By Kristen Hornung, MA, PhD, LPCC
The process of becoming an effective mental health therapist is unique from many other careers because it often requires both personal development and advanced education, training, and supervision by an experienced licensed professional. Therapy is both an art and a science. It requires personal and relational skills as well as organizational skills like time management, prioritization, and documentation. Here are some suggestions and questions that may be helpful based on my experiences as a therapist and clinical supervisor.
Go to Therapy: What is your own lived experience or exposure to mental illness and the mental health system? It is common practice for graduate programs to require personal psychotherapy, but I would recommend starting your own therapy before you enter into a program and commit financially to becoming a therapist. Many of the highly skilled therapists I have worked with have seen their own therapists and are open about receiving their own therapy.
There is truly no substitute for being a client yourself! If you have the opportunity to see a few different therapists for 8 to 10 sessions (not at the same time) you can see how the experience of therapy differs from provider to provider and what different therapeutic modalities are like. Being in therapy may also help you develop more self-awareness.
Develop Personal Awareness:
When therapists are not self-aware, they may be less effective or cause harm. We all have strengths and weaknesses or areas for growth that can affect our efficacy as therapists. Therapists can work on their own recovery and practice therapy at the same time as long as their needs don’t constitute professional impairment, lack of capacity, or risk of harm to their clients. Clinical supervision, consultation, personal therapy, and good old fashioned practice and repetition can help you develop your skills and build on your strengths. For example, if you tend to freeze when people yell at you, you can read about assertiveness and de-escalation skills and then role play with a trusted friend or therapist.
Here are some questions to consider: What are your strengths, weaknesses, defense mechanisms, emotional patterns, and interpersonal skills and tendencies? How strong are your customer service skills? How do you function in high stress situations? When people around you are very depressed or very anxious, do you find that you also feel depressed or anxious, as if you absorb their emotions? How comfortable are you setting limits and addressing inappropriate behavior in the moment? How do you handle setbacks and failure? What values and beliefs would you bring to your work as a therapist? Are you able to identify what you do well and be your own cheerleader?
Evaluate Your Expectations for Being a Therapist:
If you aren’t aware of your expectations for what a career as a therapist will look like, you have no way of checking to see if they are likely to be met. One way to identify your expectations is to write down exactly what you imagine when you think of being a therapist. What would your ideal typical work day, work hours, setting, type of client, pay, etc., look like? How would you feel about spending most of your day in a room talking to someone one on one?
Research What to Expect in Your Area: Depending on your geographic area, the types of mental health work and the median pay will vary. Don’t fall for the trap of expecting that you will earn what the top 5% of therapists make! Be aware that trainees (people practicing therapy for practicum courses in their masters program) can work 20 or more hours a week and may be unpaid for their work.
There can be a significant difference in competition for high paying jobs between urban, suburban, and rural areas. Some typical settings are hospitals, clinics, schools, social services programs, or even in client homes. The income level of the general population and common types of insurance offered can also affect whether there will be demand for private practice. Here are some research steps:
- Check the average hourly pay for posted jobs in the area you live in. Look at both associate or intern therapist and licensed therapist positions on Glassdoor, Indeed, and other job seeking websites.
- Look at the detailed descriptions for several job postings to get an idea for the types of settings, job expectations/duties, work schedule, on-call requirements, training required, and modalities of therapy desired where you live.
- Consider if these jobs would work for you with your current lifestyle (including childcare needs) and financial situation.
Compare with Similar Professions: The last thing anyone wants to do is spend $65,000 (or even $100,000) on their MA in counseling, social work, or marriage and family therapy and then discover they would have been more fulfilled in a similar but different job! Research other professions: nursing (psychiatric nurse practitioner), occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language therapy, medicine, education, public health, psychology (clinical psychology or other branches of psychology), etc.
Explore Paths to Licensure: Multiple types of licensed professionals provide mental health therapy. In the state of California there are doctoral level practitioners (PsyD or PhD) and masters level practitioners (LMFT, LPCC, or LCSW). The path to licensure and the scope of practice is slightly different between each type of license. Familiarize yourself with all of the options available in your state and talk with licensed professionals in your area to get their perspective on education, licensure, and employment.
Research Educational Programs: Research the different educational programs in your area thoroughly. You can always ask to speak with alumni from the program you are considering applying to. Consider how many years you want to spend in education and training. Compare the costs, specializations available, trainings or research opportunities available, and faculty qualifications.
After I finished my MA in Counseling and began working towards my license as a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, I decided I wanted to go back to school to pursue a PhD. In retrospect, I could have saved a substantial amount of money and increased my earning power by enrolling in a PhD in Clinical Psychology program and pursuing licensure as a Licensed Clinical Psychologist.
I am grateful that I have been able to find a career where my past is an asset and I can utilize my strengths. I hope that some of these suggestions will be helpful for you. As they say in 12 step programs- take what you need and leave the rest!