When many people think of mental health careers, they think of counselors, or professionals who assist individual patients through talk-therapy. While this is a popular profession in the field of mental health care — as of March 2017, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that there are nearly 140,000 mental health counselors employed nationally — it is far from the only one.
Mental health careers also include psychologists, social workers, applied behavior analysts (APAs), and marriage and family therapists (MFTs), all of whom assist in the betterment or delivery of mental health care in various ways. We examine each of those careers in further detail below, but where they generally differ from counselors is either in their duties — psychologists, for example, are typically more involved with research, rather than practice — or their focus — MFTs specialize in assisting couples and families, rather than isolated individuals.
The qualifications for each of these mental health careers differ — and are reviewed in greater detail below — but there are some general criteria. Professionals in each of these positions will typically have to pursue specialized education up to the post-graduate or doctoral level. Many must also complete some period of supervised experience, such as an internship. Finally, they often have to obtain a form professional credential from a national professional organization, state licensure board, or both.
A mental health career is ideal for anyone who is both compassionate and committed. Individuals who may be well suited are those seeking to help others, but also determined to pursue their own education to the necessary heights, apply that knowledge in practice or research, and maintain their expertise through ongoing professional development.
A career in mental health may be incredibly rewarding, both personally and financially. Assisting individuals who struggle with mental health disorders through direct contact or generalized research are undoubtedly ways to reduce personal suffering and improve the world at large. In addition, careers in mental health are well paid and in demand; for example, according to the BLS, psychologists earn nearly $80,000 a year and will enjoy much faster than average job growth through 2028, as of September 2019.
Essential Skills Required
In order to succeed in their careers, mental health professionals must possess a variety of skills. According to O*Net OnLine, a resource developed by the US Department of Labor, the five skills that prove most essential for mental health professions are:
Active Listening: Fully understanding the person with whom you’re communicating
Social Perceptiveness: Being aware of the feelings of the people around you
Service Orientation: Going out of your way to help others
Speaking: Clearly articulating your thoughts to the person with whom you’re communicating
Critical Thinking: Systematically assessing a situation for solutions and/or conclusions
In addition, mental health professionals must have certain knowledge and commitment to a code of ethics established by professional boards, state licensing agencies, or both.
Different Types of Mental Health Careers
Mental health careers can take many forms beyond the typical mental health counselor. These can include psychologists, social workers, applied behavior analysts, and marriage and family therapists, each of whom deliver or improve mental health care through their work. All of these careers are discussed in greater detail below.
A psychologist studies cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behaviors. As of September 2019, psychologists earn more than $79,000 a year and will see much faster than average job growth through 2028, as reported by the BLS. Psychology primarily attracts those interested in better understanding the underlying factors that shape human behaviors and how these can be influenced to benefit society.
A social worker helps clients address personal, financial, professional, or medical problems, primarily through referrals to other services. According to the BLS as of September 2019, social workers earn more than $49,000 a year and will see much faster than average job growth through 2028. More than financial compensation, social workers are animated by a strong desire to help individuals by leading them through complex bureaucratic systems.
An applied behavior analyst (ABA) assists patients in modifying their behavior, especially in regards to intellectual disabilities, mental health disorders, and environmental contamination. Although the BLS does not maintain figures on ABAs as such, the agency does track psychologists, which are comparable. ABAs will also appreciate the opportunity to help children, patients suffering from substance abuse, and those living with disabilities.
A marriage and family therapist (MFT) helps couples and families overcome interpersonal problems, primarily through counseling, education, and referrals to other services. According to the BLS, MFTs earn more than $50,000 a year and will see much faster than average job growth through 2028, as reported by September 2019. Besides these material rewards, MFTs also enjoy the satisfaction of helping couples and families cope with their most intimate issues.
Mental health jobs can be found in a variety of different industries, depending on the particular profession. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the largest employers:
Healthcare services (18%)
For social workers:
Individual and family services (18%)
Local government (14%)
State government (14%)
Healthcare services (13%)
For marriage and family therapists:
Individual and family services (30%)
Other health practitioners (20%)
Outpatient care centers (12%)
State government (9%)
Information on psychologist, social worker, and marriage and family therapist industry employment was retrieved from the Bureau of Labors Statistics as of November 2019.
A career in mental health can take many different forms. If you are looking for a counseling career, we’ve put together a guide of ten different counseling careers from mental health to school counselors.