What do you want to become?
Alternative Career Titles: Mental Health Aide, MHA, Mental Health Assistant
Career Overview: Psychiatric Aides care for patients who have developmental disabilities or mental illnesses
Career Salary Range: $21,930 to $59,600
Estimated Years of Schooling Required: 2
Required Minimum Degree/License: Postsecondary Certificate or Associate’s Degree in Psychology
Become a Psychiatric Aide
A Psychiatric Aide deals directly with patients with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses, working as part of a healthcare team under the direction of Physicians and/or other staff members. These professionals help their patients to perform the necessary functions of daily life, monitor their behavior, transport them as needed and help them to participate in group activities. They may also help serve patients meals, keep tabs on their whereabouts within a facility and, as needed, restrain these patients if they become physically violent. Psychiatric Aides spend a lot of time with their patients, and as a result they play an integral role in the success of their treatments and their overall state-of-mind. Mental Health Aides (MHAs) are further responsible for keeping patient facilities clean.
“The career of a Psychiatric Aide can be rewarding, exciting, challenging, physically and emotionally demanding — all at one time,” Jhanay Williams, a Psychiatric Aide practicing in Pontiac, Michigan, said. “The career is especially rewarding when I can watch a patient take the necessary steps toward their own recovery by following their treatment plan and gaining a new perspective towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”
Williams added that often just “seeing a patient gain back control over their well-being, and understanding what contributing factors sent them spiraling out of control makes me excited”. She further shared that the career can also be challenging when she gets a patient who “has a hard time letting down their walls because their historical experience has taught them that people cannot be trusted”.
“Employment as a Psychiatric Aide can be physically and emotionally demanding because, like any other career, dealing directly with patient care requires having to lift, roll and clean up after patients,” Williams explained. “We also help them do laundry, take them to another area for tests and push gurneys and wheelchairs.” Sharing that while Williams herself is still “growing and learning everyday”, she has had to “leave her problems at home in order to serve others effectively.”
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Education & Training
To become a Psychiatric Aide, professionals must obtain a postsecondary certificate or their Associate’s Degree in psychiatric for mental health technology. Typically, these programs are offered through community colleges or technical schools and include in-class didactics and supervised field experience. During classes, students will take courses in counseling, psychology, biology and more. Once these educational requirements are met and employment is gained, Mental Health Assistants may be expected to complete additional on-site training.
“At the time I applied for my position as a Psychiatric Aide at the hospital, my facility wanted applicants who had either a degree in Psychology or with experience working in mental health, which I had,” Williams recalled. “I had experience working on my university’s campus within the Disability Support Services, an office which focused on helping students who had physical and mental disabilities. I had also worked as a Home Health Aide which helped me learn how to provide one-on-one care, chart patients’ well-being for the day and really connect with people.” Clearly the work experience helped her land her first career role!
To advance in a career as a Psychiatric Aide, professionals can consider pursuing additional education or obtaining licensure. While a license is not required to practice in most states (excluding California), this credential may certainly help a professional in this field to advance faster. Mental Health Aides may also obtain additional certifications, or ask to take on increasing responsibilities.
“As far as advancement opportunities go, many Psychiatric Aides will seek additional education to become a Nurse, a Social Worker or a Psychiatrist,” Williams confirmed. “These careers can require a Doctorate Degree or a 2-year Physicians Assistant program. For these professions there is usually the opportunity to shadow working professionals before committing to further educational requirements.”
Experience & Skills
To succeed as a Psychiatric Aide, these professionals should have keen observation skills which allow them to stay alert and aware of the patient’s current state. Such abilities allow Mental Health Assistants to sense when the emotional state of a patient is about to change, or when an external factor known to trigger a response from a patient becomes present. Furthermore, these professionals should possess physical stamina enabling them to retain or transport patients as needed. Finally, interpersonal skills are a must. Communicating with patients who have developmental disabilities or mental illnesses can certainly be challenging at times. Those MHAs who take the time to learn the most effective means of communication with each patient will have the best results.
“In this occupation, one should have experience within the mental health realm, whether from educational programs or work experience,” Williams said. “A lot of people have gotten a feel for working in the medical community after becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant or by picking up a position as a Home Health Aide, which doesn’t require much training. Such positions can provide the similar patient care experience necessary to become a Psychiatric Aide.
Above all, Psychiatric Aides should be able to remain calm. Working with patients who have developmental disabilities or mental illnesses can be emotionally challenging, as well as physically draining. Patience, as well as the ability to stay calm and collected, is key to obtaining successful daily outcomes in this role. Aside from this, MHAs should be kind, courteous, respectful and compassionate. They should genuinely want to help their patients and their families to work through their challenging needs.
“A Psychiatric Aide should first and foremost be empathetic and understanding of patient needs and what has brought them to the psychiatric unit in the first place,” Williams stressed. “Their personality should be warm and inviting, but in a professional and business-like manner.”
Usually, Psychiatric Aides can find both full-time and part-time employment. Yet because many employing facilities are open 24/7, schedules will very. These professionals can find themselves being required to work evenings, nights, weekends or holidays. Of important note, this career has one of the highest rates of injury and illness in healthcare, because mental health patients can be uncooperative, disoriented and even violent. This role also involves physical demands, such as lifting, transitioning or moving patients which can cause back injuries. However, the right preparation and movement techniques can help prevent many of these strenuous circumstances from causing injury.
