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Pros & Cons of Working in the Mental Health Care Field

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Nearly 50 percent of all Americans ages 15 to 54 experience at least one psychiatric disorder at some point in their lives. Mental health workers help children, adults and families deal with life stresses and problems such as anxiety and depression. While this work is multifaceted and rewarding, it's also challenging. Lack of resources and high caseloads can make it difficult to provide adequate services. Constant exposure to people with behavioral disorders also leaves workers vulnerable to burnout.

Advantage: Multiple Career Options

The nature of mental health work is diverse and multifaceted. Many different options are available to those who enter the field. Professional counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers often specialize in working with specific types of clients or disorders, such as addiction and substance abuse; aging-related mental health issues; family, marital or parenting issues; problems with self-esteem; and miscellaneous emotional and behavioral disturbances. Depending on your career interests, you can keep working directly with clients, or train to advance into a supervisory position.

Advantage: Rewarding Work

Mental health work offers the satisfaction of helping people improve their lives with counseling and behavioral therapy. Major players in this effort include clinical social workers, who make up about 60 percent of mental health professionals, according to the National Association of Social Workers. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, clinical social workers mobilized to help family members and rescue and recovery personnel deal with feelings of grief and loss. Though stressful, working in such environments exemplifies the public service aspect of mental health care that motivates people to enter the field.

Disadvantage: Stressful Conditions

A mental health care worker's environment is often extremely demanding. Irregular schedules, exposure to unsanitary conditions, and risk of assault are just some of the realities that you confront. Time management is an equally important skill to cultivate, since mental health professionals must react quickly in crisis situations. Also, workers often experience social criticism and isolation for their decision-making due to confidentiality rules that may not permit a response.

Disadvantage: Risk of Burnout

Constant exposure to stories of behavioral problems and personal struggles often exacts a severe emotional toll on mental health professionals, according to "Counseling Today" magazine. An estimated 5 percent of counselors may experience counselor burnout, which is characterized by feelings of detachment and exhaustion in dealing with clients. An additional 10 percent suffer from compassion fatigue, which is the term for emotional exhaustion that results in dealing with clients' traumas. Workers must constantly balance their private lives against their career's demands.


Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.

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