Psychiatric & Mental Health Technician
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Despite the many advances that have been made in recent decades our understanding of mental health, and that of those working in the field, continues to grow every day. The professionals that work in mental healthcare are compassionate as well as deeply curious about how to serve their patients and foster the best possible outcomes.
Psychiatric and mental health technicians are a vital part of the treatment process in many mental health settings. It should be noted that though these professionals can be referred to by either term, psychiatric technician is the more common position and the job for which the most certifications and degree programs are offered. Psychiatric aides are also often grouped into these categories but usually have less experience and less education than psychiatric technicians. Many technicians may start as aides – largely assisting with the daily living functions of mental health patients – and become technicians once they gain enough experience to move up.
A psychiatric technician works closely with mental health treatment teams to improve patient outcomes. The specific tasks of a psychiatric technician can vary widely depending on the clinical setting. Some technicians may spend the majority of their time helping severely disabled patients with basic living functions, including feeding, dressing, and bathing. Those psychiatric technicians with more training may have more clinically focused tasks such as interviewing new patients, monitoring patient progress, and helping to determine treatment plans alongside other mental health professionals.
Psychiatric and mental health technicians are not federally licensed, although a few states do have licensing requirements through their respective boards of nursing. In most states, entry-level jobs as psychiatric technicians or aides are available without any type of certification or even specific education. However, there are still academic programs available for those that want to have a head start in the job market.
The job outlook for mental health technicians is not as strong as some other healthcare professions. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data (BLS 2017) the expected growth rate is a bit slower than the average for all jobs, at just 6 percent (compared to 7 percent for all jobs). Still, there are opportunities for technicians who want to gain experience in the mental health field and who are willing to work odd hours in order to gain the satisfaction that only comes from making a real difference in the lives of others.
Degree & Certification Programs
In many states, entry-level work as a psychiatric and mental health technician does not require any type of degree or formal training. However, in order to advance through the field, obtain higher levels of certification, and widen job one’s job prospects, it can be a good idea to seek out formal training in the form of a degree program. These programs can provide a good foundation in basic anatomy and biology as well as the beginnings of psychiatric training that will be necessary to rely upon in a technician job. Some programs offer associate of science (AS) degrees while others culminate in certification with no degree. It should be noted that even the lowest level of certification possible from the American Association of Psychiatric Technicians (AAPT) requires a high school diploma or GED to be eligible.
The following is a selection of psychiatric and mental health technician training programs in the U.S.:
San Bernardino Valley College (AS): At San Bernardino Valley College in San Bernardino, California students can enroll in a one-year program to become eligible for the California Psychiatric Technician licensing examination. Students will take courses in psychiatric technology, nursing science, and behavioral science. To earn the optional AS degree, students must also take required core classes.
Cypress College (Certificate): The psychiatric technician certificate program at Cypress College in Cypress, California consists of 53 credit hours, including prerequisites and electives. Students have the option of completing additional general education courses in order to earn their AS degree.
Pueblo Community College (Certificate): With four campuses across western Colorado, the Pueblo Community College program is ideal for residents of that region. At just two semesters, this psychiatric technician certificate program is also quite brief. Students will learn the basics necessary to work as a psychiatric technician in Colorado including basic nursing skills and psychiatric concepts.
Hybrid & Online programs
While classroom sessions can be quite valuable, some people do not have the time or resources to commit to a full-time course load or may live outside of commuting range from an accredited program. In these cases, distance learning can be a great option. Some psychiatric technician online programs might include some hands-on experience in the form of a practicum that students can undertake at a location of their choosing while others may be entirely online.
InterCoast (Certificate): InterCoast offers a certificate for Mental Health Rehabilitation specialists, with courses both online or in a classroom. The program requires a GED for admittance and prepares students for entry-level work in the mental health field. The program takes a total of 720 hours over 40 weeks to complete.
