Making a Difference in a Mental Health Career

The mental health field is in desperate need of professionals and volunteers. Read this guide to learn about paths for helping mental illness sufferers.

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One in four adults suffers from mental illness in any given year. While that is a sobering fact, the even more frightening issue is that there simply aren't enough mental health resources to go around – meaning those who need help often fail to get it. For those looking to bolster the ranks of mental health professionals, this guide explores career paths where you can make a positive and lasting impact. It also provides a comprehensive review of major mental health disorders, including warning signs and volunteer opportunities. If you want to become a shining light for someone battling the darkness of mental illness, this is where you begin.

Pursuing a Career in Mental Health

From direct patient care and one-on-one counseling to research-driven psychology, many fields offer an opportunity to provide valuable care to those suffering from mental disorders. The following careers are some of the most popular:


Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors work with patients to help them deal with mental health problems, such as depression, grief and anxiety. Mental health counselors diagnose and treat patients and can work with individuals, families or groups.

Addiction Counselor

Addiction counselors are specialized mental health counselors who treat patients in individual or group settings in order to identify issues and establish a treatment plan.


Clinical Psychologist

Clinical psychologists diagnose and treat individuals suffering from mental or behavioral disorders. They are trained in multiple treatments, including behavioral therapy, humanistic therapy and psychotherapy. Some clinical psychologists conduct research to better understand behavioral and psychological phenomena.


Generally more research-oriented than clinical psychologists, neuropsychologists perform the important task of determining what is happening to the brain on a physical level during certain neurological events. Neuropsychologists' findings lead to better mental health treatments.


Mental Health Psychiatrist

Mental health psychiatrists specialize in diagnosing and treating patients suffering from emotional and behavioral health problems. Unlike psychologists or mental health counselors, psychiatrists can prescribe drugs to treat mental health problems.

Psychiatric Technician

Psychiatric technicians work under the direction of psychiatrists. They usually monitor patients, assist in the administration of treatment and medicine, and help patients perform daily tasks.

Social Work

Mental Health Social Worker

A mental health social worker specializes in helping individuals with mental health problems that affect their everyday lives. Mental health social workers don't generally diagnose patients or administer treatment, but instead provide information and support to help patients managing their mental health problems.

Social & Community Service Manager

Social and community service managers run nonprofit organizations that provide services to the general public. They may not work directly with individuals suffering from mental illness, but they run organizations that provide them with resources.


Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse

Psychiatric-mental health nurses are usually registered nurses or advanced practice nurses who work with psychiatric patients. Job duties include assessing their medical needs and diagnosing and treating them.

Substance Abuse Nurse

Substance abuse nurses care for patients struggling with addiction. They might explain the dangers of substance abuse or advise on potential treatment options. Because of the nature of substance abuse, these nurses provide emotional support as well as medical assistance.

Mental Health Career Comparison

Career Provides Therapy Can Write Prescriptions Minimum Education 2015 National Annual Median Salary
Mental Health Counselor Y N Master's $41,880
Addiction Counselor Y N Bachelor's $39,980
Clinical Psychologist Y Only in Illinois, Louisiana and New Mexico Doctorate $70,580
Neuropsychologist N N Doctorate $70,580
Mental Health Psychiatrist Y Y Professional Medical Degree $187,200 or greater (all psychiatrists)
Psychiatric Technician N N Postsecondary Certificate $31,140
Mental Health Social Worker N N Bachelor's $42,170
Social & Community Service Manager N N Bachelor's $63,530
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses N N Certificate or Career Diploma $67,490 (all registered nurses)
Substance Abuse Nurse N N Certificate or Career Diploma $67,490 (all registered nurses)

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

Why More Professional Help Is Needed

As mental health systems all over the world become overburdened and short-staffed, lack of mental health services has become a pressing issue, one made more serious by the fact that many mental health problems begin during childhood or adolescence. The World Health Organization reports that 20 percent of all minors have mental disorders or problems.

In addition, 25 percent of Americans will deal with mental illness this year. In fact, mental illness is so common that mood disorders are the third-most common cause of hospitalization for 18- to 44-year-olds.

Did You Know?

1 in every 4 Americans will suffer from mental illness this year.

Unfortunately, there are not enough mental health professionals to go around. Over 89 million Americans live in an area with a shortage of mental health professionals. Even those who do have access cannot always afford it. Forty-five percent of untreated sufferers say treatment costs are prohibitive.

Did You Know?

Over 89 million Americans live in an area with a shortage of mental health professionals.

Volunteers can step in to fill the gap between those who need mental health services and those who are paid to provide those services. Volunteer work is vitally important, especially during a crisis. For instance, a volunteer staffing a suicide hotline might answer a call of someone deep in the throes of depression.

But professionals are also needed. From mental health counselors to social workers to psychiatric nursing aides, there is plenty of space in the healthcare system for those who want to contribute to alleviating the effects of mental illness.

