“Can I make good money with a career in mental health?“
*Mental health professions can be lucrative if you make wise decisions, have a bit of luck, and are not expecting a lavish lifestyle. And it ultimately depends on many factors.
Not “Starving Artist” & Not “Dr. Moneybags”
First, let’s dispel the stereotype. There is a common notion that therapists, in general, do not make any money. This is a misconception. Mental healthcare is an important service, it is valued by society, and it is recognized as a legitimate branch of science/medicine/healthcare, hence its professionals are indeed compensated for their work with salaries desirable for many people. That said, like most stereotypes, there is some truth to the sentiment: the expectation of high income is not a primary reason most mental health helpers do the work they do. As Dr. Metz says in her book, “these salaries will not allow you to live extravagantly” (2016, p. 115). And there may indeed be periods of your career, such as during and shortly after graduate school, in which you may experience financial precarity. Many issues will affect how your finances feel throughout your career, let’s explore a few here.
It Depends on Specialty
There are significant differences in typical salaries of mental health helping professionals based on their credentials, work settings, and specializations. For instance, psychiatrists tend to have some of the highest salaries in the mental health realm and doctoral-level clinicians are almost always paid a higher rate than master’s-level. Hospitals and VA’s tend to pay relatively well, whereas academic settings and college counseling centers are often much lower in salary. There are other factors to consider as well, such as benefits and work flexibility. While private practice can often be very lucrative and one may have the ability to build their own schedule, they also likely need to pay overhead costs back into the practice (e.g., rent, billing, administrative assistance) and will likely not receive any health insurance as an independent contractor. To learn more about how various disciplines compare, explore the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH). For instance, here are the OOH pages on psychologists and social workers. You can also compare salaries as anonymously reported by employees themselves on platforms such as Glassdoor.
It Depends on Student Debt
One will very likely incur some amount of debt from student loans through the educational journey of undergraduate studies followed by a graduate/professional degree in the mental health topic area. Even if you secured a “full ride” scholarship completely covering your tuition costs, you still need to pay rent and eat! In some cases, these other expenses can be covered (partially) with stipends, grants, assistantships, external placement funding, or other sources of income in exchange for field-relevant work conducted while in school. However, the likelihood that a student can earn a professional degree in a mental health specialty while taking on zero debt is increasingly improbable as time goes on. Given this, it is important to your eventual financial stability that you consider the potential lasting impact of your student loans. Doctoral-level training often comes with more opportunities for funding, and usually leads to higher-paying jobs, but also is typically a more expensive training experience overall. And within doctoral training, PsyD programs tend to be more expensive than PhD programs, but cost of living must be taken into account among other things! To learn more about financial aid at various training programs, check their specific websites–or for psychology training in particular, explore the APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology database.
It Depends on Loan Repayment
Related to the prior point, the type of student loans and their repayment plans which you elect will have varying consequences on the status of your finances during the early stages of your career (and will have lingering effects thereafter). Loans from private loan servicers often have higher interest rates and more rigid policies as compared to federal loans. Various federal repayment plans may offer different rates based on your income, which can be advantageous especially if you expect your income to grow gradually following completing your degree. Relevant to all this is the consideration of loan forgiveness. One main source of forgiveness for those in the mental health professions is what’s called “Public Service Loan Forgiveness” (PSLF). Under this policy, eligible student loan borrowers who have accumulated 120 eligible monthly payments (i.e., 10 years’ worth) on their eligible student loans, while working at an eligible employer, will have any remainder forgiven. There are many details to determining eligibility–for instance, eligible employers, as the program’s name implies, are organizations or work settings which are deemed “public service” by the government. The good news is that the workplaces of many mental health professionals are indeed eligible employers (e.g., non-profit hospitals, state-funded universities, government agencies, public schools). Learn more at the PSLF Help Tool and the FedLoan Servicing page. There are also support communities where people share info about their PSLF journeys with one another on Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter.
It Depends on Location
How much does it cost to live in a certain area? How is the housing market, the local grocery options, the childcare, the commute? These sorts of questions intersect with your salary in determining how financially satisfied you may feel with a given set of career choices. A doctoral-level hospital clinician position in a major metropolitan area may pull a higher annual salary than a master’s-level position in a non-profit rural agency, but if it costs four times as much to live in the ‘big city’ versus the ‘small town,’ then your salary will not feel all that much greater. To learn more, check out the Cost of Living Index (COLI) by the Council for Community and Economic Research.
It Depends on History
You might be wondering at this point why this website hasn’t simply given you the exact dollar amount numbers. Surely the ability to directly compare one potential career path against another, in terms of what you’d be paid, would be a desirable piece of information. Here’s the thing, it would take a lot of work to curate such a specific resource, and it would be almost immediately obsolete. Inflation rates (as of the time of writing in 2022) are high and volatile, meaning the economy is shifting rapidly. Salaries of mental health professionals, from even just five years ago, do not necessarily reflect today’s pay. Historical events (e.g., international conflicts, health crises, local changes in needs, adjustments to licensing laws) can drastically alter the supply and demand of certain mental health services, which can play out in the rates that these professionals are paid (as well as the availability of any positions). All this is to say that rather than attempt to provide it for you, the best encouragement is to do your homework and investigate likely salaries yourself! Take a look at local employers for whom you would be interested to eventually work, and see what they pay their mental health professionals. And explore the links provided elsewhere on this page to find estimates for various specialties.
Lots to Consider!
There are many factors which will influence the level to which you feel financially stable and satisfied with a career in a mental health helping profession. Do these jobs typically come with salaries affording one a life of luxury? Not quite. But one can also be very comfortable and content if informed decisions are made about the type of training pursued, the incurment and repayment of student loan debt, the location of work, and the level of benefits and flexibility afforded by the work. There are lots of ways to make this a fulfilling, lucrative, and sustainable career!
Yes this Matters!
Aspiring mental health professionals in the early years of their education often say things like “well the money doesn’t matter to me, I just want to help” or “I can live on minimal resources, I just want to feel that my work is meaningful” or “I don’t care about my student loans, I need this degree!” These are noble sentiments, and yet, those perspectives likely change with time. Your desires for things such as nicer housing, travel, hobbies, a partner, children, good medical care, and an eventual retirement all mean that your financial situation is indeed an important consideration. No matter how great your passion for mental health, this is still about pursuing a job, an agreement about your work occurring in exchange for pay. That should mean that the compensation is worth your efforts and sacrifices. Do not martyr yourself over this career.