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Working in Mental Health: Is This the Right Career for You?

Working in Mental Health: Is This the Right Career for You?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness, 1 in 25 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness, and 17% of youth between 6 and 17 years old experience a mental health disorder. Demand for mental health services is growing, and with it, the demand for individuals seeking opportunities to make a positive and lasting impact.

Entry-level positions in the Mental Health field often require only a high school diploma and a valid driver’s license and yet, a career in Mental Health can be very challenging and complex. Why is this? And is a career in Mental Health right for you?

“So much of working with individuals with mental illness is about interpersonal relationships; your ability to read someone’s body language, to adapt to their mood and needs. When I am interviewing someone to join our team, I am looking for certain personality traits, such as patience and self-awareness, which I know will benefit the team and the people we serve.” Allyson Simpson, Assistant Director of Community Services, Allied Services.

“I have worked in the Behavioral Health field for more than 20 years, and it’s a job that keeps on surprising and rewarding me for the time and effort I put in. If you have the desire to help people and have patience and compassion, a career in mental health offers lots of possibilities.”


If you’re considering a career in mental health, here are some questions to ask yourself:

Do you work well with others? One of the surprising aspects of working in community-based mental health programs is the number of different people you’ll come into contact with. In supporting a person with a mental illness to become more independent, you’ll need to interact with physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, housing agencies, employment agencies, family members, and many more community members.

“Not only do you receive training on the job, you are also exposed to many different professions. This can be a gratifying aspect of the job and an opportunity to connect with other parts of your community.”

Are you compassionate? Compassion is an important trait we look for in a new team member. While you may never be able to fully understand what it is like to live with a mental illness, compassion can help you to stop and take the time to listen to the person you are trying to support.

“Patience is a must for our mental health workers. A large part of our work is in teaching core life skills that our residents missed the opportunity to pick up earlier in life. This can be especially hard for people who are symptomatic. Perhaps they are hearing voices or struggling with negative thoughts. You may need to repeat the message and training again and again, or break it down into manageable sections just to get through to that person. It will take time and you’ll need to be patient, but the results can be very rewarding.”

Are you self aware? Often, those closest to us know what “buttons” to push to make us mad or upset. The same can be true when we work closely with residents in a mental health setting. Knowing what your triggers are and how to prevent yourself from reacting negatively can help you to be more effective in providing consistent and stable support to residents.

“Often, working with people suffering with a mental illness is uncomfortable. You may have to have difficult conversations about personal boundaries, and in order to do this, you need to be comfortable with yourself and know how to manage your own feelings.”

Are you flexible? Although there is a lot of repetition in mental health work, no two days are the same. Workers need to be able to adapt to their surroundings in order to succeed.

“When you come to work, you don’t know how your residents are going to be feeling that day. They may be feeling full of energy and ready to take on the day and all that you had planned. Or they may not feel able to get out of bed. Being able to adapt will help you to be a better source of support for the people you work with.”

Are you good at reading people? Mental health workers receive regular training and support to be able to understand and support people with mental illness. However, the ability to read body language and to pick up on small social and physical cues is one of the most valuable skills a mental health worker can acquire.

“Someone in throes of mental illness may not be capable of communicating their needs or what they’re experiencing. That’s why observation and awareness are so important. Being able to read the resident’s mood will help you to decide on the next step, whether that’s giving them space, removing them from an over stimulating environment or helping them to focus.”

A basic grounding in mental health conditions will help you to be aware of what your clients may be experiencing and how best to support them as you work towards their goals. Click here for a guide to mental health conditions.