Mental health is a broad field with a wide range of career choices. In general, it involves counseling patients or clients in order to promote their optimum mental health, with an emphasis upon prevention.
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 illness 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 (from ExploreHealthCareers.org):
Professional counselors provide mental health and substance abuse care to millions of Americans nationwide. These master’s-level professionals 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. In some states, professional counselors are known by the title licensed professional counselor or licensed mental health counselor.
Psychologists hold a Ph.D. or PsyD 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.
Psychiatrists are advanced-practice M.D.s. They evaluate a patient’s mental condition in conjunction with his/her physical condition. In many states, only psychiatrists and other M.D.s can prescribe medications to treat mental illness. (Click here for more information on how to apply for an M.D./D.O.)
Since these fields are so diverse, there is not one set application process. For graduate degrees in Psychology or Counseling, you will apply to individual programs; for those interested in psychiatry, you would follow the process to become an M.D./D.O.
Entrance Exam Requirements
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is required for admission to both M.D. and D.O. programs for those interested in pursuing psychiatry; The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is typically required for other graduate programs.