Career Spotlight: How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Becoming a mental health counselor can put you in a position to help others. However, it takes training and experience. Here are the specifics:

Step 1
Get the proper education
Though a bachelor's degree is suitable for some mental health professions, a master's degree is often required. Students should look for a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs.
Step 2
Gain volunteer experience
As you work toward a degree, take time to explore related areas that might interest you. Volunteer at a domestic violence shelter, work with a suicide hotline and otherwise give your time to efforts that help those you might eventually treat.
Step 3
Complete an internship or residency
Hands-on training in which you work directly with mental health patients under the supervision of a licensed professional is usually required to earn a license to practice. However, it comes with other advantages, including the real-world experience needed to handle any situation.
Step 4
Get licensed
In most states, counselors, social workers and psychologists need a license. Although requirements vary by state and profession, they typically boil down to earning a proper education through an accredited school, passing an examination and documenting a specified number of supervised hours working with clients.
Step 5
Get the job
During an internship or residency, start actively looking for a position that suits your career goals. Don't be afraid to think outside the box! There are numerous positions available in many areas of mental health, and the skills learned during college cut across a broad spectrum of positions and responsibilities.
Step 6
Keep learning
Learning never stops in the mental health field. Treatments, including drugs and therapies, are constantly being introduced or updated. Continuing education is required to keep a license current, but learning often goes beyond that. Seek out journal articles and studies that might enhance your knowledge and skills.

2015 National Median Salary


Projected National Job Growth (2014-2024)

20% (26,400 New Jobs)

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

Career Readiness Check: Is the Mental Health Field for You?

Make no mistake – working in mental health services is not easy. Whether you are a highly trained professional or a fresh volunteer, there will be some tough moments. Before you charge into the mental health profession, ask yourself these five questions:

  • Do you work well with others?

    Mental health professionals typically work with physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and other healthcare providers to offer a well-rounded plan of care for patients. You must be able to communicate well with all of these individuals and work as a team to create a treatment plan.

  • Are you highly organized?

    Attention to detail is vitally important. You will be writing numerous reports, keeping detailed notes, writing letters, passing along crucial information while maintaining client-patient confidentiality, and keeping up with numerous patients at once. Being organized isn't just an advantage — it's a necessity.

  • Are you compassionate?

    Having empathy for your clients is essential. Perhaps you won't fully understand what someone is going through, but you will likely be able to relate to feelings of sadness and loss. Compassion will allow you to listen more effectively and motivate you to help them even more.

  • Can you reserve judgment?

    Sometimes you will encounter individuals who have made bad decisions or can't seem to get on the right track. You must be able to set aside judgment of these people and instead focus on helping them as much as you can.

  • Do you have ways to decompress?

    Working in any field related to mental health can take a personal toll. You must have ways to “leave work at the office” and come home to a calm atmosphere where you can gather your thoughts and take a break from the intensity you experience during the day. Those who can't decompress will usually burn out quickly.

From the Expert: Interview With Justin Lioi

What traits are most important for those who want to work in mental health?

Empathy is so important — being able to put yourself in the client's shoes, even when there are several clients in the room. It's not always easy depending on the population you're working with, and compassion is another helpful trait here. Having good boundaries is important. You need to know where the client stops and you begin and be able to take care of yourself. Finally, I'd say those traits can lead to a competent clinician, but curiosity is the trait that makes the most effective one. It's also what keeps you invested in the work.

It seems mental health professionals are needed in every area of the field, but in your opinion, which areas are in most desperate need of professionals?

I suppose I come to this with a bias, but in my experience a clinical social worker is someone who not only studies the person on the inside, but also takes into consideration the client's world — what we call “person in the environment.” Having that lens — which naturally should include an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, anti-sexist lens — can lead to a very different and fuller understanding of a person and their issues. Social work is a uniquely qualified field for this.

What are some volunteer opportunities that would work well for those who want to learn more about mental health professions before they commit to the education it takes to get there?

What opportunities would NOT work well? A good 80 percent of the job of any mental health professional is learning to build a relationship. Learning to listen, learning to not butt in and try to solve problems. As a supervisor once told me: "Learn to not help." So any opportunity that puts you in the room with other people will be good. Figure out the populations that you most enjoy working with: children and families, substance abuse, the elderly. Volunteer your time within those communities to educate yourself and learn all you can.

Types of Mental Disorders & Related Volunteer Opportunities

Mental health disorders are not “one size fits all.” Even people diagnosed with a particular disorder might have a host of other issues and coexisting disorders, all of which must be dealt with in order to help them reach their full potential. Here are some of the most common mental health disorders, the warning signs for each and where volunteers can go to offer their assistance.

