Mental Health Careers: Options & Requirements

Learn about the jobs available among mental health careers. See what kind of education and training is required to determine if this career field is a good fit for you.

Career Definition for a Mental Health Professional

Mental health professionals treat patients with mental illness, injury, deficit or infirmity with a combination of psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, hospitalization and medication. When helping to 'mainstream' patients to a less restrictive environment, treatments include socialization and orientation to their prospective new lives. Physicians and nurse practitioners (in most states) are different from most other mental health professionals, in that they can prescribe medications.

Required Education Varies by profession from formal schooling to on-the-job training
Job Duties Include treating patients with mental illness, injury, deficit or infirmity through psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, hospitalization or the use of medication
Median Salary (2015) $187,200 (all psychiatrists)
$70,580 (all clinical, counseling and school psychologists)
$67,490 (all registered nurses)
$41,880 (all mental health counselors)
Job Outlook (2014-2024) Much faster growth across the board

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Education Requirements

Physicians and nurses working in mental health should be board certified in a mental health specialty, with 1-2 years of clinical psychiatric experience. Psychotherapists and clinical social workers should pursue a master's in psychology or the social sciences and complete an internship. Counselors should have 6-12 months of specialized training in the care of mental health patients. The educational requirements for mental health technicians and aides vary with the state and work setting; some jobs require formal schooling while others may provide their own training.

Skills Required

Mental health professionals need considerable physical and emotional resilience and an interest in helping other people. They should be convincing speakers and good listeners, as well as organized and able to follow directions. Work often involves long shifts, and work at night or on weekends.

Economic Outlook and Career Growth

Job prospects for mental health professionals are projected to grow much faster than jobs in general over the next ten years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), wages for mental health professions are comparable to those in other medical specialties: in 2015, the median annual salary was equal or greater to $187,200 for psychiatrists; $70,580 for clinical, counseling and school psychologists; $67,490 for RNs and $41,880 for mental health counselors.

Alternate Career Options

Here are some examples of alternative career options:

Social Worker

Direct-service social workers provide assistance to people experiencing personal problems like illness, divorce or unemployment. They meet with clients, help identify problems and work towards solutions. These social workers also connect clients to community, state or federal resource programs that can help, as appropriate. Direct-service social workers typically have a Bachelor of Social Work, and some state require licenses. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) have completed a master's degree and extensive training; they are required to hold a state license. A LCSW provides similar support to people with problems; they have the additional ability to diagnose and treat mental, emotional or behavioral conditions through therapy.

The BLS reports that job prospects for all social workers are expected to be good - 12% growth is projected from 2014-2024. The median pay for social workers in 2015 varied by area of practice, according to the BLS: child, family and school social workers earned $42,350, mental health and substance abuse social workers earned $42,170, healthcare social workers earned $52,380, and all other social workers earned $58,560.

Social and Human Service Assistant

A social and human service assistant works under the direction of a social worker or related, credentialed professional to assist clients experiencing personal challenges or problems. They can help locate appropriate services for clients, and help clients secure those services, such as companion care for the elderly or food stamps for families with children. Job titles include clinical social work aide, family service assistant and addictions counselor assistant. Depending on the employer and the job, minimum education qualifications can range from a high school diploma to a master's degree in a related field. On-the-job training is common. The BLS predicts that jobs for social and human services assistants will increase 11% from 2014-2024, due in part to the growing population of older Americans. The median pay for this occupation was $30,830 in 2015, per the BLS.

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