Careers in mental health Q&A
This blog post was developed based on questions from the ThriveSMH team. We asked the team what questions they had about careers in mental health. While we are using those questions to inform other projects, we didn’t want to leave the ThriveSMH team without answers. So, we held a Q&A-style meeting with three panellists where we answered some of their questions. We thought some of you might also have similar questions, so we wanted to share them with you too! Here are some high points from the meeting.
Before we begin, we want to share that our panellists are bringing their experiences working in mental health and education settings. A wide variety of mental health careers are available within and outside the education system. This post shares the experiences of only a few people and is not meant to provide an in-depth analysis of all mental health careers. If you are interested in a career in mental health, talk to some of the trusted adults in your life who are doing this work or who might be able to support you in learning more about the many careers within mental health.
Meet the panellists:
Joyce Erogun (she/her)
Student and Parent/Caregiver Engagement Consultant – Team Lead, School Mental Health Ontario
Reah Shin (they/them)
2S and LGBTQIA+ Child & Youth Counsellor, Halton District School Board
Susan Sweet (she/her)
Student Mental Health Literacy Consultant & Implementation Support Coach, School Mental Health Ontario
What did you take at post-secondary school?
Joyce – Honors Bachelor of Science, Psychology and Health Studies; Master of Public Health
Reah – Honors Bachelor of Arts, Child and Youth Care; Master of Arts, Child and Youth Care
Susan – Honors Bachelor of Arts, Psychology; Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
What led you to a career in mental health?
Susan – I always knew that I wanted a career helping people. I wanted to better understand people and thought psychology was interesting. I also knew I wanted to work with children and youth more than adults. So, I was drawn to a career as a child psychologist.
Joyce – In grade 11 I took a course that was called “APS”, it covered topics in anthropology, psychology, and sociology. The teacher was incredible and really opened my mind to all the subject matter. When I was home, I shared some of the learning with my parents. Their response was along the lines of “What is mental health?” I noticed that there was a disconnect between the learning and how it translated to my home life. There was a cultural element to this disconnect as my family is Nigerian and are immigrants, and mental health wasn’t discussed when they were growing up. And although my parents didn’t understand it, I felt a strong connection to the subject of mental health. I knew from an early age that I talked way too much to be a frontline mental health professional, someone that supports people 1-on-1, but I loved being with people and was fascinated by the things that contribute to who we are. I felt like there was a lot to learn, and I could teach other people about mental health, like my family. So mental health seemed like the place to be.
Reah – I immigrated to Canada from South Korea in Grade 8. During my time in school, I went through some hard times in trying to find people that I really connected with. Through these experiences, I met some very supportive adults in the education system, including a Child and Youth Counsellor (CYC) that I really connected with. I knew that I wanted a career helping people and in exploring that passion, I felt like child and youth care was the perfect fit.
What are the drawbacks and what are the benefits of this career?
Reah – Some of the drawbacks are that this career is not just “work”, it’s about people’s lives and lived experiences. I can sometimes absorb some of their energies, and it can sometimes really weigh on my mind.
At the same time, there are many benefits. Through this role, I am creating an impact and a change in someone’s life and supporting younger people on their journey. It fills my heart and is something I love the most. I hope to leave a legacy in the education and mental health systems by sharing these moments together.
Joyce – I’m not a clinician as Reah and Susan are, so most often my work is project development and engagement. Some of the drawbacks of this is working in rigid systems. Sometimes I want to do things quickly but in the education and mental health system, things work a little bit slower. It can be annoying at times.
The benefit of my work is that I get to see the impact. When we create a new resource or program, I get to see that it is being used and get feedback. It’s really cool to see the work in real-time being used.
Susan – I went to school for a long time, and there are still a lot of misconceptions about the role. Many people don’t know about the background or what I do. Boundaries can be challenging sometimes, too (like when people ask you about concerns while you’re out socially). The work can also be really personal and emotional at times, so it’s important to take care of yourself. The benefits of this role are getting to the real stuff. When I’m working with people, I’m not just doing the small talk, surface-level stuff. I get to talk about the deeper stuff in a way that most people don’t. I’m also always learning and have had the flexibility to work in a variety of settings. I also think mental health is important and the work is of value.
How do you cope with difficult situations at work?
Joyce – I’m often working in team settings, which involve collaborating with others. Sometimes working with other people can be difficult, but I find it helps to build a relationship with the people you work with before things happen so that when things do happen like conflicts, I can reach out to people on a human level, with a conversation, and not just “you did this…”. I try to understand where the other person is coming from and approach the situation in a way that makes sense for them, meeting them where they are at. I find coming to someone 1-on-1, human-to-human really helps.
Reah – I totally agree with Joyce – relationships building before things happen is super important! A lot of my work is based on relationships with students, and with colleagues. Usually, I am the only CYC in a school. That can be really isolating and nerve-wracking. I find it helpful to identify the key players to reach out to. Many of these people are my mentors and having people to reach out to is helpful. I also find that setting boundaries and learning limits is important. I can’t control everything and sometimes I need that reminder.
