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Mental Health Overview


For more information on careers in this field, see the list on the right. For salary ranges, schooling requirements and more, check out the Career Explorer.

Mental health is a broad field with a wide range of career choices. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Recent studies suggest that positive mental health is positively associated with better physical health. Working with individuals and/or groups of all ages, health professionals in this field help children, adolescents and adults deal with a variety of life stresses and problems, including addiction/substance abuse; problems with self-esteem; aging-related mental health issues; family, parenting or marital problems; grief, anger or depression; and other emotional or behavioral issues.

Some mental health practitioners – specifically, professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers and psychiatric nurses – hold advanced degrees with special training in brain function and human behavior. These professionals help patients with clinically diagnosed mental illnesses and emotional problems, and their approach to care may be purely medical, psycho-therapeutic, psycho-social or a combination of therapies.

The mental health field encompasses a variety of professions, each of which has a number of different career avenues:

  • Professional counselors provide mental health and substance abuse care to millions of Americans nationwide. These professionals, who have master’s degrees, work in partnership with individuals, families and groups to treat a wide assortment of mental, behavioral and emotional problems and disorders. The counseling profession as a whole utilizes mental health, psychological and human development principles to address issues of wellness, personal growth and career development, in addition to pathology. Although professional counselors are employed by a variety of organizations across a wide range of work environments, they make up an especially large percentage of the workforce in community health centers and agencies. They are both employed in and covered by managed care organizations and health plans. In addition, many professional counselors operate private practices. Counselors’ titles vary according to the states they practice in. The most common title is licensed professional counselor (LPC). The American Counseling Association has more information about choosing a career in counseling.
  • Psychiatric nurses treat patients diagnosed with mental illnesses. They are trained in behavioral therapy so they can also provide patients and families with methods to use to cope with the challenges mental illness can present. Learn more about what psychiatric nurses do at the American Psychiatric Nurses Association website.
  • Psychiatrists are physicians who diagnose and treat mental health and emotional problems. They also help patients prevent mental health and emotional issues. Because they are trained as physicians in addition to education in mental health treatment, the psychiatrist understands the relationship between emotional illness and other medical illness. The American Psychiatric Association has more information about the profession.
  • Psychologists hold a Ph.D. and may choose to be counseling psychologists, who help people cope with everyday life issues, or clinical psychologists, who work in more clinical settings, hospitals, criminal justice, etc. Psychologists, who hold doctoral degrees in psychology, help people learn to cope more effectively with life issues and mental health problems. Psychologists help people by using a variety of techniques based on the best available research and considering each person’s needs, values, goals and circumstances. Find out more about the profession of psychology from the American Psychologists Association.
  • Social workers assist individuals, groups or communities to restore or enhance their capacity for social functioning. In addition to working with individuals, they work to create societal conditions that support communities in need. Social workers help people overcome challenges ranging from poverty, discrimination, abuse and addiction to physical illness, unemployment, divorce, loss, disability and mental illness. You can learn more about a career in social work from the National Association of Social Workers.

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Note: The American Counseling Association reviewed this overview.