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“Mental Health interests me,” Addiction Counsellor vs. Clinical Psychologist vs. Psychiatric Technician

Welcome to another, Footnotes Roundtable Discussion 

Hi Footnotes,

I want to work in a job that helps people suffering from mental disorders.

What kinds of careers and courses should I consider?

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For this round table discussion we called in:

  • 1 x  Addiction Counsellor
  • 1 x Clinical Psychologist
  • 1 x Psychiatric Technician

The Footnotes:

There are a few different career paths that are relevant to this question. It’d be great if everyone could us a bit about their role and how it relates to mental health… as a start!

Addiction Counsellor:

A Mental health counsellor will work with patients to help them deal with mental health problems. Things like as depression, grief and anxiety. Mental health counsellors will diagnose and treat patients too. So someone might come in with concerns about a family member and the counsellor can assess that individual and then help establish a treatment plan.

I work in addiction specifically. This is really closely aligned with mental health, as most people that have an addiction are also suffering from depression.

Counsellors can work independently [this means opening their own practice], in a private clinic or for a government initiative.  I personally work in a private clinic that specifically aids people that suffer from addictions. Most commonly it’s drug or alcohol, but we also see patients who are sexual addicts or that have food addictions – you know, they could have a  binge-eating disorder.

The Footnotes: What do you do with someone suffering from addiction?

One of the common types of counselling we do is cognitive-behavioural counselling. In this kind of counselling, a person’s unhealthy thought patterns are linked up to behaviours. So we try to understand what is triggering them to give into patterns of addiction. Then it’s our job to help them build more positive behaviours.

The aim of my job is to provide unconditional acceptance, genuineness, honesty and empathy. It’s my job to foster their self improvement.

The Footnotes: What are some of the challenges associated with addiction counselling?

I think students should be aware that this industry can be quite disheartening at times. Often the same patient will make leaps and bounds into recovery, only to then relapse. This can be really hard to see.

On the flip side, sometimes an addict may be angry, and as a counsellor, you will need to help create a safe atmosphere that supports your client’s feelings and needs, so this can be hard.

Also, you may find you carry your work home with you. Some of the stories you hear will be very emotional and sometimes when you think of the other parties involved; [for example a patient might be detailing his erratic behaviours and you know that he has three children at home and you can’t help but feel for them]. There may be stories of violence and other factors that are dominant in the families of addicts. It can be difficult for you as a counsellor to put your work aside.

The Footnotes: What do you love about it?

The people! The strength that you see in people is amazing. It’s truly amazing to see someone pivot their life from rock bottom into something stable. You can be surprised by people and that’s great.

Psychiatric Technician:

I work under a Psychiatrist. So psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialise in diagnosing and treating mental illness specifically.

They have an acute understanding of physical and mental health, and how they affect each other. Psychiatrists typically work with people with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression or eating disorders.

What’s different about this job, is that psychiatrists are the only mental health practitioners able to prescribe medication. So, if somebody walks in with a biological problem — they’ve got schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — the Doctor can prescribe them medication in their treatment.

People often get psychiatry and psychology mixed up. Psychology focuses on how people think, act, respond and interact. Psychiatry deals with the medical treatment of mental health disorders. In psychology, there is an emphasis on what motivates people to behave as they do as well as how they think and feel about themselves, their actions and others around them. In psychology, a professional uses theory and counselling to help people overcome their issues.

As a general rule, a psychiatrist can write prescriptions and will correct physiological problems within the brain while a psychologist is more strongly focused on therapeutic counselling interventions.

The Footnotes: What’s their training?

In total, at least 11 years!  Psychiatrists train as doctors. So they spend four to six years at medical school, followed by a one-year internship at a hospital, then a speciality training registrar program. Then it’s post-graduate psychiatry training: they work as registrars in hospitals and clinics for another five years under supervision of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

The Footnotes [talking to the clinical psychologist]: Why did you choose to specialise in mental health, and what kind of patients do you work with?

Clinical Psychologist:

I chose to specialise in mental health because of huge impact that depression had on my family. Depression  Discussions around Mental health are still taboo for many Australian families which – which shocks me. Anxiety, depression and suicide can affect any of us at any time.

Yesterday I saw a young person that is self-harming, hearing voices and who is traumatised by what life has thrown at them. Then in the same afternoon I was working with a woman  who is so terrified that her children will come to harm – she was abused herself as a child – that she has pretty much confined their existence to the inside of their house.

The Footnotes: What do you enjoy about your job?

I love that people in my profession all share a sheer compassion and lack of judgment when it comes to working with people. For instance, that woman I was talking about [above]; you might hear that story and think, “she’s mad;” but the field of psychology is focused on behaviour and the thinking patterns, feelings and understanding the underlying motivations that prompt people to act as they do. I want to make a positive change for every person I work and when you do, it’s so rewarding.

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