What to Know Before Starting a Career as a Psychiatric and Mental Health Technician
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There were times that were challenging in terms of stress, but you learn how to deal with that. Patients would come to me and say, ‘I’m having such a hard time.’ At times, it felt overwhelming, but sometimes it’s as simple as listening and validating them.
Ankita Guchait, Qualified Mental Health Professional (QMHP) & Former Drug & Alcohol Treatment Technician
So, you’re thinking about becoming a psychiatric or mental health technician? Perhaps you’ve noticed the increasing number of job listings on sites like Indeed.com and LinkedIn. No, it’s not just your imagination—the need for these professionals is growing.
Overall employment of psychiatric technicians and aides is projected to grow 12 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Demand for this occupation is being fueled by the fact that our population is aging. Older folks typically experience higher rates of cognitive illnesses than younger people, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and sometimes need the assistance of psychiatric or other mental care facilities.
But not all psychiatric care workers are employed in psychiatric facilities. Technicians and aides may work in residential mental health facilities and chemical dependency addiction treatment centers, in addition to psychiatric hospitals and other related healthcare settings.
To give you a 360-degree perspective of the profession, we asked a medical professional about her experiences working in this role to help us create a guide for aspiring professionals in this discipline.
Meet the Expert: Ankita Guchait
Ankita Guchait is a qualified mental health professional (QMHP) from Mumbai, India. When she was 18 years old, she left for the United States to get her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Portland State University (PSU). While she was attending school, she worked in various medical positions in her free time, including one at the university, where she was a support worker helping disabled students get around campus, as well as a role at CODA, a behavioral health agency in Portland, where she was a drug and alcohol technician. Over the years, she’s also volunteered for the Northwest Epilepsy Foundation and even interned at the United Nations in New York.
Guchait has worked in multiple roles in patient care, one of them being her position at CODA, where she was a drug and alcohol service technician at a facility in Oregon. She recently graduated with her master’s degree in neuropsychology from Kingston University in London and aspires to become a clinical neuropsychologist.
Tip #1: Know the Requisite Education & Experience for Different Mental Health Professional Roles
While mental health technicians and aides are often lumped together, these are two different roles. Technicians typically provide therapeutic care and monitor their patients’ conditions, while aides help patients in their daily activities and ensure a safe and clean environment. Both of them help with daily living needs such as eating, bathing, and dressing.
These roles also require different levels of education. Aides typically only need a high school diploma to begin work. Technicians, however, typically need to have a postsecondary certificate or associate’s degree in psychiatric or mental health technology before they start a job at a mental health clinic. These programs are usually offered by community colleges and technical schools.
“You do have to have experience, for sure. I was one of the stronger candidates because I had a lot of experience volunteering at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and knew how clinical care works,” Guchait said. “Having prior experience working with people, having a degree in psychology, and being more eager to learn worked for me.”
Psychiatric technician candidates may have prior experiences working as a nursing assistant or a licensed practical nurse, which also qualifies them to work as a mental health technician.
Once hired, there is usually a short period of on-the-job training before a mental health technician can work alone with patients without direct supervision.
Tip #2: Understand How You Assist Patients’ Medical Needs
Being a mental health technician is not just assisting patients with their daily tasks and chatting with them when they need a pep-talk, it’s about keeping patients safe.
You will help the doctors and nurses monitor patients’ health by taking the patients’ vitals on a daily basis. When a patient has a notable change in their mood or mental state, technicians are also responsible for noting this in the patients’ charts. So, technicians play an essential role in monitoring the health of patients.
Tip #3: Realize You Can’t Prepare for All Situations
Most facilities offer new staff members some training prior to letting them work alone with patients, but the training might not be as in-depth as you might expect.
“It was my first role in terms of a ‘proper’ mental health job. As a newcomer, I thought training would teach me this and that, but for me it took time, shift after shift, to really learn,” Guchait said. “Everyone is in a different mental health stage—you don’t know where their treatment is at—but they are not going to go over every kind of disorder with you in training. Not everything will be taught to you.”
Using the knowledge that you’ve gained in school and your own intuition will help you get the hang of how to interact with patients more quickly, Guchait added.
