Pathways Toward Becoming a Mental Health Professional

by Ashley Eneriz

Across the world, mental health professionals are increasingly in high demand. These individuals play a pivotal role in other people’s lives, offering empathy and valuable insights to address difficult situations. If you’ve experienced first-hand the impact mental illness can have, possess a natural gift for listening and counseling, or simply wish to help others thrive, you may want to consider becoming a mental health professional.

You can pursue a number of different degree paths toward this end, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. For instance, at Azusa Pacific University, you could enroll in programs focused on psychology, social work, counseling, marriage and family therapy, child life, and even counseling psychology. Here’s what you need to know about the available programs and their related professions.

Helping Others Find Solutions and Live Well

There’s no denying that life can be hard, but even amidst difficult circumstances, there is beauty and meaning, too. As a mental health professional, you can help individuals find the light in the darkness. This is crucial work, and its importance only continues to grow.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness. Almost an identical number of U.S. children ages six to 17 also experience mental health disorders. While eye-opening, this statistic doesn’t include the number of adults and children who never sought the help of a mental health professional.

Licensed professionals combine psychotherapy with empathic listening and problem-solving skills to help individuals, couples, families, or groups dealing with mental health issues, trauma, and general life challenges. Examples include helping a child diagnosed with ADHD discover better educational aid, or providing care for those with mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and schizophrenia. Professionals can also assist clients with short-term mental health issues, such as postpartum depression or the mental toll of a divorce.

Honing Essential Skills

While a clinical psychologist and a marriage and family therapist will have different degrees and career paths, all mental health professionals need to hone similar skills. Curtis Lehmann, PhD, an associate professor in APU’s Department of Psychology, noted that the most important attribute students should develop is a nonjudgmental spirit, as this can help them value others’ personal journeys and better connect.

“This does not mean approving of everything they do, but rather, being willing to ‘step into their shoes,’” Lehmann noted. “The second most important [attribute] is a humble commitment to lifelong learning, as you will come to realize that you will never be the perfect therapist.”

In addition to self-awareness and an affinity for ongoing education, Lehmann also recommended all prospective mental health professionals appreciate diversity, as every person they meet will have a unique story and background. While the different degree programs take students down divergent paths, they all include a focus on students’ mastery of these three characteristics.

Career and Degree Paths for Mental Health Professionals

Earning your bachelor’s degree in psychology is an excellent first step in understanding human behavior. Of course, your journey doesn’t have to end there—it can lead to many other opportunities.

“Students interested in working in a mental health-related field should expect to go on to graduate school,” Lehmann noted. Nearly all licenses require either a master’s or doctoral degree in a related field. The few career options that do not currently require a graduate degree will still find that employability and income improve with further graduate education.”

Here’s a rundown of some professions you could pursue and the associated degree paths:

  • Psychologist (Psy.D.): These individuals are trained in psychotherapy as well as psychological assessment. The Clinical Psychology Doctorate program at APU is APA-accredited and meets the requirements for licensure in the state of California as a psychologist.
  • Educational and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC): These professionals assist students and families in educational or clinical settings. The Educational and Clinical Counseling program at APU enables students to earn their master’s degree and meets the educational requirements for LPCC licensure upon passing the state exam.
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT): These experts are trained to work with individuals, couples, and families with a special focus on relationship dynamics and how they impact and are impacted by mental health conditions. APU students can pursue this career path by earning a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy.
  • Psychiatric Nurse: These individuals care for patients experiencing a wide range of mental illnesses, typically in the hospital setting. At APU, students with a master’s degree in nursing can enroll in the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) Certificate Program.
  • Behavioral Health Social Worker: Within the social work field, professionals are needed to support individuals who struggle with behavioral health challenges, which can include emotional and mental health, and substance use. A Master of Social Work will prepare you for these roles, and APU's MSW program offers a specialization in clinical practice as well as the opportunity to add a Substance Use Disorders Certificate.
  • Drug and Alcohol Counselor (CADC): When people are struggling with chemical dependency, they call these professionals. Students can work toward entering this career field by adding the Alcohol and Drug Counseling minor to their Bachelor of Social Work or Bachelor in Psychology track.
  • Child Life Specialists: These experts support children (and their families) who are facing challenges, such as traumatic medical situations. This work is incredibly important and in high demand. The M.S. in Child Life degree can be completed in 18 months.

Wondering which career or graduate degree path you should follow after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology or another area? Discover the programs that can help make your dream career as a mental health professional a reality.