Pros and Cons of a Career as a Psychiatric Aide
Psychiatric aides work under the supervision of psychologists, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses in mental health clinics as well as general and psychiatric hospitals; duties include participating in counseling sessions, leading recreational activities, supervising patients and restraining combative patients. Before you embark upon this career, you may want to consider the pros and cons.
|Pros of Being a Psychiatric Aide|
|Entry-level positions available with high school diploma and on-the-job training*|
|Multiple job industries (state facilities, substance abuse facilities, rehabilitation services, etc)*|
|Vocational programs can be completed in less than a year*|
|Demand for psychiatric aides expected as the population ages, particularly in correctional facilities*|
|Cons of Being a Psychiatric Aide|
|Psychiatric patients can be irritable, difficult and even violent*|
|Physically demanding and dangerous (psychiatric aides are among the most injured of all workers)*|
|Unpleasant tasks (changing soiled linens and bed pans)*|
|Emotionally demanding job**|
|Advancement opportunities are limited*|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and **Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal
Job Description and Duties
Psychiatric aides may help patients with simple tasks, such as bathing, dressing and eating, but aides also assist patients with tasks requiring greater assistance, such as participating in recreational and educational activities. Aides may also be called on to supervise patients, including looking after their overall health and well-being. If patients become aggressive or unruly, aides may need to intervene physically or administer medications. Along with the personal care, there are also administrative duties involved, including monitoring a patient's progress, keeping a log of activities and writing reports detailing a patient's behavior.
Job Prospects and Salary
In 2012, the BLS reported that psychiatric aides would see slower-than-average growth of 6% from 2012-2022 and average incomes of $28,000. However, most psychiatric aides earned between $19,000 and $42,000. The highest-employing industries were psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, residential intellectual and developmental disability facilities, and state government.
Job openings for psychiatric aides will be the result of the mental health needs of the aging population, especially in residential facilities. The elderly are especially at risk of having mental health issues, so the number of elderly people in need of inpatient treatment will rise both in the general public and in correctional facilities.
What Are the Requirements?
Training requirements for psychiatric aides depend on a variety of factors, including the setting where the aide plans to work, the level of responsibility they may have and even the state they plan to work in. A combination of formal training and hands-on training will lead to the best job prospects. Training may come in the way of a traditional educational program at a college, or it could come in the way of on-the-job training. Many community colleges offer psychiatric technician (PT) certificate and associate's degree programs. While 2-year associate's degree programs are more comprehensive and provide a broader background in humanities, certificate programs could be all you need to gain a position, and certificate programs may take less than a year to complete.
The Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal reported that a lack of training contributes to the low morale often suffered by psychiatric aides. Adequate training is instrumental, so a short-term program may not pay off in the end. Some facilities offer higher-paying positions, under the title 'psychiatric technician' (PT), that require a higher level of education. For these jobs, a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as counseling or human services, could provide better prospects. Most programs will have internship requirements, so you'll have the opportunity to gain some job experience while you are still in school.
There are no nationwide licensing or certification requirements for psychiatric aides in the U.S.; however, some states may require licensing. Because psychiatric aides sometimes perform nursing duties, some employers may prefer to hire job applicants who are CNAs. In states that do require licensure, including California, you typically need some job experience or formal training. You're also required to pass a background check, drug screening and licensing exam.
Job Postings from Real Employers
Among the many skills required to perform in this career, the ability to thrive under pressure and stress may be the most important. A highly trained psychiatric aide with no threshold for stress and aggravation will likely not fare as well as one who has less experience but is cooler under pressure. Some employers require a high school diploma or GED, while others may require a bachelor's degree. Recent job postings on Monster.com provide a glimpse into what employers were looking for in March 2012:
- A human services agency in Pennsylvania is looking for a psychiatric aide who will oversee the supervision of patients. This position requires a bachelor's degree and two years of experience. The aide will develop activities and special projects, as well as provide clinical guidance.
- A mental health department in Los Angeles is searching for a psychiatric aide with one year of experience and a PT license. The aide will be responsible for evaluating and monitoring patients, leading a crisis intervention team and serving as a therapeutic team member.
- A non-profit community organization in Tennessee is in need of a psychiatric aide to provide direct patient care in a supportive environment. This position requires a high school diploma or GED; applicants should also be CPR certified.
How to Stand Out in the Field
If you opt for a formal training program, you may want to take courses related to health science, such as medical terminology and pharmacology. Additionally, because you may be required to document your patient's progress or medical care, you might consider taking courses in health information technology, which would teach you to use various medical software programs and to keep accurate medical records.
Residential facilities will see an increase in the number of elderly patients who need mental health treatment, so it may be helpful to get specialized training related to that population. For example, if you enroll in a psychiatric technician certificate or degree program, you could take courses in gerontology. This may give you an edge over other job applicants who don't understand the needs of the elderly.
At the national level, the American Association of Psychiatric Technicians (AAPT) offers four levels of certification, each one reflecting a different level of training and education. Level 1 requires only a high school diploma or GED, while level 4 is reserved for applicants who hold a bachelor's degree and work experience. Because you will be working in a medical setting, it could help to hold CPR or CNA certification or to have some experience with medical care.
Alternative Career Paths
Registered Nurse (RN)
If you're still interested in helping psychiatric patients, but you'd like to avoid some of the more unpleasant aspects of the position, you might consider a career as an RN. The current job growth rate for RNs is significantly higher than that of psychiatric aides, and RNs make considerably more money. According to the BLS, jobs for RNs are expected to grow 26% between 2010 and 2020, and the median salary of RNs in 2011 was $66,000. To become an RN, you'll need at least an associate's degree in nursing and an RN license. Some hospitals offer nursing diploma programs leading to RN licensure, but they are rare.
Case managers, also known as human service assistants, may also work with psychiatric patients, but often they are involved in more of a behind-the-scenes role. According to the Case Management Society of America, case management involves supporting clients through a variety of services, including serving as a personal advocate, locating resources and communicating with a patient's support systems (www.cmsa.org). You may be able to pursue this career if you hold a high school diploma or GED, but the BLS reports that employers may prefer some college training, such as a certificate or an associate's degree in human services. Jobs for case managers will grow faster than average in the coming years, with a 23% increase from 2008-2018.