Midlands Technical College (Course): At Midlands Technical College, students can take an online course specifically designed to prepare them for a career as a mental health technician. No certificate or degree is offered at the completion of this 310-hour program, but students will learn the fundamentals required to start in the career.
Core & Elective Courses
Required courses will vary from program to program, but there are certainly similarities among most psychiatric technician curricula. Some of these courses may include:
- Introduction to psychology
- Abnormal psychology
- Developmental disabilities
- Nursing science
Other programs may cover the same subjects, but group them together in larger courses with titles like "Psychiatric Technician I" for simplicity.
For those students attending a program that culminates in a degree, general education electives will be required. Psychiatric technicians may find it helpful to take courses in a second language, communication skills, or the arts as all can be useful in the course of the job.
In addition, many psychiatric technician students will be required to pass a background check with the Department of Justice (DOJ) as well as complete a CPR course prior to being awarded their certificate or degree.
There is no accrediting body specific to psychiatric and mental health technician programs. However, institutions of higher learning have more general accreditation that is good measure of the overall quality of the programs those schools offer. For instance, community colleges may earn their accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which is itself approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education.
The accreditation process differs from one agency to another, but in general requires the school to undergo a thorough self-study of facilities, faculty, and curricula and compile a report on the findings. Upon completion of this report, representatives from the accrediting agencies will perform a site visit and decide whether or not to offer preliminary accreditation. For specific criteria, visit the website of the accrediting agency in question.
It is also important to note here that where a state requires certification, they may also require governmental approval of psychiatric tech programs. For example, the state of California Board of Vocational Nurses and Psychiatric Technicians (BVNPT) maintains a list of approved programs. In order to apply for licensure in California, graduates must have attended an approved school. Since these requirements can vary from state to state, it is important that applicants to a psychiatric technician program verify state requirements before pursuing a particular program.
Psychiatric technician is not the fastest growing job, though there are still employment opportunities in the field. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics (BLS), the job market for both psychiatric technicians and less experienced psychiatric aides is expected to grow by 6 percent through 2026 (BLS 2017).
However, it should be noted that these projections may change as more Americans gain access to healthcare that covers mental health treatment. The aging population will continue to need care for cognitive disorders that affect older adults such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The mean salary for a psychiatric technician is $36,070 annually. The top 10 percent of psychiatric technicians earn $59,600 or more while the bottom 10 percent earn less than $21,930. For psychiatric aides, those numbers are lower, with the mean salary coming in at $29,330, the top 10 percent at $43,270, and the bottom 10 percent at $19,520.
The highest paid psychiatric technicians work in specialty hospitals, followed by state government, assisted living facilities, local government, and nursing facilities.
Psychiatric and mental health technicians tend to specialize in either mentally ill patients or those with developmental disabilities. There is no wage or experience differential between these two tracks, but the specialization can be worthwhile for people who have a strong preference for one type of work or the other. Of course, technicians can also choose to specialize in different populations, from adolescents through older adults for an even narrower scope of practice.
Licensing & Certification
The AAPT offers four levels of certification for psychiatric technicians, depending on the education and experience of the person applying for certification. The requirements are as follows:
- Level 1 requires a high school diploma or GED but no related experience in mental health.
- Level 2 requires at least 480 hours of college or university work in any field as well as one year of work experience in mental health or developmental disabilities.
- Level 3 requires at least 960 hours of college or university work in any field as well as two years of work experience in mental health or developmental disabilities.
- Level 4 requires a bachelor's degree in a mental health or behavioral sciences field as well as three years of work experience in mental health or developmental disabilities.
Certification at all levels consists of a multiple choice exam while applicants for the upper three tiers must also submit an essay portion.
Further, as of 2018, four states require their own licensing for psychiatric technicians. These states are California, Arkansas, Kansas and Colorado. The specific licensure requirements are different for each state and should be reviewed thoroughly by anyone who plans to work as a psychiatric technician in any of those locations. The following resources should help: