Behavioral Health Leadership PhD Programs

A behavioral health leadership doctoral program provides a curriculum designed to train professionals to assume various roles post-graduation.

Some such doctoral programs feature options for students to develop a specialization such that they can target their skills to assist a particular client population. For example, higher education institutions operating in major cities may feature curricula designed to meet the needs of populations in the local urban area where the school is based. Particular populations for which coursework might be customized include pediatric clients, the urban poor, and immigrant communities. 

Doctoral degree program curriculum requirements often consist of core courses, concentration courses, elective courses, an internship experience, and an applied project (sometimes interchangeably referred to as a capstone project). Below is a sampling of courses often offered within core, concentration, and elective coursework categories. This listing is not exhaustive.

Core Courses

  • Theoretical Perspectives in Health and Behavioral Science
  • Social and Behavioral Determinants of Health and Disease
  • Biostatistics and Data Management
  • Behavioral Health Professional Writing Style 
  • Population-Based Health Management
  • Quality and Performance Measurement, Improvement, and Incentives in Healthcare
  • Healthcare Systems: Organization, Delivery and Economics
  • Research Design and Methods in Health and Behavioral Science
  • Qualitative Research Design and Methods
  • Quantitative Research Methods in Public Health
  • Advanced Methods of Research
  • Community Health Program Evaluation

Concentration and/or Elective Courses

  • Health Informatics for Future Healthcare Professionals
  • Models of Integrated Primary Care
  • Behavioral Health Management
  • Financial Management of Healthcare
  • Healthcare Legal, Ethical, and Professional Issues
  • Human Ecology and Environmental Adaptation
  • Public Health Communication
  • Health Literacy
  • Leadership and Development

Supervised Internships and Dissertation – Behavioral Health Leadership PhD Programs


While doctoral students of other psychology and mental health degree programs customarily complete an internship, an internship requirement is uncommon among DBH programs. When required, an internship experience typically must feature supervision by a qualified and licensed counseling professional. This supervision requirement typically exists for accreditation, liability and/or training purposes.

The particular features of an internship placement may vary by program (minimum number of direct contact hours, depth of involvement of advisor in identifying and securing a placement, etc). Still, they will often be sufficient to fulfill the internship requirement portion of the licensure regulations for the state in which the student pursues training.

Rather than an internship placement, DBH programs may feature other forms of training that equate to the value of an internship and earn a student academic credit. One common type of equivalent training experience is independent study. 

In an independent study course, a student will work closely with one or more faculty members to devise a project of interest to the student. Or a student may assist a faculty member with an ongoing project of interest. Such projects can often feature a topic within a faculty member’s area of expertise. If a student enters a program and transfers in credits towards core coursework from another educational institution, that student may be able to complete independent study in place of (already completed) core coursework to specialize further and also obtain the credit necessary to be awarded the degree.


The dissertation often has the most intimidating reputation among all the components of an academic program that a student must complete to receive a doctoral degree. Often described as the final research project within a doctoral program, a dissertation is often equivalent to a major research project featured in bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

In a dissertation project, a student profoundly researches a question of interest and then later presents findings in written and/or oral format. A successful dissertation defense before student colleagues and faculty members is frequently required for a student to earn a doctoral degree. The purpose of a dissertation is to allow students to apply and demonstrate their mastery of their independent research skills. A dissertation at the doctoral degree program level can be quite large, sometimes extending up to 50,000 words. The dissertation is typically the longest and most demanding feature of the requirements of a doctoral program. The process of researching and writing a dissertation will often take several years to complete.

Accreditation Within Behavioral Health Leadership PhD Programs

Two major accreditation agencies are responsible for much of the accrediting of DBH doctoral programs and their particular contents. The American Psychological Association and the Council on Education for Public Health are these. 

