Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD

Careers in Psych

Is Direct Care Work in Mental Health Right for You?

Information about and first-hand accounts of work in this growing field.

Posted Oct 12, 2017

Guest post graciously contributed by Eric Lavalle, MSEd, NCC, and Doctoral Candidate in Educational Psychology at the University of Memphis.

Are you studying psychology and wondering what career choices are available to you when you graduate? Or perhaps you are curious about working in mental health but don’t know what jobs exist for you.

Source: maxlkt/pixabay

What is a direct care worker?

Direct care workers, also known as personal care assistants, caregivers, home health, or personal care aides, give assistance to people who are sick, injured, mentally or physically disabled, or elderly. Direct care workers fall into one of three broad categories: Nursing Assistants (usually known as Certified Nursing Assistants or CNAs), Home Health Aides, and Personal Care Aides. These jobs are great positions for those looking to get involved or explore the mental health field since they require little or no advanced training and are on the list of top 10 occupations projected to produce the most new jobs across the entire economy.

My own experience as a direct care worker

When working directly with clients as a direct care provider, one thing I learned was to expect the unexpected. No course in college can truly prepare you for working in the field. I had the fortune of taking a course called Abnormal Psychology in undergrad with Dr. McCullough at Virginia Commonwealth University. The course described many details about different psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia, bipolar, and depression. It was one of my favorite courses of undergrad. Months after graduating, I started working in the field at a psychiatric hospital located in northern Virginia. I worked there for a period of time before I moved on and worked in a variety of different mental health care agencies in different states.

When I first worked as a direct care provider in a mental health setting, I quickly found out that real life situations were very different from what I learned in school. It is one thing to read about someone hallucinating, it is completely different experiencing it first-hand. Another topic downplayed in my education was the potential for abnormal behaviors in mental health care settings. Many of these behaviors included responding to internal stimuli, unusual statements and behaviors, aggressive behaviors and very reserved behaviors. There are similar challenges when working with the intellectually disabled population. Here there is still a potential for abnormal behaviors but in addition, many individuals need further care with Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), like getting bathed, dressed and using the bathroom. Keep in mind when providing direct services, you are likely to have different learning experiences based on what populations you work with. Much of it depends on the environment and your clients.  

Jovane Henry/Public Domain
Source: Jovane Henry/Public Domain

With all that being said, there is a lot of good you can expect from providing direct services in the mental health field. You get to know the clients and can build trusting relationships with them. You learn a different perspective on how people cope with struggles that may be quite different from your own. You may also have the opportunity to work alongside various professionals including nurses, medical physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, art therapists, recreational therapists and mental health therapists. If you are pondering a future career in the field, you have an opportunity to talk with these professionals about their careers and witness their jobs in action. By working closely with one of these professionals, he or she could be a useful reference if you decide to pursue a particular career path or further your degree.

Finally, I need to stress that, as with most jobs, a key part of getting the most out of your experiences as a direct care worker is your mindset. Direct care work is not necessarily easy, but the payoff is large. These jobs provide a service to the community, help build compassion and patience, and are an excellent way to figure out if a professional career helping and working directly with clients is something you would like to do.