Anxiety Disorders

Common Examples

Social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, phobia

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Volunteer Opportunities

National Institute of Mental Health – Join a Research Study: Anxiety Disorders

Mood Disorders

Common Examples

Major depression, bipolar disorder, dysthymic disorder, substance-induced mood disorders

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Volunteer Opportunities

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)

Addiction Disorders

Common Examples

Behavioral addiction, substance abuse, impulse control disorders

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Volunteer Opportunities

SMART Recovery

MARR Addiction Treatment Center

Eating Disorders

Common Examples

Bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorder

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Volunteer Opportunities

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

Psychotic Disorders

Common Examples

Schizophrenia, delusional disorder, catatonia, brief psychotic disorder

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Volunteer Opportunities

Mental Health America (MHA)

Personality Disorders

Common Examples

Antisocial disorder, borderline disorder, paranoid, avoidant, narcissistic

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Volunteer Opportunities

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Volunteer Opportunities

International OCD Foundation (IOCDF)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Common Examples

Normal stress response, acute stress disorder, PTSD comorbid, uncomplicated PTSD, complex PTSD

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Volunteer Opportunities

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – Join a PTSD Study

PTSD United

Sources:; National Alliance on Mental Illness; National Institute of Mental Health; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – National Center for PTSD; WebMD

The Importance of Detecting & Treating Mental Illness

People suffering from mental illness do not live in a vacuum. Their mental health issues can spill out into the world around them, affecting family and friends, upending relationships and leading to self-destructive behaviors. Treatment can make a drastic difference, but those who go without treatment might face consequences that go well beyond what they ever imagined.


According to the CDC, suicide is the 10th-most common cause of death among American adults, and the third-most common cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds. About 90 percent of those who die by suicide experience mental illness, a clear indication that the two are strongly linked. Other risk factors for suicide include substance abuse, prolonged stress, isolation, a recent tragedy and sleep deprivation.

But there is help. Mental health professionals can aid people struggling with suicidal thoughts by offering a variety of therapies, sometimes in conjunction with medication.

The first step is seeking help. If you have suicidal thoughts or know someone who does, call this 24/7 hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (9255) – The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Domestic Abuse

Mental illness and domestic violence often go hand-in-hand. Those who are suffering from a mental illness are more likely to be victims, but sometimes they will become perpetrators. The Department of Justice found that in cases where a spouse is killed by another spouse, 12.3 percent of defendants were suffering from mental illness. In cases where a parent is killed by a child, over 25 percent of the perpetrators were suffering from mental illness at the time of the attack.

Inadequate treatment is a huge factor in violence. According to a 1998 MacArthur Foundation study, people with serious mental disorders were far more likely to act violently while not taking their medication. Those who were treated showed a 50 percent reduction in the rate of violence.

Those who know victims of domestic abuse, or are victims themselves, can find immediate help here: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) – The National Domestic Violence Hotline

Substance Abuse

People with mental health problems often turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. They may overuse prescription drugs, drink too much or seek out very dangerous narcotics. Using drugs or alcohol to “self-medicate” and control mental health disorders can actually increase the underlying risk for mental disorders or make symptoms worse. When an individual suffers from mental illness and substance abuse simultaneously, it is known as “dual diagnosis.”

Among those who abuse alcohol, 37 percent have at least one serious mental illness; among those who use drugs, the number rises to 53 percent, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Fortunately, mental health experts can quickly recognize the problem and are trained to tackle both the mental illness and any corresponding substance abuse issues.

If you're ready to get help, it's just a phone call away: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

More Consequences of Non-Treatment

10 Apps for Mental Illness Sufferers

Mobile and online apps have provided an additional avenue of treatment for those suffering from anxiety, PTSD, sleep deprivation and other ailments related to mental health. Share the following app list with anyone you know who needs help.


Breathe2Relax is an app that teaches breathing exercises to help handle stress.

PTSD Coach

This app is designed to educate users about PTSD and help them deal with symptoms.


The Optimism app detects mood patterns in order to help people track their mental illness.

SAM: Self-help for Anxiety Management (iOS)

SAM helps users record their anxiety levels to identify triggers, allowing them to cope with anxiety.

Operation Reach Out

Operation Reach Out asks those with suicidal thoughts to change their thinking and get help when necessary.

Sleep Cycle

The Sleep Cycle app can track the sleeping habits of individuals and wake them up at the best possible time for feeling refreshed.

DBSA Wellness Tracker

The tracker allows users to record their physical and emotional health.


Talkspace allows users to obtain help from a licensed therapist for a reasonable fee.

Mental Health Resources & Organizations

Mental health is a massive issue, and there are many organizations working to make life better for those struggling with a mental illness. Here are a few:

American Psychological Association

The APA maintains a comprehensive website about all things related to psychology, including careers, education opportunities and research.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

ADAA provides information about anxiety and depression, including how to get help, understanding the signs, managing the symptoms and helping others.

Mental Health America

Mental Health America is a major nonprofit organization with the goal of assisting those suffering from mental illness and improving the mental health of the general public.

A comprehensive site from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, serves people looking for more information about mental illness.

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Using grassroots efforts, NAMI raises awareness and educates the public on mental health problems facing Americans today.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

This branch of the National Institutes of Health presents research, news and information on the health effects of alcohol on the human body in order to educate the public about the harm of alcohol abuse.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this is a large source of statistical material and treatment information for anyone suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

The SPRC is a federally funded organization that works to educate others on suicide prevention.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – Mental Health

This website is a resource for those suffering from mental health problems (including PTSD) that might have been triggered or exacerbated by their military service.

Related Resources at a Glance

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