American Psychological Association

The American Psychological Association (APA) Commission on Accreditation is a specialized accreditor. A specialized accreditor is an agency that only accredits certain types of programs. The APA Commission on Accreditation only accredits specific doctoral graduate programs, doctoral internships, and postdoctoral residencies in health service psychology. The accredited status of a specific program does not imply other programs in the same department or institution are also accredited.

Institutional accreditation covers entire academic institutions. There are six regional accrediting bodies in the United States. Each body is authorized to accredit institutions in specific states, divided by geographic region. An APA-accredited doctoral graduate program must be housed in an institution with this accreditation. 

Council on Education for Public Health

The mission of CEPH is to assure quality in public health education and training by achieving excellence in practice, research, and service, and collaborating with organizational and community partners. CEPH is recognized by the United States Department of Education as the agency responsible for the accreditation of United States schools of public health, and public health programs operating outside of schools of public health, at the baccalaureate and graduate degree levels. This accreditation authority extends to schools offering degree programs via distance education.

In 1974, the independent Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) was established by the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH), the national organization representing deans, faculty, and students of accredited schools of public health. Formal accreditation of schools offering academic degrees in public health occurred in the 1940s, when APHA offered recognition of ten such schools.

Featured Behavioral Health Leadership PhD, PsyD, and DBH Programs

Below is a sampling of educational institutions offering doctoral degree programs in behavioral health leadership and related fields such as behavioral health management, and health and behavioral science.

Arizona State University (DBH)

The Arizona State University College of Health Solutions offers an 84-credit doctoral degree program in behavioral health management (DBH). The DBH degree is a global, interdisciplinary degree featuring an innovative curriculum, an internship within a healthcare setting, and an applied research project requirement for both domestic and international students. The curriculum consists of 18 courses of 7.5 weeks in duration. Students learn about how social determinants impact health on both an individual and communal level and how to utilize resources to manage costs while simultaneously providing quality and accessible healthcare. Prospective students should note that this DBH program does not provide a clinical or other licensure pathway. However, ASU does offer a separate PhD program in behavioral health leadership that does have a clinical focus.

Students specifically learn to customize management practices to meet the needs of local communities and their health systems according to varied important factors such as geography, culture, and policy. The curriculum focuses on integrated health management within primary care and focuses on patient-centered medical home and accountable care organization models. Three topical focus areas are integrated behavioral health program design, quality and performance measurement, and business entrepreneurship. Recognizing technology’s importance and ever-evolving nature, the curriculum features emerging health technologies such as integrated health measures in electronic health records, mobile health applications, and wearable technology.

Preparation for degree conferral concludes with a capstone research project and internship requirements. In the capstone project, students develop a comprehensive business plan aligned with personal and professional interests. Students complete at least 240 hours of service to fulfill their internship requirements.

Graduates of the management concentration are trained to fulfill what is called the Quadruple Aim in healthcare. These four goals are improved patient experience of care, population health management, cost savings, and improved healthcare team experience.

  • Location: Phoenix, AZ
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three to five years

Cummings Graduate Institute (DBH)

The Cummings Graduate Institute for Behavioral Health Studies offers a fully online doctor of behavioral health (DBH) graduate degree program. Ranked as the most affordable integrated behavioral healthcare doctoral degree program in the US, this program prepares integrated care professionals to offer whole-person healthcare to diverse communities and to improve access to quality healthcare for all people. 

The curriculum is a 60-credit program consisting of 43 credit hours of required courses and 17 credit hours derived from a combination of electives, independent/speciality study, and/or additional applied research. Students complete a minimum of 22 courses. The DBH program curriculum provides specific training in patient- and family-centered care, quality measurement, and improvement, population health, disease management, cost savings, and ROI analyses, innovative financing approaches, and entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship. This program has no residency or internship requirements.

DBH graduates are in high demand in the healthcare marketplace, given their unique skill set. They emerge into the workforce as doctoral-level experts in integrated behavioral healthcare trained to offer patient-centered care, work on interdisciplinary teams, utilize evidence-based practice and quality improvement approaches, and use informatics in primary care and other medical settings.Practicing as a doctor of behavioral health does not require a professional license, and there is currently no licensure for a DBH in any state or nation at this time.

