When I decided to become a social worker many years ago, there were few choices of graduate programs. Nowadays, those thinking about becoming a mental health professional have multiple options. The purpose of this short article is not to speak about any specific discipline or program. It’s simply for you to think about what it means to choose the field of mental health as a profession.
Helping people is an honor. Helping people help themselves is rewarding and inspiring. Being involved in helping others enhance the quality of their emotional life is a great privilege. While chesed may be a byproduct, let’s be clear: This profession is not about “being nice.” It’s about being part of an emotional excursion; facilitating growth and mindful self-reflection. For this relationship to be effective, this journey must occur for both the client and the practitioner.
Is Not About Fixing People
Becoming a mental health professional requires heavy amounts of emotional labor and academic effort. This career means being with people who are suffering and living with the fact that no matter how skilled you are, you will not always be able to alleviate their burdens. It can be terribly discouraging when a client stops working in therapy or prematurely drops out of treatment. You know you can still help them, but they have decided not to continue.
There are boundaries unique to this relationship. The client is the determining voice. My hope to “fix it” can get in the way and possibly cause damage. Learning what is professionally appropriate takes years and is beyond the limitations of this article. To put it simply, psychotherapy (talk therapy) requires nuanced compassion, patience and skill to help make the unconscious conscious, and promote emotional development. A person can’t “change” anything until we know it’s there.
It’s difficult to see other people suffer and hear about their abusive past and/or present trauma. You will see it in almost every case that comes your way. Again, your desire to facilitate change must be guided by protocol, boundaries, technique and self-care. The use of evidence-based practice interventions should be a guide for your work. We often face ethical dilemmas that are tricky to navigate and require great skill to work through. The skill of being able to balance beneficence (acting to promote the patient’s well-being) and nonmaleficence (avoiding harm to come to the patient) is a delicate one. (An example would be deciding if a suicidal client should be involuntarily hospitalized.)
The “Shidduch” of Therapist and Client
As a religious clinician, one faces unique sheilos necessitating a relationship with a rav; one who has more than a casual understanding of mental health issues. Burnout is an occupational hazard, and the professional must create a solid support structure to mitigate the possibility. At the end of the day, I can be well trained, current with the newest techniques and implementing scientifically validated procedures, yet may not be the right therapist for a particular client. No one individual mental health professional can help everyone who walks into his office. It’s a shidduch of sorts. And, just as in the shidduch process, two good people might not be the right match to fulfill the goal of the relationship.
This field also requires the clinician to respect a client’s right to self-determination, even when the choices they make may not be those you think are best for them. These challenging and common dilemmas often evoke strong feelings for the therapist, and therefore self-awareness on the part of the therapist is of critical importance, accompanied by regular supervision, personal therapy and ongoing training. These can be costly and time-consuming but are of utmost significance for one’s professional and personal responsibility and development.
We must stay abreast of up-to-date research and new treatment modalities in order to bring our skill set and properly directed compassion into the treatment room. You enter this profession and you become a lifelong learner.
The Rewards of A Mental Health Career
If you’re thinking about joining this field, remember that “repairing it” cannot be your goal with every situation. There will be disappointments and you will need support along the way as described above. The necessary introspection and encouragement are vastly different to what is needed in other professions. This relationship is not, and should never be, reciprocal. The goal of this connection is not to change the client—they need to do that—but it is to decrease suffering, increase self-awareness and improve emotional well-being.
Once you become a mental health professional, you have joined a regulated profession that requires licensure as well as abiding to a high level of standards and ethics as defined by each discipline’s governing body. The field requires ongoing training for recertification, without which it is illegal to practice. Yes, illegal.
This job is not without its rewards, as we said at the start of this article. Helping people improve the quality of their lives and empowering them to reach a healthier state of mind is noble and fulfilling. Such rewards most often outweigh the challenges.
Miriam Turk is recruitment director, Jewish community, Touro College Graduate School of Social Work and VP, NEFESH International.