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How to Get Started in the Mental Health Field 

May 22, 2023

by Amber Michel

The mental health field is challenging and rewarding. Whether you’re looking to work in a clinic, hospital or community mental health setting, getting started can be daunting. In my role as Director of Clinical Services for Housing, I’ve developed a service-learning curriculum and frequently speak to students about opportunities in the mental health field. Here’s what advice I have to offer those of you who are thinking about joining us.

  1. Research the field: Before you commit to a career in mental health, it’s essential to do your research. Learn about the different types of mental health professionals, the education and licensing requirements, and the job outlook for your chosen career path. You can also explore different specialties within the field, such as addiction counseling or child and adolescent therapy.
  2. Talk to mental health professionals: Talking with those working in the field can help provide clarity on the day-to-day realities. There is a big gap between what people think and what actually working in mental health looks like. Realistic expectations will help you enter and stay in the field.
  3. Get an education… but not all at once: Many mental health professions require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Licensed roles require a master’s or sometimes a doctoral degree. Slow down. Don’t be in a rush to go to grad school before spending time working in the field. While many positions require a degree, many do not. Employment will provide you with invaluable perspective to inform the next steps of your education. If you are ready to take the next step, look for accredited programs that offer coursework in your desired specialty and provide clinical experience and supervision. Reach out to professors at schools you’re interested in. They are often happy to chat with prospective students and can help guide you.
  4. Work in a residential setting: Get a residential job. You will benefit from a “24 hours a day, day in and day out” experience no other work experience can provide. This step is the perfect thing to do before investing in graduate-level or even bachelor-level education in mental health. You will benefit from working side by side with experienced professionals in a wide range of roles and get a feel for what career path is a fit for your skills and interests. This type of practical understanding gives you a leg up on your resume and will help you assess whether or not the mental health field is really for you. Guild has residential job openings now, and you can browse them here.
  5. Know there will be barriers: Often, people find themselves attracted to working in the mental health field because they genuinely want to help people. The systems mental health workers and their clients interact with every day are flawed, and those flaws come with frustration. Many days you might feel like you accomplished nothing at all. At the same time, we get to see clients do amazing things every day. They can overcome unbelievable trauma, challenges, and setbacks. It’s extremely fulfilling to get to be a part of that process.
  6. Lead with humility and curiosity: Checking your ego at the door when working in mental health is an essential skill. It’s a normal human need to be acknowledged as a helper and problem solver, but it’s important to be reflective and self-honest about whose needs you are trying to meet: yours or your clients? Practicing humility and curiosity (and it really does take practice) are the antidotes to leading without ego.
  7. It’s okay not to be good at the job at first: Speaking of humility, one of the best things we can do as people new to a career is to acknowledge that we have a lot to learn. It’s okay not to know everything and to ask for additional support. Doing so shows that you know your strengths and limits. Getting good at this takes a lot of experience. Just start and learn.
  8. Your first job is not your forever job: Find something you think looks interesting and reach out to a hiring manager to ask about it. Hiring managers are eager to share more about opportunities they have available! There’s no need to belabor your decision-making process trying to make “the right choice.” There is no one right decision. The best step is the next one you take.

Starting a career in the mental health field can be a challenging but fulfilling journey. You can support people who are transforming their lives by doing your research, gaining education and experience, pursuing your career with humility and curiosity, and getting started before getting it perfect.

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