Examining the meaningful role of a mental health therapist
Mental health disorders in the United States seem to be more prominent now than ever. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly 20 percent of adults in the U.S. live with some sort of mental illness. Depression is a prime example.
Suicide is also on the rise, while the NIMH suicide research funding has been steadily declining since 2011. Mental health issues, which have not been prioritized as prominently as many professionals in the field feel they should be, can also lead to physical illness. Yet, Americans don’t receive regular mental health checkups.
“There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness since it is something that is difficult to measure, and this keeps people from seeking and receiving help when they need it most,” explains Dr. Margaret Moodian, assistant professor of humanities and social sciences at Brandman University.
If you feel drawn to the idea of dedicating your career to helping people afflicted by mental health disorders, you’ve come to the right place. Read on as we outline the ins and outs of working as a mental health therapist, sometimes referred to as a mental health counselor.
What is a mental health therapist?
As a mental health therapist, you could play a key role in helping people cope with mental and emotional ailments. You would use a range of psychotherapy techniques to help alleviate psychological distress. This career path would allow you to work with clients facing a variety of issues, including the following:
- Addiction and substance abuse
- Emotional difficulties
- Self-esteem issues and eating disorders
- Marital distress
Some mental health disorders can be overcome, while others need to be managed. Mental health therapists and counselors can help clients of all kinds develop strategies to either defeat their illnesses or to minimize the effects of their disorders. The variety of clients you could work with mean no two days on the job will be the same.
“It’s why I love therapy,” confesses Mike Tassin, a licensed mental health counselor who earned his master’s degree from Brandman University. “Every case is so individualized. I may talk about some of the same issues, but everyone brings such different experience to our work.”
What does a mental health therapist do?
The primary duty of mental health therapists is to provide a safe, non-judgmental space for clients to explore a range of issues that may be troubling them. “Good therapy is a dynamic, unique and creative process with one sole aim: to provide help and support to the client,” explains Dr. Brittany Aleshire, assistant professor of psychology at Brandman University.
“Whether the focus is on addictions and substance abuse; family, parenting and marital problems; stress management; or self-esteem at its core, therapy is about fostering a meaningful, supportive, helping relationship,” Dr. Aleshire adds.
Mental health therapists work to achieve these goals by collecting information about their clients through interviews, observation or tests. This can include conducting individual or group therapy sessions; diagnosing and treating mental and emotional disorders; crafting service plans and coordinating treatment with other health care professionals; and performing crisis interventions as needed.
Many professionals use cognitive behavioral therapy in sessions with their clients. This is a common type of psychotherapy that helps clients come to terms with their inaccurate or negative ways of thinking and then re-frame those thought structures in a positive way. This practice can help many clients to replace their damaging behaviors with productive ones.
“There is an art to therapy in that we seek to blend relational work with empirically validated interventions and approaches to help clients improve,” Dr. Aleshire says. “While techniques and interventions can be effective, the overall best predictor of ‘success’ in therapy is a trusting, respectful client-therapist relationship.”
With that in mind, there are a number of soft skills employers look for in top-notch mental health professionals. These include active listening, critical thinking, advanced communication skills, service orientation and interpersonal skills. “Therapists provide their clients with empathy, acceptance, support and the encouragement to know that they are not alone in their experience,” Dr. Aleshire explains.
Where do mental health therapists work?
Mental health services are needed in a surprisingly vast pool of environments. Some professionals in this sector work with specific populations — such as the elderly, children or college students — while others serve a more encompassing role.
Consider the following examples of mental health counselor work environments as you evaluate whether this career path is a good fit for you:
- Mental health clinics
- Private practices
- Elementary and secondary schools
- Colleges and universities
- Community health centers
- Government agencies
- Correctional and juvenile detention facilities
- Probation or parole agencies
- Social service agencies
- Halfway houses
- Substance abuse and addiction recovery services
- Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
How do I become a mental health therapist?
If you hope to work as a mental health therapist, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree in a mental health-related field. Two of the most common fields of study are psychology and clinical social work. You typically need a bachelor’s degree in any field from an accredited institution to be eligible for such graduate programs.
As you search for the right master’s program to pursue mental health therapy, it’s important to look for one that has received proper accreditation. If you’re pursuing a master’s in social work (MSW), be on the lookout for a program that’s accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
If your sights are set on a master of arts in psychology, look for programs that are regionally accredited, abiding by any state-specific curriculum requirements. Brandman University’s program, for example, is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission.
Mental health therapists are also required to become licensed in the state in which they intend to practice. Most states require candidates to pass a licensure exam in addition to a state ethics exam. Also note that licensure can require anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 hours of post-degree supervised clinical experience as well as continuing education courses.
If you’re seriously considering a role as a mental health therapist, you should also know that jobs for professionals have an incredibly bright outlook. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports these roles are projected to grow 23 percent by 2026.
Is a career in mental health in your future?
As you inch closer to a meaningful career as a mental health therapist, know that you’re not alone. National acknowledgment of our mental health crisis is also growing.
“There are many exciting things happening to create awareness about mental health,” Moodian says. “We need to continue the conversation in order to make a difference nationally in mental health reform.”
If you’re committed to doing your part by dedicating your career to this all-important mission, it could be time to begin researching master’s programs that can help get you there. Head over to Brandman University’s Master of Arts in Psychology or Master of Social Work degree pages to learn more about your options.
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