How to Succeed in Community Mental Health

Khiana Gray Wyatt-Locus is a 2021 Master of Social Work (MSW) alumna with broad experience in social services as a program instructor, employment specialist, child protective services caseworker, and group facilitator.  She shares her insights into starting a career in community mental health.

We know that mental health is as essential to an individual’s well-being as physical health. With that being said, individuals often face similar challenges when it comes to access to good mental health care as they would when trying to gain access to good medical care. This is because mental health care is medical care. Individuals who are in lower-income areas and who receive public assistance such as Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, etc., have to bear unique burdens when trying to get the help they need. Here is my advice on how to be successful as a mental health professional serving clients who are facing these challenges.

1. Know what you are getting into as a mental health provider.
Community mental health agencies are often overwhelmed and understaffed due to high staff turnover rates. Many individuals gain employment at these organizations when they are fresh out of school and first entering the job market. They go in unaware and unprepared regarding all that comes with working for a community mental health agency. The caseloads are high. The billing and insurance processes are confusing. And many times, clients will forget or miss sessions, which causes issues for clinicians who are paid based on the number of clients they see. This is not to deter anyone away from community mental health, but to give a realistic viewpoint of how things operate. I was lucky to get a glimpse of what community mental health agencies had to deal with through my experience as a child protective services caseworker.  I decided to start working in community mental health on a part-time basis as a way to pace myself and not worry about burning myself out too quickly. I would recommend starting out part-time if you are able.

2. Take care of your own mental health.
This advice is self-explanatory and has been ingrained in us as students and professionals since the beginning. However, I cannot express the importance of doing this enough. We already know that this field is mentally and emotionally draining. Therefore, we have to be proactive in taking care of ourselves so we can best serve those we work with. But we also have to be better to those we serve outside of our clinical roles, such as our friends and families. They need the best version of us too, and it is unfair to give them what is left of us after we have been depleted from pouring so much into our clients. As always, it is easier said than done. It takes being intentional about where we are putting our time and energy because what we put into ourselves, we get out of ourselves. As mental health professionals, we already take in the burdens of trauma, anxiety, depression, violence, etc., that impact our clients. Therefore, we must do what we can to ensure that other things we consume are good for us, whether that be food, music, or the encouraging words of those we are close to. Self-care will definitely make all the difference.

3. Know your limits and communicate them to others.
When you are fresh out of school with your degree, it can be embarrassing to say that you don’t know how to perform a task, or you don’t understand a concept. However, if you do not speak up and advocate for yourself, the work will continue to pile up. It is okay to ask for help and admit that you don’t know something. It doesn’t make you less of a professional for doing so. Those who decide to work in mental health need to be lifelong learners anyway. Just when we think we know everything there is to know, something new comes along and everything changes. So, ask for help. Ask for guidance. Get clarification. Get a mentor if you can. And, most of all, give yourself some grace. None of us are born great; it takes practice, time, and patience to achieve greatness.

In conclusion, working for a community mental health agency is not for the faint of heart. However, it can be done, and you don’t have to burn yourself out to do it. Just as with any position, there will be highs and lows. Therefore, it is important to remember your “why” of what made you go into this field in the first place. We need amazing social change agents, but the change must first start from within.

Are you preparing for a career in mental health or a related field?  Start your career exploration using these resources from the Career Planning and Development website:

Career Exploration Tab
(self-knowledge tools and career research sites for a variety of fields including social work)

Interest-Specific Career Hubs
(Counseling, Psychology, Human Services, and additional fields to explore)

Job Search Sites by Subject
(Social and Behavioral Sciences)

Blog Story: Career Exploration Using ONET

Blog Story: Informational Interviews

Written by Khiana Gray Wyatt-Locus, MSW, LCSWA, ‘21 Walden Alumna

Edited by Dina Bergren, Manager, Career Planning and Development