Susan – If a situation doesn’t go well, I try to understand why and learn from it. I try to stay in a learning stance – offering myself the time and space to think about it. Having colleagues to talk through things with helps, too. Sometimes I need to remind myself that things not going well can be part of the process and sitting in discomfort can be helpful. For me, it’s very important to build boundaries between work time and home time. Building a transition to signal the end of the workday reminds me that my energy is now needed somewhere else. A walk or even changing clothes can help!
How do you set those boundaries with people sharing things with you outside of work?
Susan – I work in child and youth mental health and many of my peers have children, so they often ask me questions or want to know certain things. Good communication is really important. I always try to be clear about when I’m giving advice as a friend versus offering an opinion as a psychologist. I also try to acknowledge if it isn’t the right time (like we don’t have the privacy we need) or if I’m not in the right head space to be helpful. I’ve found a few go-to phrases that help maintain boundaries while still letting someone know I care about what they are sharing. Something like “This is really important, and I want to give it the thought it deserves. Can we connect again tomorrow?” can help. I’ll also help people find other places to go if I’m not the right one to support them.
Reah – That communication piece is so important. Often times I will connect folks with those that can support them based on what they need. That might include helping them find a place they can connect with for support. If we are talking, it means I’ve taken the CYC hat off and stepped into friend/family mode. I find it also super important to know when to take time for myself in these situations.
Elo* – I think back to the height of the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic when boundary lines at work were blurred. There was so much support shared across Black communities both on and off the clock. Mental health practitioners were offering support services, and helping folks find resources, to name a few. During this time, I was working 24/7. I made that choice because it was what I felt like I needed to do. I saw people in my community struggling, myself included, and I knew we needed to support one another as we got through this trying time; it was what I felt was important. The ownership often lies on the mental health professional to determine whether they have the time, energy, and capacity to support outside of their regular work roles. For me, being surrounded by a community of folks that shared so much love and light gave me the energy to keep going. *Elo is one of the staff facilitators on ThriveSMH and offered some of her perspectives on this question during the webinar.
How do you manage situations where you strongly disagree with or are upset by what your client is saying? How do you redirect your focus to helping them?
Susan – in these situations, I think it’s important to ask, “Is this a time when I need to challenge my own viewpoint?” Much of psychology is looking at things through another person’s experiences, values, beliefs, and goals. I try to ask, “Do I have something to learn?” or “Do I need to hear something?” If something has happened that I feel really isn’t helpful, I often come at it from a point of curiosity, for example, “Is that working for you?” or “How does that fit with what’s important to you?” If something deeply upsetting has happened, we need to decide if it’s something to deal with at the moment or something we need to pause and come back to. It’s also important to think about whether the relationship is working and whether I’m the right person to help. No mental health professional is skilled at everything or the right fit for everyone, and it’s okay to recognize that and bring in others when you need to.
Reah – When the disagreement is about my identity, it gets very difficult. One of my first internship placements was in a community-based organization. One of the younger kids there was making gestures that were connected to anti-Asian racism – that was triggering at the moment. I wasn’t angry at the young person, more so angry that society allows and normalizes racism like this. I really tried to look at it from a system-level perspective – How can we guide young people to dismantle the system and dismantle the discrimination? Having supportive team members is helpful to lean on in these situations.
Are there any cases in which a person should not go into a mental health profession?
Susan – Just like with any career, there are a few things to consider before deciding if mental health is a good fit. Some things to think about are:
- Is mental health deeply personal to you? If so, where are you in your personal journey with mental health?
- As a mental health professional, you often focus on the needs of others versus your own. Are you ready to step out of help receiving and into help giving for much of your day?
- Are you able to set healthy boundaries?
- Can you self-assess your own mental health and prioritize and practice strategies to take care of it? Are you able to seek and accept help when you need it?
Also, know that there isn’t just one type of mental health career. Some people work directly with others, some teach, and some do research… There are lots of options and you can shift and change throughout your career. And many careers have links to mental health, even if it isn’t the central focus. There are many ways to help.
Joyce – Adding onto Susan’s ideas, some clinicians at School Mental Health Ontario work directly with clients a few times a week, in private practice or with organizations, and then also do work with School Mental health Ontario a few days a week. Their career allows them to have flexibility, so they can get different things from different roles, balance is very important.
Reah – As I was in school and learning about what the CYC work was about, I was questioning if I would be a good candidate for this career. I had my own doubts, about whether or not I was “capable” enough to be in this role. As I was searching for my answers, I ended up reading an article about wounded healers and how people with their own lived experiences can be amazing professionals providing mental health support to people who are experiencing challenges or difficulties. This inspired me and gave me a great deal of hope. As everyone mentioned, it is about trying different things out to see what feels right for you and finding the balance!