What Is a Mental Health Technician?

A group therapy session

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Mental health technicians—also called psychiatric technicians—are key players of a mental health treatment team, working directly with patients who are coping with disabilities, illnesses, or addiction as well as physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors.

There are various levels of certification, ranging from those with a high school diploma to people who have a bachelor's degree plus work experience. Depending on your skill level and goals, you can determine your ideal position on a treatment team.

Understanding the Role of a Mental Health Tech

If you or someone you love is coping with a mental health issue, you may work with a mental health tech as part of an overall treatment plan. Mental health technicians are employed in a variety of settings, including outpatient mental health facilities as well as long-term care facilities for both adults and children.

Mental health techs wear many hats, with responsibilities such as:

  • Filling out admittance forms for new patients
  • Leading an individual or group therapy session or a psycho-educational group session
  • Administering prescribed medication
  • Checking vital signs and behavior patterns
  • Assisting with the implementation of applied behavior analysis
  • Being available for patients who need to talk

There's no single treatment approach when it comes to mental health techs. Instead, the tech's approach with patients most often reflects the philosophy of the facility at which they're employed. This is because many mental health aides are psychology students and are legally required to be supervised by those with advanced degrees.

Training to Become a Mental Health Tech

In some jurisdictions, mental health techs need no particular education beyond a high school diploma. Traditionally, employers have provided classroom instruction and on-the-job training to develop the relevant skills. However, this is slowly changing. Many employers now require college coursework in psychology or social work. A few even require a bachelor’s degree.

There are four levels of certification for mental health techs, according to the American Association of Psychiatric Technicians:

  • Level 1: a high school diploma or GED
  • Level 2: at least 480 hours of any kind of college or university courses, plus work in the field for at least one year
  • Level 3: at least 960 hours of any kind of college or university courses, plus work in the field for at least two years
  • Level 4: a bachelor's degree in a subject related to mental health or developmental disabilities, plus work in the field for at least three years

As an entry-level position, the mental health tech generally has little opportunity for specialization. Instead, techs tend to choose the work locations that suit them best, from halfway houses to clinics. Techs may also choose to work in chemical dependency units or special-needs schools. Trying several different jobs can help guide you to further studies and specialized education.

Regardless of certifications, excellent relationship skills and problem-solving abilities are essential. Mental health techs must be flexible, adaptable, and able to think quickly. And given the scope of work and population of people you'll be meeting daily, it's important to bring patience, compassion, and good listening skills to your role.

Finding a Job as a Mental Health Tech

Career opportunities for mental health technicians are growing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were more than 138,000 mental health techs in 2018 and the number of jobs is expected to grow 12%—considered much faster than average—by 2028.

In 2018, mental health techs made an annual median wage of $32,870, with the lowest 10% making less than $22,800 and the highest taking home more than $64,430. Working for a state government facility—excluding hospitals and schools—was the most lucrative industry, followed by psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals and general medical and surgical hospitals.

Mental Health Technician vs. Mental Health Aide

Though the names may sound similar and they usually work in the same facilities, a mental health aide helps with more day-to-day tasks, including transportation, personal hygiene assistance like bathing, and working with the facility’s cook to prepare and serve meals. Aides typically require no more than a high school diploma or GED for the job, earning a median wage of $29,180.

Whether you choose to go the technician or aide route, it's important to keep in mind that many of these jobs are located in hospitals or 24-hour facilities, which could mean working weekends, nights, and holidays.

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