When you imagine a mental health professional, you might have an image of one patient lying on a couch while a professional sits and asks questions about the patient’s childhood and takes notes. If you have an interest in the way the mind and mental health work or have done a job requiring knowledge of mental health, you might have been tempted to get a deeper, more formal understanding of mental health by completing an online master's in clinical mental health counseling. But maybe you have ruled it out because you can’t see yourself in the role of a psychoanalyst. If that’s the case, keep in mind this is only one type of mental health specialist, and you might be surprised at the range of possibilities after studying mental health.
For example, some mental health experts find themselves suited to the different skills and mindsets required for success as couples counselor, family counselor, group therapist, or life coach. The possibilities are even more vast, as within each of these specializations there is the opportunity to focus on addiction, trauma, eating disorders, mental health for the elderly, or child psychology. We will begin by explaining the options within mental health care that people are more familiar with and then explore a few possibilities you may not have thought about.
A counselor need not be a fully qualified psychologist, and some counselors have a background in education and work in schools, while others might work for a support hotline, providing short-term assistance to those who urgently need it. The commonality with the range of different counselors is that they provide assistance and support to a person facing psychological distress.
The field of psychiatry is what many of us have seen in fiction, and it is where many stereotypes about mental health professionals originate. While there is some overlap between the reality of psychiatry and the cliches we see in movies and books, psychiatrists spend years studying the mind as well as medicine, so a skilled psychiatrist will take a much more nuanced, wholistic approach to therapy than simply prescribing pills or hospitalizing people—although there can be times where this is necessary, especially for the sake of the safety of the patient or other people. Keep in mind that a psychiatrist needs a medical degree and then a specialized qualification, so although this is probably the most widely recognized type of mental health professional, the barrier to entry is high.
Social workers can act as counselors, but may also advocate for a client experiencing discrimination or illness, for the welfare of a child, or to provide a mentally ill and isolated person with support and help them feel less lonely. The people they help can be individuals, families, groups, or communities. There is an individualized form of social work called “casework” that provides support to help a client adjust to their environment.
Just as psychiatrists are a specialized type of doctor, psychiatric nursing is a specialty within nursing. A background in mental health will help a psych nurse understand the type of mental health challenge a patient in a psychiatric hospital is suffering from, and tailor the care that the patient receives. Psych nurses may also administer medication prescribed by a doctor or psychiatrist, and provide support and counseling to the families of people with mental health issues. They can also work outside hospitals, visit patients at home, or work in community centers.
One way to explain couples counseling is that the counselor sees the relationship as the patient. Therefore, the counselor will avoid taking sides and advocate approaches that benefit the couple as a whole. People in romantic relationships might seek couples counseling due to struggles with trust, communication, infidelity, addiction, or problems with intimacy and sex. When talking about these types of sensitive topics, it is essential to emphasize a lack of judgment or blame, and the counselor should provide advice that will strengthen the bond between the couple and give them tools to help solve issues between themselves and to handle inevitable disagreements respectfully and constructively.
Since people who seek couples counseling are usually in a long-term partnership, the goal is to not just solve the problems the couple is focussed on at the moment, but identify patterns that can lead to problematic communication and empower the people in the relationship to communicate effectively.
The family counselor sees the family as the patient and isn’t there to blame problems on any one family member. This presents challenges of acknowledging the needs and feelings of people who may be at very different stages of development, as well as people who might already be divorced but are required to co-parent.
Unlike couples counselors, the advice may be to people who at no stage chose to be together but may feel trapped with one another. Still, there are similarities in the need to help the family improve patterns of behavior and communication to strengthen the complex bonds and manage the tensions that can exist within the many different possible types of families in the modern world. Like many mental healthcare professionals, family counselors are also obligated to report any suspicion of psychological or physical abuse where minors are involved.
Running group therapy sessions requires some of the same skills used in couples or family counseling, but also some very different skills. While it is important to make sure each person in the group is heard and included in the discussion, unlike some other modes of therapy involving multiple clients at once, group therapy often involves clients who have no relationship outside of the group, although some clients and therapists are open to friendships forming between members of the group. However, some leaders of therapy groups might discourage this, and it will be up to your judgment as well as the type of approach to therapy and your knowledge of the specific situation of group members.
Research shows that group therapy can be at least as effective for the people who attend as individual therapy. There is also the potential for greater job satisfaction for the therapist, who reaches many individuals at once, as well as learning from a diverse range of perspectives about the topics that come up during sessions.
D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) Therapist
This form of therapy is an example of the dizzying variety of creative approaches professionals can take to mental health. While the therapeutic value of the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons might sound frivolous and farfetched to those not familiar with the game, it has always had the reputation of helping young people who might struggle in social situations ordinarily. Sessions provide opportunities to try on different personalities and ways of interacting to see what fits, problem-solve collaboratively and creatively, and explore ways of handling conflict and uncomfortable topics in a safe and supportive environment.
Find Your Niche in Mental Health
The above list has only scratched the surface of what is possible with a mental health qualification. When you think about it, all professionals who work with people are really mental health professionals, and an insight into how humans work is welcome in any industry that cares about human achievement and delivering value to people. Therefore, people with mental health expertise have a lot of scope for specializing in an almost unlimited variety of areas.