Career Path: How to Become a Mental Health Worker

Millions of people suffer from mental health conditions in the U.S. Want to help them? Here’s how to become a mental health worker.

1 in 5 adults in America experience mental illness each year.

This number means that many people go untreated for their mental illness, because they don’t have access to treatment.

There is a shortage of workers in the mental health field, so this is a career that will give you room to advance as you learn more and continue your education.

Becoming a mental health worker is a worthy goal that will give you a satisfying and fulfilling career path. Read on to find out more about this field and what your options are.

Career Options in Mental Health

Mental Health Counselor

Requirements: A Master’s Degree and State Licensing

Mental health counseling is a rapidly growing field, as we begin to realize the severity of the mental health crisis in America today. Counseling can provide healthy coping skills for those going through a difficult time.

As a mental health counselor, you would be helping people who are struggling with many different kinds of difficulties, such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Panic Disorder
  • Grief
  • Addiction
  • Marital Distress
  • Parenting Issues

Counselors work with individual clients or family groups to identify problem areas and develop coping skills to help improve the client’s life. This is done through formal assessments, talk therapy, goal setting, and stress reduction techniques.

Clinical Psychologist

Requirements: A PhD in Psychology and State Licensing

The focus of a clinical psychologist is on diagnosis and treatment of the client’s mental health issues. Similar to a mental health counselor, the clinical psychologist can help individuals find solutions to their mental health or social problems, although they may not do so in a therapy setting.

Clinical psychologists can work in many different settings depending on their focus. They have the option to start a private practice, work in a psychiatric hospital, or another setting such as a military base or school. Many clinical psychologists also focus on research.


Requirements: Medical School, State Licensing, Four Years of Residency

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who exclusively diagnoses and treats mental health issues. Psychiatrists first assess their patients and make a diagnosis. Then, they can work with their patients to come up with a plan for treatment.

As an expert in mental health issues, psychiatrists are necessary for psychiatric hospital settings, and are often paid very well for their expertise.

Treatment includes prescribing medication, using talk therapy, referral to other mental health treatments, and alternative therapies such as electroconvulsive therapy.

Social Worker

Requirements: Master’s Degree, State Licensing

The field of social work is wide and varied. Social workers can be in schools, community service projects, private therapy practice, or psychiatric hospitals. They often step into the role of case manager, advocating for their clients with other agencies.

In a psychiatric hospital setting, social workers help patients in a group setting as well as one-on-one. The social worker evaluates how the patients are doing with treatment, and consults with the doctor about when the patient is ready to be discharged.

The social worker will also teach group classes about topics that will help the patients learn to regulate their emotional responses and learn coping skills for what they’re going through.

Psychiatric Nurse

Requirements: Associate’s or Bachelor’s in Nursing, Pass the RN Licensing Exam

Psychiatric nurses often work in an inpatient setting, assessing patients to make sure they are stable, monitoring for side effects of newly prescribed medications, and communicating with the psychiatrist on staff about patient needs and medications.

Psychiatric nurses also sit with the patients, teach group classes, take vitals, and pass medications.

This is a great career option if you want to be on the floor working directly with patients.

What it Takes

Working in the field of mental health can be a perfect fit for people who have the right qualities. If you are aware of what you need to succeed, these qualities can be practiced and cultivated during your career.

1. Communication

As a mental health worker, you will need to know how to communicate with patients who are in distress, as well as communicating professionally to your teammates. This will take a variety of forms, from comforting someone deep in grief to writing clinical notes about the stages of grief. Versatility in communication is a great skill to have.

2. Organization

Working in the mental health field requires a lot of documentation and paperwork. In a case management setting, for example, you have to be able to consider each patient’s needs and balance which are the biggest priority.

3. Compassion

Compassion is an essential skill in this field. You won’t be able to help people effectively unless you understand the gravity of what they are going through. Also, being compassionate and empathetic helps us be able to read someone’s body language more accurately, which is a skill that is invaluable when working with someone who may be reluctant to talk about what they’re going through.

4. Self-care

Something to watch for when working in this field is burnout, which is characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and less effective work. This can happen when the mental health worker is not paying attention to their own needs, so it is important to prioritize your own mental health when you are working with others who have difficulties.

Mental Health Worker Education

Schooling Options

If attending a school in person is not an option for you at this time, there are online healthcare degrees that can be done from your home computer in your own time. This could allow you to get the degree you need while continuing to work a job or care for your children. 


Volunteer work is often a great way to build experience in the field while you are still in school. You can start practicing the skills you will need in your future career, get an idea of what your future job will be like, and even start networking and making contacts within the mental health field.

Next Steps

If you are interested in becoming a mental health worker, I hope this guide helped you narrow down the focus of what you want to do on this career path and what steps you will need to take to get started. Please keep reading for more information about the mental health career field.