Do you get a kick out of helping people deal with their problems? Are you the person family and friends turn to for emotional and moral support whenever they’re going through difficult times? If that sounds like you, then you might have a natural aptitude that would make you perfectly suited to a career in mental health services.
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For those poor souls who are overwhelmed by the challenges and frustrations of life, mental health practitioners offer invaluable counseling, support and guidance to help them cope and live a normal, functional life. You’ll be helping people with their most fundamental needs--happiness, purpose and stability. It’s a tough job, but it offers the kind of reward that no salary can match.
If that sounds like the kind of career you’d like to pursue, then we’ve got some tips to help you on your way. Read on to find out how you can get started working as a mental health professional:
1. Get Your Bachelor's Degree
Mental health is not a career you simply dip your toes into. While you don’t necessarily need to start straight out of school, it will take time to build your credentials and go through the academic training required to be considered for jobs in this field.
For the majority of individuals looking to pursue a career in mental health, it’s best to start with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, counseling or a related field. As you progress through your studies and learn about the industry, you can think about where you want to specialise and start moving in that direction.
While at college, it would be a good idea to volunteer at a local mental health facility. This will give you an idea of what the job feels like in practice, and will help you make a more informed decision about how you want to proceed with your career. You’ll also be racking up valuable hands-on experience with real patients, which will stand to you when it comes to applying for jobs or postgraduate courses.
2. Consider Your Options
As a mental health professional, the issues you encounter will depend largely on your specialty. You could be helping patients with everyday stress and depression, eating disorders, addiction, phobias, learning difficulties, autism--the list is long and wide. You’ll want to begin narrowing down your career options early on, so here are some to consider:
- Clinical psychologist: Trained to make diagnoses, prescribe medication and provide individual or group therapy. Usually requires a doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited program.
- School psychologist: Same duties as a clinical psychologist, but in a school setting. Also requires a doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited program.
- Psychiatrist: A medical doctor with special training in the treatment of mental and emotional illness. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication, but generally do not offer counseling.
- Clinical social worker: Provides therapy, case management and advocacy, usually in a clinic or hospital setting. Requires at least a master’s degree in social work or counseling.
- Professional counselor: Provides individual or group counseling, usually in a private clinic. Requires a master’s degree in psychology, counseling or a related field.
- Alcohol/drug abuse counselor: A practitioner with specific training and clinical experience dealing with addiction.
- Psychiatric nurse: A registered nurse with specialised training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional illness.
- Marital/family/child therapist: Counseling and training specifically related to marriage, family, or children’s issues.
- Peer specialist: A counselor with lived experience of mental health or substance abuse issues. Peer specialists can relate to patients through shared experiences, which helps with recovery.
When deciding on your specialisation, it might help to have some practical experience in a few of these areas (this is why volunteering while in college is so important). Remember though, the list above represents just a fraction of the more common career paths in the field of mental health services--consider it a starting point for you to form a plan of your own.
3. Choose Your Specialty
Once you’ve identified the specific area you’d like to work, you can move toward obtaining the particular qualifications you’ll need for that field. Typically this involves pursuing at least a master’s degree in your specific area of psychology or counseling, with some disciplines requiring no less than a PhD.
You’ll be covering more advanced topics and delving deeper into assessment techniques, counseling strategies, behaviour disorders and the human mind. It will be a challenging year or two, but it will set you up well to make the best of your clinical experience once you leave college.
You might also be required to participate in an internship in order to graduate from your master’s program. Even if you’re not, it’s a good idea to do so--you’ll benefit from valuable real-world experience, and it may count towards the supervised hours you need to accumulate in order to obtain a license to practice.
4. Build Your Experience
Before you’ll be considered for a license, you’ll need to complete anywhere between 2,000-4,000 hours of hands-on supervised clinical experience, depending on the requirements for your country/state. This is why the more field work you can do in college, the better a position you’ll be in starting out.
In most cases though, clinical experience is obtained during two years of post-master’s work performed under the supervision of a licensed mental health counselor. In other words, you’ll need to spend a couple of years as an intern before you get your own license to practice, so be prepared for that.
Mental health professionals can work in all different types of health facilities where patients that need them will have access to their services. Typically you’ll start out in a hospital or psychiatric hospital, but there are other options--mental health clinics, care centres, schools, detention centres, adoption agencies, law enforcement agencies, and even the military.
5. Obtain Licensure and Continue Your Development
In order to work as a mental health professional, you’ll need to obtain a government- or state-issued license to practice for the region where you intend to work. The application process typically involves passing a state-issued licensure exam, and you may need to have a certain amount of supervised clinical experience in order to qualify.
Once you’ve obtained a license, you’re good to go, but you’ll need to continue your professional development in order to keep it. Mental health professionals in most countries are required by industry regulations to continue their education, for which they accumulate credits that count towards the renewal of their licenses (which typically happens on an annual basis).
You might want to join a professional organisation (such as the American Mental Health Counselors Association, for example) for access to the best continuous education opportunities. You’ll find yourself attending regular conferences, participating in seminars and completing online courses to continue your development.
Remember though, it’s not just about getting your license renewed every year. Mental health is an ever-changing field, so practitioners need to ensure they are working with the safest and most up-to-date information, practices and technologies available in order to best help their patients. After all--that’s why you’re doing this in the first place, right?
Are you interested in working as a mental health professional? If so, why? Give us your thoughts in the comments below.