Where to Begin?

“I know that I would like to pursue one of the mental health helping professions, but I am totally unsure where to begin. Which major branch of the field would fit me best?”

Choose a focal point along this spectrum!

Context Questions
First off, there might be easier ways to answer this question of how to begin your career search. Do you already know that you would like to work in a school setting? Do you already know that you would like to be able to prescribe medication as part of your daily work? Do you already know that you would like to be able to conduct research and teach college classes alongside conducting therapy? If so, these considerations about the activities and contexts of your work may already narrow things down for you somewhat, and you can peruse the pages under “Careers” on this webpage to get more detail about various options. But, for many people starting from scratch, they may have no obvious first step. Here is where I think contemplating the biopsychosocial model may help.

Biopsychosocial Model
In the science of mental health and psychopathology, there is a commonly referenced framework known as the “biopsychosocial model” which helps us explain the nature of various mental health issues, including everything from cause and diagnosis to prevention and treatment. It is all a bit complicated, but let’s consider one example at a shallow level–depression. When we think of the mental disorder of depression (i.e., Major Depressive Disorder), we can view it as having “bio” components (e.g., biologically oriented issues related to one’s genetics, brain health, and central nervous system), “psycho” components (e.g., psychologically oriented issues related to one’s thinking, experiences, personality, unconscious, and upbringing), and “social” components (e.g., sociologically oriented issues related to one’s culture, identity, and relative position of privilege/oppression). Each of these broad areas of consideration have important contributions to our understanding of depression, how to prevent depression, and how to help depressed people recover. Each of these areas is relevant, but most professionals working in the mental health helping professions do not have a deep level of expertise in each area–rather, they specialize. For example, Psychiatrists have a skillset more focused on the “bio” end of the spectrum, Psychologists are closer to the middle “psycho” area of the spectrum, and Social Workers are closer to the “social” end of the spectrum. It’s not to say that Psychiatrists have no appreciation for the impact of social policy on mental health, nor that Social Workers are unfamiliar with neurotransmitters–nevertheless most professionals have a specialization of some kind.

Where to Fit?
In considering where to start your career search, ask yourself some of these questions:
-Which area(s) of the biopsychosocial model, as described above, seems most compelling and interesting to me?
-Am I more fascinated by ‘hard’ sciences such as chemistry, biology, and physics, or ‘social’ sciences like sociology, communication, and anthropology?
-Do I tend to gravitate toward fields with clearer right and wrong answers to be memorized and applied mechanistically, or fields with murkier abstract themes and principles to be applied with nuance and gray area?
-In envisioning my future career, do I see myself as primarily a practitioner in one of these topic areas (i.e., spending most of my time treating clients) or primarily as a scholar (i.e., teaching, writing, and conducting research), or some blend of the two?
-Would I like to have a high level of variety in my day-to-day activities and diversity in the people I serve, or would I prefer to have a predictable stable pattern of similar work in a narrower scope?
-Who inspired me to pursue this career, and why? When I envision myself working in mental health, what does it look like, and who in my life helped shape that vision? Have I talked with others in this field about what they do, to get an idea of what parts I think sound like a good fit for me and which parts I would prefer to avoid?