By Ben Anderson, LCSW, Behavioral Health Director
After the pandemic, many people began rethinking their careers. Working full-time means spending a significant portion of our lives on the job, so choosing a profession that’s meaningful can go a long way toward creating a satisfying life.
If you’ve been thinking about a career change, and you’re the person your friends go to when they need someone to listen (and you enjoy helping them), you might consider a career in behavioral health. Careers in this field include being a therapist or counselor, a case manager, an addiction recovery support specialist, and more. I have found that many people who have learned to manage their own challenges also make excellent behavioral health professionals.
In community clinics, therapists have usually taken one of two licensing paths: becoming a licensed clinical Ph.D. psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). These folks work in partnership with medically trained behavioral health professionals like psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners, who manage psychiatric prescriptions.
For years, we’ve had a shortage of clinical psychologists and LCSWs in Lake and Mendocino Counties. The reasons are many, but one challenge is that it takes quite a bit of time and effort to get licensed, including completing graduate school, logging more than 1,000 hours of supervised clinical practice (1,500 hours for clinical psychologists and 3,000 hours for clinical social workers), and passing the licensing exams.
We would love to hire some of the skilled licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) in our community, but state and federal funding streams have prevented it. We’re working to change this.
What I am finding, however, is that people who may have been intimidated by these requirements when they were fresh out of college are now realizing how important it is to find a vocation they love. As we mature, sometimes a given path doesn’t seem as daunting. Remember the old proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
While the pandemic was mostly miserable, it did make things easier in one regard: it forced the world to improve remote learning. This has been great for those of us in rural areas who want access to a university education.
I believe the best way to have enough behavioral health professionals locally is to grow our own. Health facilities all over rural Northern California will continue to pour time and money into recruiting people from afar, but it’s a little like musical chairs. There simply aren’t enough behavioral health providers to go around.
If you want to go away to college with the goal of eventually becoming a behavioral health professional, your undergraduate degree can be in any number of topics: psychology, criminology, social work, and more. However, if you would rather stay put and opt for distance learning, you can still get the education you need. Cal Poly Humboldt University offers a fully online option for both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work. As you complete your academic work, the university will help you with field placement (getting the clinical hours you need).
Many organizations support undergraduate and graduate students by providing clinical hours, even if we don’t get paid for the time required to oversee student work. I know at MCHC, we believe it is valuable to mentor new behavioral health professionals. Of course, we would love students to come and work with us when they finish their education, but even if they don’t, we want to contribute to a workforce that values high clinical standards and the level of compassion that helps patients thrive. Plus, overseeing students requires us to sharpen our own skills. To teach effectively, you really have to understand the subject well.
When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, I was leaning toward becoming a pediatrician, but a peer survey in high school identified me as one of the people friends would go to if they needed to talk about a problem. Along with the other students identified with this trait, I was asked to be part of a new peer counseling program on campus. The next thing you know, I’m majoring in social work, going on for my master’s degree, and spending the next couple of decades as a therapist and healthcare administrator.
This work isn’t going to land you in a Maserati, but it will pay the bills and provide plenty of job security. You can live anywhere and feel good about helping people every day. If you’re interested in a career change and you’re currently in another helping profession like teaching or nursing, this can be a good fit.
People seem to have a pretty good sense of what psychology is, but they struggle to define social work. I feel like it is one of the most misunderstood professions. In a nutshell, it relates to supporting the social good, and there are two common tracks: a clinical track or a generalist track that includes things like hospital discharge planning, public health work, or care coordination.
If you’re interested in helping others and you’re considering a new career, I encourage you to pursue a career in behavioral health. It feels good to make a difference every day.
Ben Anderson, LCSW, is the behavioral director at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental, and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.