  • Location: Tempe, AZ
  • Duration: Three years; students have a window of two to five years to complete the program
  • Accreditation: Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)

Freed-Hardeman University (DBH)

Freed-Hardeman University offers one of Tennessee’s first professional doctoral programs in behavioral health. This 60-credit program provides post-master’s, licensed clinicians the training to become effective providers of advanced-integrated care in various settings. 

The curriculum includes executive leadership and business training that further enhances earning potential. It features courses that offer live chat with instructors and students, clinical rotations, real-time streaming video consultations with experts, and a capstone research project tailored to each student’s professional aspirations and specialized knowledge. Classes are offered online via web conferencing and face-to-face in Henderson, Memphis or Dickson.

The capstone project allows students to demonstrate the knowledge they have developed in their studies. Students demonstrate their critical thinking, communication, and independent research skills through this project. Students present their projects to the behavioral science faculty and peers for review and defense. Students can present their capstone project only after completing all other degree requirements satisfactorily.

  • Location: Henderson, TN
  • Duration: Two to four years 
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

University of Colorado Denver (PhD)

The University of Colorado Denver offers a PhD program in health and behavioral sciences (HBS) designed to prepare students to become leaders in population health. The program incorporates theories and methodologies from social, behavioral, and health sciences to generate knowledge relevant to creating and delivering healthcare for various client populations. The curriculum features three fundamental dimensions. These are a core curriculum (29 semester hours) focused on problem-oriented, interdisciplinary approaches to theory and method, elective coursework necessary to provide the foundation to pursue dissertation research, and the dissertation project itself.

The program offers autumn admission. Students typically take two years to complete required coursework within a student cohort. The coursework includes social and behavioral theory, research design, statistics, qualitative methods, and the social determinants of population health. After completion of these courses, students go on to prepare a proposal for their dissertation research. They prepare this proposal under the mentorship of a dissertation committee. Later, after successfully defending their prospectus, students typically take another one to two years to finish their dissertations. This process is also mentored.

  • Location: Denver, CO
  • Duration: Four to six years
  • Accreditation: Institutional accreditation provided by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

University of Maryland (PhD)

The Department of Behavioral and Community Health within the University of Maryland School of Public Health offers an 82-credit PhD degree program in behavioral and community health. The program trains health professionals to assess and understand the health needs of populations and complete research to guide the development and implementation of programs and policies designed to improve public health. The development of strong research skills is necessary to achieve one of the program’s objectives, namely training students to make substantial contributions to the scientific and professional literature within the behavioral and community health disciplines.

The program fosters the development of several competencies, including the following:

  • Advanced skills in data collection, aggregation, interpretation, and analysis
  • Use of major social, behavioral, and public health theories to inform the design and evaluation of interventions, research questions, and hypotheses
  • Construction of data validation tools to measure behavioral factors that include community health
  • Writing research proposals for theory-based research
  • Development of comprehensive evaluation plans for health-related interventions
  • Application of evidence-based approaches in developing and evaluating social and behavioral science interventions.

This program is especially suited for students enthusiastic about developing interventions to influence individual and community-level health behavior positively, those seeking exceptional advising, and individuals who wish to establish public health careers defined by excellence and leadership. Students benefit from a low (3:1) doctoral student-to-faculty advising ratio. Job titles of career paths accessible to graduates include public health analyst, senior research analyst, assistant scientist, and assistant professor.

  • Location: College Park, MD
  • Duration: See website for details
  • Accreditation: Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) 

Liberty University (PhD)

Liberty University is ranked as one of the leading Christian universities in the United States and is also the largest university in Virginia. It offers a fully online doctor of philosophy (PhD) in psychology – behavioral health leadership. 

