The field of mental health is incredibly wide and varied. Thus, there are also many different types of mental health degrees. If you are interested in the concept of mental health, therefore, you should start by taking some time to think about what it is that you actually want to do. From there, you will be able to choose a degree that matches not just your interests, but also your academic capabilities.
The Different Degree Levels
1. The Certificate
There are only a few certificates available in the field of mental health that would allow you to start working without any other training or degree program. The exception is the Mental Health First Aid certificate, offered by the National Council for Behavioral Health. This certificate enables people, regardless of what their background is, to recognize mental health emergencies and take appropriate action. They offer this course for both youths and adults, both of which are eight hour courses.
2. The Associate’s Degree
An associate’s degree generally takes around two years to complete. Specific to the field of mental health is the Associate of Science in Mental Health, which teaches students about issues, such as drug and alcohol treatment, therapeutic activities, case management skills, developmental and mental disabilities, psychosocial rehabilitation, human development, child mental health care, and community mental health. After completion of the degree, jobs like those of the group facilitator, nursing home administration assistant, mental health rehabilitation assistant, family support services caseworker, and shelter manager become available.
Your other option is the Associate of Applied Science in Behavioral Health Sciences, which is for those who want to take on an entry level position related to behavioral health. It prepares people to take on assistant and administrative roles in various mental health services. The emphasis is on sociology and psychology.
3. The Bachelor’s Degree Level
At bachelor’s degree level, mental health degree goes into more specific subjects, rather than focusing on a general mental health perspective. Some of the bachelor’s degree majors you could choose include counseling, psychology, sociology, education, human services, or nursing. If you are interested in working directly with individuals who have mental health difficulties, then you have to be prepared to continue to study, however, as the bachelor’s degree is not suitable for clinical work. It generally takes four years to complete a bachelor’s degree.
4. The Master’s Degree Level
Once you reach the master’s degree level, you will be able to truly specialize your skills, although this does still depend on your chosen major. Some options include mental health counseling, psychology, education, human development, and so on. At this stage, you will start to advance your knowledge on the field of mental health and on putting measures in place to improve mental health outcomes. During your master’s degree, you will usually also have to complete a practical experience under supervision of an approved and licensed professional. Upon completion, you may be able to take an examination to be able to get to work in mental health, depending on your chosen field of study. For instance, you can take the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE) if you studied mental health counseling. Another degree option at master’s level that will prepare you to enter the mental health care workforce is nursing. If you have chosen to specialize in mental health nursing at advanced practice nursing level, then you can also put your degree into practice.
5. The Doctorate Degree Level
The doctoral degree level is required for those who want to be involved in clinical practice. This includes psychology, for instance, but also licensed mental health counseling. The length of time required to complete a doctorate degree will depend on the chosen degree, as well as its requirements.
Degree Requirements by Profession
So which degree do you need for the different common mental health professions?
1. Psychiatrist – medical school (doctorate level), residency, certification
2. Psychologist – doctorate degree (Psy.D. or Ph.D.) and licensing
3. Clinical Social Work – master’s degree and licensing
4. Psychiatric Nurse – bachelor’s degree, RN registration, specialized training
5. Marriage & Family Therapist – master’s degree
6. Licensed Professional Counselor – master’s degree
7. Clinical Psychologist – doctorate degree.
8. School Psychologist – doctorate degree
9. Mental Health Counselor – master’s degree
10. Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor – master’s or doctorate degree, as well as specific certification
11. Nurse Psychotherapist – master’s degree
12. Pastoral Counselor – master’s degree and ministry experience
13. Peer Specialist – high school or GED, as well as specific life experiences
14. Specialized Therapists (art, music, equine, etc) – varies, although a bachelor’s degree with certification is generally the minimum requirement
Which Type of Mental Health Degree Do You Need?
Because the field of mental health is so wide and varied, some would say even more so than the field of regular health, it can be really difficult to plan your future career through education. This is why it is advisable to check with the APA Practice Organization, where you can see the licensing and educational requirements for the different types of mental health professionals.
If you are interested in a career in the field of mental health, you need to start by thinking about the options that are available to you. Generally speaking, the field of mental health is one that people become involved in because they have a passion for making things better, and not for the career prospect or earning professional. Hence, how long a mental health degree will take to finish or how much it costs is less likely to be a determining factor for you. Of greater importance is that you will be able to make a difference where you feel it matters. Start by asking yourself whether you want a professional career (psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, therapist, etc.) or a non-professional career (mental health first aider, Samaritan, etc.). Once you have a general idea of where you want to go, you should try to find voluntary positions, which will give you a true immersion into the field of mental health, thereby enabling you to make better choices. Do speak to a career or educational counselor to gain a greater idea of what you would like to do (career and educational guidance counselors are also mental health professionals, by the way), and how you would need to achieve that.
Choosing a mental health degree is not a choice you should make lightly, as it has the potential to affect your entire future, particularly if you were to go down the doctorate degree level route. Hence, list all the pros and cons of your different options, seek advice, and always sleep on it before you make a final decision on what to study.
- Types of Mental Health Professionals. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Treatment/Types-of-Mental-Health-Professionals
- John M. Grohol (2016, Jul. 17). Types of Mental Health Professionals. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/types-of-mental-health-professionals/
- Nationally Certified Peer Recovery Support Specialist (NCPRSS) (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.naadac.org/NCPRSS