Healthcare is always evolving as research, technology, and attitudes develop and shift. Recently, mental health has been in the spotlight. The stigma surrounding mental healthcare has fallen away significantly, and more people are realising just how much physical and mental health are linked.
Because of this, it’s a great time to join the healthcare field, especially if you have an interest in mental health. Roles within this industry are increasingly overlapping, and doctors and mental health professionals have to work together in order to meet patients’ healthcare needs.
So, with that in mind, how do you determine which career path to pursue? Here’s how to determine the right fit for you within the medical and mental health professions.
Exploring medical professions
Medical professionals are typically focused on healing patients’ physical ailments. Doctors in different specialties focus on different systems of the physical body, and nurses, physician assistants, and pharmacists support them in diagnosing and treating patients.
- Physicians. Doctors train for years, including on-the-job training after they graduate from medical school and pass their licensure exams. Becoming a doctor (MD) is a long and difficult process. However, those who make it through the training process can earn high salaries and make a huge difference in patients’ lives. They can also practice autonomously.
- Physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Physician assistants and nurse practitioners (NPs) are healthcare professionals with advanced training, holding a master’s degree and passing licensure exams. These professionals have the ability to diagnose and treat patients, though they often have to work under the supervision of a physician, depending on the state.
- Nurses. Nurses provide direct patient care. They have training in providing some types of medical care, but they are not authorized to diagnose and create treatment plans. Registered nurses (RNs) have a 2- or 4-year degree and must pass licensure exams.
- Pharmacists. Pharmacists fill prescriptions written by doctors. They are experts in medications that can provide symptom relief and prevention for both physical and mental health concerns. A doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.) is the highest level of education for a pharmacist, but there are other degrees available for lower-level pharmacy jobs as well.
Understanding different mental health professions
Mental health professionals help people understand and manage mental health disorders and general mental wellness. These professionals work with patients in inpatient, outpatient, or virtual settings. Telehealth visits have become extremely popular among patients and providers in the mental health field, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Psychiatrists. A psychiatrist is a mental health professional with a medical (MD) degree and advanced training. They can diagnose complex mental health disorders and provide treatment, which often includes medication. They are able to practice independently and prescribe for patients.
- Psychologists. Psychologists are highly trained mental health professionals, but they do not hold a degree in medicine. Typically, a person needs a Ph.D. or PsyD doctoral degree and clinical experience to practice as a psychologist. These professionals provide different types of therapies through counselling, but they cannot prescribe medication.
- Counsellors and therapists. These professionals do not have the advanced training of a psychiatrist or psychologist, but they typically have a degree in psychology and experience in a clinical setting. Counsellors and therapists can provide different types of talk therapy and can help clients develop coping mechanisms.
The confluence of care: overlapping responsibilities
Today, many responsibilities overlap within the medical and mental health fields. In many situations, a person’s mental health affects their physical health and vice-versa. Collaboration between professionals is often necessary for optimal outcomes and personalized care.
As a doctor or nurse, you might be called upon to treat a patient who is also experiencing mental health symptoms. As a nurse practitioner, you could decide to specialize in mental healthcare. As a therapist, you might need to advise lifestyle changes or collaborate with another provider on a patient’s physical needs.
Depending on your interests, this confluence of care could help you find the right career fit. If you are interested in how mental and physical health overlap, then you can choose a profession that allows you to work with patients on both of these aspects of their health, whether that means specialising as a medical professional or working in a setting that fits those interests.
Self-assessment: finding your ideal career
There is currently a lot of demand within the medical and mental health fields. This means that you can follow your interests and abilities without sacrificing job security or a comfortable salary. Take some time to think about what you want from your career and how much time you’re willing to spend on your education and training.
What are you most passionate about? Is it helping people through a difficult time in their lives? Is it solving puzzles and diagnosing problems? Asking yourself these kinds of questions will help you narrow down your ideal career. If you can, talk to some people working in different jobs within the field to get firsthand information about what it’s really like.
Many of these jobs require similar skills, including critical thinking, listening and communication, sensitivity and empathy, patience, attention to detail, and the ability to keep calm under pressure. It’s important to keep in mind that working with patients can be both physically and mentally exhausting. You will need to maintain excellent self-care habits and boundaries to succeed in these fields long-term.
Making an informed decision
There are lots of tools out there for career assessments, and it can be very helpful to speak with a career counselor about your goals if you’re not sure what you want to do within the field. You might also consider volunteering or shadowing to get a better idea of the day-to-day responsibilities.
Getting into the field of medicine and mental health is an investment of time and money. Be sure that you’re choosing the path that aligns with your interests before you start applying. There are countless opportunities in the field that can lead to a fulfilling career.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.