This program prepares counseling professionals for administrative and management positions in mental and behavioral health organizations and college-level teaching and research positions. The curriculum is a research-focused program emphasizing leadership skills and professional ethics. The online delivery model allows for participation by working professionals and individuals with significant family and other commitments that limit their schedule flexibility. Students with sufficient time may complete the program in as little as three years.

The curriculum consists of three coursework types: core psychology courses,  training specific to the behavioral health leadership specialization, and a dissertation course series. Core courses focus on subjects such as research, statistics, and analysis. The relationship between Christianity and psychology is another curriculum emphasis. In addition, students develop collegiate-level teaching skills. The behavioral health leadership specialization focuses on theories and research in behavioral health, leadership and development, strategic planning and management, and contemporary topics in behavioral health. Students may further customize their learning by studying subjects such as grant writing, program evaluation, organizational consulting, and behavioral healthcare policy. The dissertation requirement is another component where students can customize their research focus to suit their professional interests.

To keep tuition affordable, Liberty University has maintained a frozen tuition rate for its undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs since 2016.

  • Location: Lynchburg, VA
  • Duration: Three or more years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

Walden University (PsyD)

The Walden University doctor of psychology (PsyD) in behavioral health leadership program provides professionals training in various skills, including leadership, healthcare legal and regulatory policy, business and management skills, project management, and program development. In addition to its general program, Walden offers six optional specializations for this program. They are healthcare management, health psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, international practice, public health, and teaching.

Students typically complete approximately 58 quarter-credits for their core coursework and anywhere from 25 to 130 quarter-credits for completing their dissertation. Students are generally continuously registered in the dissertation/doctoral study course until they complete their capstone project, which is approved.

Fusing together the disciplines of healthcare, health and behavioral psychology, management, and policy, this program prepares graduates for various roles, including behavioral health leader, project manager, behavioral health manager, research manager, administrator, and consultant. Common employment settings include non-profit organizations, social service agencies, healthcare agencies, hospitals, community health centers, and group homes. Some graduates seek work with specialized client populations, including military personnel, people in correctional facilities, and individuals working in high-stress professions. 

Prospective students should note that the PsyD program in behavioral health leadership is not a licensure program and therefore does not prepare an individual to become a practicing licensed psychology professional.

  • Location: Columbia, MD
  • Duration: Students have up to eight years to complete the program
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

Jobs in Behavioral Health Leadership: What Can I Do with a Doctorate?

Graduates of DBH and closely related doctoral programs typically find many opportunities open to them. Leadership within the healthcare industry is a pressing concern in other industry segments, such as doctoral-level training programs focused on the education of new counseling educators. 

Given the ever-advancing technologies and methodologies used to deliver healthcare, the industry-wide extreme stress that occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, and still other factors, the need for skilled healthcare professionals who also offer leadership skills cannot be easily overestimated. 

DBH program graduates may work in some roles featuring titles such as public health analyst, senior study director, behavioral epidemiologist, senior research analyst, postdoctoral fellow, assistant scientist, assistant professor, and director of research. Such professionals may fill these roles in various settings, including higher education, mental health facilities, hospitals and clinics, rehabilitation centers, nonprofit organizations, and private practice. 

With the numerous challenges the United States currently faces, such as a high prevalence of substance abuse and addiction, and the lingering and substantial mental health toll of the Covid pandemic, DBH (and related) professionals will likely find many opportunities to apply their skills for years to come.

Bernd Geels

Bernd Geels


Bernd Geels is a Berlin, Germany-based freelance writer and artist. He holds an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science and two graduate degrees. He completed his most recent graduate degree in international environmental studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in 2011. He is interested in healthcare, climate change, marine conservation, indigenous science and refugee issues. You can reach him directly at [email protected].

Rachel Drummond, MEd

Rachel Drummond, MEd


Rachel Drummond has used her expertise in education and mindfulness to guide aspiring counselors since 2020. Her work emphasizes the importance of integrating reflective mindfulness into counseling techniques, helping readers understand how mental and physical well-being can enhance their professional practice and personal development in counseling.

Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.