“I would describe a day in the life of a Psychiatric Aide as very, very busy,” Williams emphasized. “We can start out with a schedule in the morning pertaining to where all of the Psychiatric Aides are supposed to be stationed, but depending on how the day progresses those plans can change drastically. Certain things may not be able to be completed due to the ratio of Nurses and Psychiatric Aides to patients.”
Williams noted that her day typically begins by assessing vital signs, serving meals, making rounds, discharging and monitoring high-risk patients. Following this, she usually obtains and sends urine samples to the lab and performs EKG testing.
“If you work three 12 hour shifts like most Psychiatric Aides such as myself do, you never know what you’re walking into each day on the unit until you sit in on a report and catch up on what has happened since you were gone from having had multiple days off in between work hours,” Williams shared. “Mostly for scheduling purposes, we rotate responsibilities every hour.”
Careers as a Psychiatric Aide are certainly growing. From 2016 to 2026, this career in healthcare is projected to grow 6 percent, largely due to an increased awareness of disorders and disabilities. As the “baby boomer” generation ages seniors are more likely to be diagnosed with cognitive mental disorders such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, and will thus require increased care from Mental Health Aides.
Most Psychiatric Aides are employed by local, state and private psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals. They may also find employment through the state government, residential developmental disability facilities, mental health facilities, substance abuse facilities and certain hospitals. The state employing the greatest number of Mental Health Assistants is Texas, followed by New York, Mississippi, New Jersey and Michigan.
“For anyone trying to find employment as a Psychiatric Tech, I’d recommend researching hospitals in their area that offer psychiatric services to the public and seeing how many positions are available,” Williams advised. “I believe the overall career outlook is high, so hospitals are always looking to higher great, compassionate Aides for their psychiatric units and volunteering in such places will provide you direct experience of the career, and help build your resume and networking opportunities early!”
As of 2016, the median annual wage for Psychiatric Aides was $26,720, and while the lowest 10 percent made less than $18,940, the highest 10 percent earned more than $42,220. In this occupation, the highest paying facilities are private practices, hospitals, substance abuse facilities, the state government, mental health facilities, and intellectual / developmental disability facilities. The top paying states for Mental Health Assistants are New York, Oregon, Hawaii, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
“When you start from the ‘bottom,’ earnings as a Psychiatric Aide will always be less than someone who has been in the field for 10 to 20 years or more,” Williams reminds us. “The longer you stay in the field the more likely your salary will go up over time. Just like in any other career, I would say that there is a cap-off once you get to the highest level of earnings and your employing facility refuses to go any higher for the specific level of work.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The American Association of Psychiatric Aides (AAPT) is a nonprofit that administers a voluntary national certification exam to test knowledge of psychiatric technology. The organization operates for the benefit of the general public and those interested in mental health.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is an organization comprised of Psychiatrists and psychiatric professionals in the United States. The organization seeks to educate these professionals on best practices, while spreading awareness around psychiatric disorders and conditions.
The National Council for Behavioral Health is an association comprising the nation’s voice of mental health and addiction providers.
- Volunteer or find entry-level employment as a hospital
- Ask to shadow a Psychiatric Aide
- Enroll in an educational program
- Network and make industry connections
- Upon completion of an educational program, apply to Psychiatric Aide positions
- Pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in a related subject to best set one’s self up for advancement opportunities
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Jhanay Williams
Practice: Trinity Health (HQ Michigan)
Location: Pontiac, MI
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Consider all of your options because a lot of people who get into this field find that the career is not for them. Just like with nursing careers, there exists the potential for high turnover and burnout rates from the occupation. If you happen to be someone who has made that decision don’t feel bad. Life is about experimenting and how else would you know what you like and don’t like unless you try the shoe on first?”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The number one mistake heading into this career would be thinking that the position is easy to initially get into as well to perform. I think when you have so many years of experience, the scope of work can look easy to the untrained eye that has never participated in such work. Certain days are easier than others, but professionals should never let their guard down to what the demand could be like on any given day. Go onto each unit floor without any expectations because things can change at the drop of a hat.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What are the true stressors within this occupation? Knowing this can help employees weigh the bad with the good of the profession to come to a complete decision.”
Why did you choose to become a Psychiatric Aide?
“I became a Psychiatric Aide because I had always wanted to work in a hospital, and thought of someday becoming a Psychiatrist. My position as a Psychiatric Aide has given me the much-needed experience of learning how to establish relationships with patients and how to work through the initial shock of what people unfortunately go through in life. I’m no longer shocked about anyone’s personal situation as my experience has taught me how to cope with my own shortcomings and failures, as well as inspired me to set goals.
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Asking for one word that incorporates my success is like saying ‘there’s only one way to solve a problem.’ Being caring, outgoing, compassionate and keeping a smile on my face is what makes me successful. I’m genuinely nice to my patients and staff members and everyone trusts that they can talk to me about anything. There’s no better feeling. I work hard and take my career seriously when I’m on the unit because I know I’m greatly depended on by my patients and the staff alike.”
*Credentialing organizations: The American Association of Psychiatric Aides