Careers in Mental Health: Dynamic, Challenging, Fulfilling

A new year usually brings with it hope, the promise of a fresh start, and a renewed sense of vigour for a better future. 2021, to me, is no different, although I am presented with several questions to answer, all while working out how to operate under a shadow of prolonged uncertainty. I am sure this year has a number of questions for you, too. From when classes will resume at your school/college to when you get to see your friends, the uncertainty may be a hassle. There is also the pressure to choose a career and balance what is popular with what is also viable over the long-term. The good news is that, with a career in mental health, you can do both.

If you are thinking about a career in mental health, you’re not alone. As mental health awareness grows, people are waking up to the importance of psychological wellbeing, the millions of people who need help with their mental health, and the potential that the sector offers as a credible career choice.

Mental illness can affect anyone, and adolescents, in particular, are often at risk. According to a WHO (World Health Organization) survey, half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age, although most cases go undetected and untreated.  

Have you seen any of your friends or family members struggle during the lockdown or seem different from how they were before? What about your state of mind? Has it been the same since the start of last year? What do you think is at work when these changes happen? The brain, of course. Interestingly, the most important organ in the human experience is also one of the least understood. That’s what makes mental health a critical and fascinating field. People with mental health issues require a range of help from therapy and medication to advice on self-care and other forms of support. Each of these needs is catered to by a specialization in the area. 

When considering a career in the sector, it is essential to understand what your motivations and interests are. It's equally important to consider the kind of training you're willing to undertake. Psychiatrists, for instance, need to undergo rigorous formal medical training. As the most comprehensive and intensive pathway to mental health careers, psychiatry allows professionals to integrate both biological and psychological interventions. There are, however, a number of other routes available. 

For instance, those of you with an interest or a background in the humanities, could consider counselling. A wide variety of other options are also available from psychotherapy and counselling to social work and research. While they are grouped together, each area has its own specific needs and requires people with different aptitudes. Several roles in the mental health field - psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, social workers, and caregivers - call for differing skills and aptitudes, offering various challenges for people interested in the sector. The demand exists, and so do opportunities.

Besides your interest, you may also want to evaluate the specific requirements for each discipline. For instance, psychiatry requires a medical degree with a specialization, while a master’s in clinical or counselling psychology is needed to pursue a career in counselling. 

As a first step, speak with someone you know who works in the field to understand the various pathways available. Look into the different areas of mental health, discuss these with someone you trust, ask your friends to assess your strengths, and see what appeals to you the most. Although it helps to ask for opinions and gather information, remember to trust your own choices. If you are deeply curious about the brain and the mind (yes, they are different!) and want to help people, there is no better field than mental health. While this sector is undoubtedly exciting, it is also important to understand the challenges involved. Since the domain is not well regulated in India, you can expect long and tiring working hours, limited formal training, and low pay scales at the start. You will also need to be smart about managing your own emotional wellbeing under extreme stress. A career in mental health calls for aspirants to dig deep and display tremendous commitment and passion in order to thrive. 

In the past, mental health may not have been the first choice of career for youngsters in India. The perception is fast changing now as people start to grasp the vast extent of the mental illness challenge confronting India’s population and realize the importance of mental wellbeing. Even from an employment standpoint, as technology takes over several repetitive jobs, human skills are at a premium - social skills, creative ability, emotional intelligence, resilience, and collaboration - technology cannot replicate each of these attributes. 

Happiness and knowledge grow by giving, and emotional wellbeing is no different, which is why mental health professionals often report that personal development and fulfillment is one of their greatest job perks. Beginning your career in mental health now could open the door to a long and rewarding career where you discover a whole new world within yourself and others. The sheer depth of the journey is going to make it worthwhile. If you are looking for a challenging, dynamic vocation, that is full of opportunity, mental health could be the right field for you. 

By Anisha Padukone, CEO, The Live Love Laugh Foundation

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