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Albizu University Psychology Professors Discuss Career Options in Mental Health

Rising Demand for Providers Opens Many Interesting Opportunities

Even before the COVID pandemic, America was facing a shortage of mental health care workers and psychologists, particularly those from diverse backgrounds who remain urgently needed to help meet the needs of minority and marginalized communities.

To address this issue and provide their firsthand insight as a resource for aspiring mental health professionals, as part of Mental Health Awareness Month, a panel of psychology professors from Albizu University’s Miami Campus held a May 2022 virtual discussion entitled “The Rising Demand for Mental Health Professionals.” During the event, they reviewed various types of careers available in the mental health profession and shared their personal experiences on what it takes to succeed in them.

Panelists included Dr. Jessica Popham, Ph. D., L.M.F.T., who discussed telehealth opportunities, Assistant Professor Yamila Lezcano, L.M.H.C., who covered the field of infant and maternal health, and Dr. Edward Heyden, E.d.D., who related his experience as a forensic psychologist.

The panel was moderated by Albizu professor and neuropsychologist Dr. Scott Bauer, Psy.D., M.Sc.PP., M.S., L.M.H.C.

“Depending on what type of job one is looking for, different levels of education and certification are needed.  This discussion helped to explain more about the options from people who know what it takes to succeed,” Dr. Bauer said.  “It’s important to explore all opportunities, no matter how seemingly insignificant they may seem.”

Before the discussion began, Dr. Bauer reviewed various aspects of psychology practice that most people are unaware of, such as neuropsychology and psychopharmacology, marriage and family therapy, social work and even school counseling.  A single academic degree, he explained, can provide a gateway to different roles—all with a slightly different perspective. 

Other, lesser-known jobs in mental health include working in community mental health centers, industrial organizational psychology settings implementing training and assessments, mobile crisis units and de-escalations of incidents, assessment for in-patient hospitalizations, substance abuse groups, social work, in-home therapy, jails and corrections facilities, colleges and universities, and political systems.

“I didn’t know where I would end up when I first started, but I knew I wanted to help people,” Dr. Popham recollected.  “Marriage and family therapy was always interesting to me, but then I found out there was so much more to it than just the actual marriage.”

Dr. Popham explained that, in providing mental health services, clinicians look at the systemic framework of how people interact with one another. 

“It’s not about how many people are in the room, but how we view them as individuals,” she said, noting that family systems, social systems, political systems, and even coworkers all impact us and contribute to defining who we are and what we become involved with as individuals.

Although a Ph.D. is not needed to succeed as a therapist, Dr. Popham said that many graduates pursue higher education once they discover their niche as a practitioner.  Others stop at the master’s degree level and then become licensed to practice. 

Personal qualities that can most help an aspiring therapist succeed include being able to understand and appreciate multiple points of view; balance thoughts, opinions and problems; being able to recognize the interrelated nature of various systems and, because clients usually come to mental health practitioners when they’re in a crisis, therapists need “plenty of patience” Dr. Popham said. 

The availability of telehealth has dramatically improved job opportunities in mental health services by providing flexibility for both therapists and their clients.  Dr. Popham explained that, with her license, she can serve any client throughout the state of Florida without having to spend time driving.  She can see more clients and, in turn, those patients living in rural areas can have more access to the help they need. 

Thanks to telehealth, clients also don’t have to change therapists if they lose their job and get new health insurance or move.  Because of the continuity of care enabled by telehealth, patients who stay with the same counselor usually obtain better results from their therapy, as opposed to starting again and building a connection with someone new. 

While being in private practice may allow a practitioner to have more flexibility, working in other, more corporate settings may offer better structure and predictability, along with greater opportunities to consult with colleagues. 

Dr. Popham’s paramount recommendation to would-be mental health practitioners is to ensure they practice self-care.

“We can get burned out very easily without it,” she noted.

Professor Lezcano spoke about her own experiences in working with maternal and infant mental health.  Since one in five women experience mental health-related complications related to pregnancy, she focuses on both on the prenatal period and the year after the baby is born, helping mothers overcome depression, anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive issues, birth-related post-traumatic stress disorder, and postpartum psychosis.

Many clinicians trained in this area also have experience in parent-child psychotherapy, since maternal psychosocial health can have a significant effect on the mother-child relationship and the long-term mental health of the child.

Working in this type of field requires the ability to collaborate effectively with other professionals such as pediatricians, speech and language therapists, and occupational therapists. 

Related career opportunities include being a developmental specialist, hospital therapist or early childhood mental health consultant.  Training for many of therapist-level careers can be achieved with a bachelor’s degree and subsequent certification, which entails specialized coursework.  Ascending to a more specialized role usually requires a master’s degree. 

Dr. Heyden spoke in detail about his career as a forensic psychologist and how he is called upon to evaluate the emotional aspects of criminal or civil cases.  His work helps provide a different level of analysis in court-related proceedings such as witness programs, custody evaluations or even rehabilitation of police officers who have been traumatized on the job.

Being honest in every aspect of one’s work is paramount, he said. “Because if you’re not, your patients and your clients will figure you out and then you’re done.  It’s always best to be authentic and genuine.”

In his job, Dr. Heyden often provides a hypothesis about a case at hand, so that those involved can assemble a better rationale of what may have transpired. 

“My work provides families with a lot of solace,” he explained.

In conclusion, Dr. Bauer said that, regardless of what kind of career one pursues in the mental health field, it’s important to think about long-term goals. 

“Think about how you want to get there from where you are,” he urged.

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