Tip #4: Be Aware That the Hours Can Be Unpredictable
The role of the mental health technician is not a typical 9:00-to-5:00 office job. Psychiatric facilities typically operate at all hours, so be prepared to potentially work weekends and holidays.
Patients also typically have to be checked on every 15 minutes, so depending on the particular facility that you find employment at, you may also be working the nightshift.
Guchait worked as an alcohol and drug service technician at an outpatient rehab center in Gresham, Oregon during the night shift. “I worked the overnight shift there from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. four nights a week,” she said.
“Honestly, it’s a completely different world when you work an overnight shift. It’s not terrible, but you have to be really brave to do that. The shifts are like, either nothing is really happening, or there is something huge happening, like an emergency or crisis, but it prepares you very well to have a career in this field.”
Tip #5: Get in Good Physical Shape
The job comes with some physical demands, so you need to be in decent shape if you want to pursue the role of a psychiatric technician. Firstly, you need the stamina to be on your feet all day, but in addition, you also will be expected to restrain a patient that is becoming distressed or violent. This is not necessarily an every-day scenario, but likely something you will have to deal with from time to time, especially if you are working at a psychiatric ward.
“Physically, I don’t think I ever came across anything I couldn’t handle,” Guchait said. “Also, from 3:00 a.m. at my facility, there was a male staff member that would come in case I needed anything or extra help. They were always there. And also, my supervisors were very supportive of a female working odd hours as a mental health facility.”
If you have any concerns about the physical demands of a job, ask your potential employer about how they handle difficult patients and if there is any assistance offered to technicians.
Tip #6: Get in Good Mental & Emotional Shape, Too
Dealing with stress is a part of the package when working as a mental health technician. You may be working with a lot of patients, all of whom have particular needs and are likely in poor mental states. You will also often be in the position of comforting patients when they are falling apart.
“There were times that were challenging in terms of stress, but you learn how to deal with that. Patients would come to me and say, ‘I’m having such a hard time.’ At times, it felt overwhelming, but sometimes it’s as simple as listening and validating them,” Guchait said. “And the responses I would get—sometimes they’ll say, ‘I just feel so positive now.’ All it takes sometimes is someone else being on the same page.”
If you find that you tend to absorb people’s pain and mental anguish in a way that affects you negatively, this may not be the role for you.
Tip #7: Be Prepared to Work in a Gendered Facility
Guchait worked in a facility that was separated into two wards: male and female. She worked in the male wing of the facility. If working in an all-male or all-female facility would make you uncomfortable, this is another factor to consider before committing to an employer. On the other hand, it might be a benefit, if you prefer to work with just one gender.
Tip #8: Explore the Pay in Different Regions
Even though the role of technician requires some post-high school education and the role of the aide does not, generally, technicians and aides can both only expect to earn about $15.00 to $16.00 an hour. (In May 2019, the median annual wage for psychiatric aides was $31,110 and the median annual wage for psychiatric technicians was $33,780, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
But this can vary depending on where you live, with some techs making more than $20 an hour or as low as $13 an hour. You check your local area on Indeed or Glassdoor to get a better sense of what technicians and aides earn in your area.
Tip #9: Research Opportunities for Advancement
If you’re still not sure if you want to pursue a career in mental health, becoming a mental health technician is a good way to test the waters and gain some experience in the field, which will look good on your resume if you ever decide to apply to medical schools, counseling programs, nursing schools, or other related career paths.
“Even though I’m on a completely different route, I don’t regret that job because it made me a very strong person,” Guchait said. “Working with different counselors, clinical psychologists, clinicians these are the people that you are going to be working with in the future, anyway. Getting to know more about the career you’re passionate about was really helpful.”
Tip #10: Embrace This Uniquely Rewarding Job
“Sometimes you don’t realize the benefits until you’re leaving,” Guchait said. “A few years, back when I first started this job, I never thought I would end up building so much patience. And the relationships that I built by the time that I left made it all so worth it.”
So whether you’re looking to find a career to stick with for the long haul or you just want to pad your resume with hands-on, clinical experience, you may want to consider if the role of the psychiatric or mental health technician could be right for you.