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So You Want to Be A Mental Health Professional

As a mental health professional (MHP), you will get a chance to make a difference in your patients’ lives and improve the overall mental health of a community. It’s a noble calling that isn’t without its financial rewards. MHPs are in huge demand across the United States, as annual expenditure on mental health treatment surpasses $113 billion. Mental health professional is essentially an umbrella term that includes several professions within it. Below, we take a look at the major MHP professions and the differences between them:  

Psychiatrist

Degre(s) Required: MD or DO  

What does a psychiatrist do?

A psychiatrist is like any other medical doctor, except that instead of setting bones and removing tumors, a psychiatrist treats mental illnesses. As a doctor, a psychiatrist can also prescribe medication to treat these illnesses. Psychiatry has several sub-branches such as child psychiatry, neuropsychiatry, etc. Where and how a psychiatrist works will depend on the specialty in question. Organizational psychiatrists might be attached to a company, while child psychiatrists will likely work in cheerily lit offices. Like other doctors, psychiatrists may have their own practice or work for a hospital.  

How to Become a Psychiatrist

Becoming a psychiatrist requires years of study and training. You will need to go to medical school, complete four years of residency, and clear your state's board exam to get a psychiatrist license. Most aspiring psychiatrists major in psychology or a closely associated field, such physiology or psychotherapy, in their undergraduate years. To get into medical school, you will need to take the MCAT. Admission to top medical schools is extremely competitive, so be prepared to burn the midnight oil well into dawn! After four years of medical school, you will have to complete four more years of residency in a hospital. Expect to work 18 hour shifts dealing with a wide range of patients. If you get through this grueling phase (it’s no joke – many would-be doctors drop out after an year or two), you will have to clear your state psychiatry board’s exam to be a certified psychiatrist. It takes at least 12 years of education and training to become a licensed psychiatrist (if you were't keeping count). It's a physically, intellectually, and emotionally demanding process.  

Psychologist

Degree(s) required: M.A. in Psychology, PhD/PsyD/EdD Recommended  

What does a psychologist do?

Psychologists are the scientists of the mental health world. They spend their waking hours studying the human brain and its attendant behaviors. They are at home in universities as well as hospitals. However, unlike psychiatrists, they are not medical doctors and cannot prescribe medications. Instead, they treat mental disorders by talking about the patients' problems and guiding them towards effective recovery. As a psychologist, you can choose to teach students at a university, or treat patients in a hospital. As an academic, you will make valuable contributions to mental health research, while as a practicing psychologist, you will have the chance to treat serious mental disorders such as substance abuse. Regardless of what path you choose, you will have plenty of opportunities to change lives with your work.  

How to Become a Psychologist

Becoming a psychologist requires at least a master’s degree in psychology, though most employers will prefer a doctorate degree such as a PhD, EdD, or PsyD. Aspiring psychologists typically major in psychology for their bachelor’s degree. Taking the GRE exam is a prerequisite for getting into any good graduate program. Many universities are now offering PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) degrees in lieu of PhDs. Admission to top programs is extremely competitive, so be prepared to get good grades and keep that CV polished! All in all, becoming a psychologist requires at least nine years of effort.  

Counselor

Degree(s) Required: Master’s; Doctorate (PhD/EdD/DMFT) Recommended  

What does a counselor do?

Counselors deal with specific mental problems. As a counselor, you might deal with patients struggling with substance abuse, ADHD, or stress. You are expected to provide short-term treatment through one-to-one counseling sessions. You cannot write prescriptions and you aren’t expected to undertake any research projects. Counselors may be attached to hospitals, run an independent practice, or be part of a social, corporate, or educational institution. What kind of patients you see will depend on your specialization. Counselors are often involved in social work and work to improve the mental health of an entire community.  

How to Become a Counselor

Becoming a counselor requires a minimum of a master’s degree. Some states require counselors to have a doctorate degree as well. Aspiring counselors usually major in psychology or relevant health sciences in their bachelor’s. Taking the GRE exam is a pre-requisite for getting into most doctor’s or master’s programs. Some students choose to opt out after two years of graduate school with a master’s. If you take this route, you will still have to complete 2-3 years of post-graduate supervised work in a clinic to be a qualified counselor. Counseling programs tend to be competitive. The final step is getting certified by the state. Requirements for getting certified vary from state to state, though a master’s degree is a must and candidates with doctorates are preferred. Depending on your specialization, you might need specific certifications such as MFT (Family Therapy), LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), etc.  

Social Worker

Degree(s) Required: Master’s  

What does a social worker do?

Social workers evaluate human problems and work with clients to solve them. These problems might include mental health conditions, addiction, or lack of resources.The day to day job of a social worker will involve plenty of community work and dealing with patients from all walks of life. You are more likely to work in local, community-centric clinics than plush hospital offices. It’s rich, rewarding work where you have opportunities to make a real difference in your clients’ lives.  

How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

The most common professional license for social workers is the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Becoming a LCSW requires a minimum of a master’s degree. Most social workers study sociology, psychology, social work or other community-focused subjects in their bachelor’s. Getting into a MSW (Master’s in Social Work) program requires taking the GRE exam. Admissions are competitive, especially for top-tier programs. After graduating, you will have to put in two or three years working in a clinic under supervision. To become a licensed social worker and work independently, you will have to obtain the requisite license from your state. Different states have different licensure requirements. For example, some states require that social workers who run their own practice be LCSW-Cs (Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical). Some states also have an entry-level LSW (Licensed Social Worker) license that requires only a bachelor's degree. Altogether, you can look at a minimum of six to nine years to become a LCSW. It might sound like a lot, but it’s all worth it when you make a real difference to a community.  

Therapist

Degree(s) Required: Doctorate in Psychology  

What does a therapist do?

The term ‘therapist’ is often thrown around loosely to refer to a psychologist or a counselor. Technically speaking, a therapist is a psychologist dealing with the long-term, general health of his or her clients. Therapists deal with issues such as marriage, anxiety, career aspirations, and child health. Therapists may hold independent practice, be part of an organization or work in a hospital. The type of patients you see will depend on your specialization. It’s not uncommon for therapists to incorporate unusual methods such as music, art or dance to treat their patients.  

How to Become a Therapist

Becoming a therapist requires at least a doctorate in psychology, although some states will grant therapist’s license to those with master’s degrees as well (especially for alternate therapy methods such as art or dance therapy). Therapists usually major in psychology in their undergrad. Education, social work, sociology and health sciences (biology, physiology, anatomy, etc.) are also popular options. Getting into a reputable doctorate program can be difficult with GRE scores and incoming average GPA increasing each year. Altogether, expect to dedicate anywhere from six to nine years of your life to becoming a therapist.