Jobs in the mental health field are growing at a rapid rate to keep pace with the increased need for treatment of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. If you want to land one of these in-demand jobs, a two-year degree from a community college could be the perfect starting point. However, prospective students should know going in that most roles in the field of mental health will require further studies. Part of your college planning should include thinking about what you plan to do with your two-year degree and what steps you would need to take if you decide that you want to advance to a counselor, clinical social worker or psychologist role.
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Associate’s Degree Options in Mental Health
There are a number of different options for pursuing an associate’s degree in a field related to mental health. Junior colleges and community colleges offer both Associate of Applied Science degrees in Mental Health and Associate of Arts degrees in Mental Health. While the coursework and career potential of these related programs can overlap, there’s often a big difference. Applied science degrees tend to be technical degrees that prepare students for paraprofessional roles in the workplace, while Associate of Arts programs are more likely to prepare students for further studies and, ultimately, for roles in counseling or clinical social work.
Not all community colleges offer programs in mental health specifically, but many offer associate’s degrees in related fields such as behavioral health and human services. Any of these programs can equip students with a foundation that can prepare them for entry-level support roles in the fields of human and social services, including mental health services or for a bachelor’s degree curriculum in psychology or social work.
When you pursue a two-year degree in the field of mental health, your curriculum is likely to start off with an introductory course in psychology, the study of thought and behavior, or in mental health concepts and career roles. You might also study the foundations of human or social service as well as sociology, or the study of social entities and groups. You might also study subjects such as group dynamics, developmental psychology, human behavior in the social environment and case management practice. Some programs involve a practicum through which students gain real-world experience working in the field.
General education coursework in writing and public speaking, science, math, social science, liberal arts and the humanities often makes up the bulk of an associate’s degree curriculum.
What Can You Do With a Two-Year Degree in Mental Health?
There are jobs for candidates with a two-year degree in mental health, human services and related fields. However, it’s important for students to understand what kind of jobs will be open to them with this background. If you envision yourself working as a licensed counselor, social worker or psychologist, then you may be disappointed to learn that an associate’s degree only qualifies you for paraprofessional roles in the mental health field. Rather than providing mental health treatment yourself, you will be supporting the practitioners who provide that care. In a human services or social services role, such as family service assistant, clinical social work aide or addictions counselor assistant, you will work under the direction of social workers, counselors and psychologists to coordinate services and resources, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Mental health technicians, also called psychiatric technicians, may have more job duties that are traditionally associated with the healthcare field, such as measuring and recording patients’ vital signs, the BLS reported.
Neither community and social service roles nor mental health technician roles are well-paid. The BLS reports a median salary of $33,750 for community and social service assistants and $32,870 for mental health technicians.
From an Associate’s Degree to a Counseling Career
Whether you choose an associate’s degree program because you want to see if the field of mental health is right for you or with the original intention of going on to a four-year university, the path to becoming a counselor doesn’t have to be difficult. You can apply the classes you took and the credits you earned pursuing your associate’s degree toward your bachelor’s degree requirements. Often, students with an associate’s degree can still complete their bachelor’s degrees in just two years of full-time study, so you won’t have wasted any time getting a two-year degree first. Psychology is a popular major for aspiring mental health professionals. Studies in social work or sociology are also options.
To be a mental health practitioner yourself, you will most likely need to go to graduate school. Although some jobs for mental health counselors exist at the bachelor’s level, according to the BLS, a master’s degree is needed to become a licensed counselor. If you choose the social work route, you can become a social worker with only a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), but you need a Master of Social Work (MSW) to provide clinical services like counseling and psychotherapy.
For aspiring psychologists, the path to the career is even longer. A doctoral degree, like the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), is required for most psychologist careers.