So You Want to be a Therapist…

By the end of the day Monday, it will have been 32 days since I’ve had a full day off.  And I’m not sure if Tuesday should really count, because I have to go to the dentist, which is sort of like taking a day off to be tortured for an hour or so.  (I’m pretty sure hell involves some lesser demon grinding that fluoride goo into your teeth, and deliberately getting it all over your gums while only letting you rinse your mouth out roughly every 45 seconds). Then it’s back to work on Wednesday.  By next week, things should slow down some, although I fear I may have just jinxed that.

Now, in fairness, some of those work days involved only a few sessions, plus attendant phone calls and paperwork.  But some involved 14 or 15-plus hour shifts or a ten hour shift transitioning into a three-hour assessment, or…  At any rate, all of those hours were tallied up between my full-time job and assisting in the start-up of a new practice.

Another thing to consider is that my full time job is in crisis services/crisis intervention, which is sort of an ugly stepchild (with apologies to ugly stepchildren everywhere) of that highfalutin really real therapy.  Metaphorically speaking, we in crisis services slap on the splints, and close wounds with superglue, and let other people set the fractures proper, and heal up the deeper damage.  Unlike most jobs in the mental health field, crisis services involves round-the-clock shift work—Hollywood depictions of therapists who are accessible 24-hours-a-day notwithstanding.

Of course, movies and TV shows are probably where most people get their ideas of what being a therapist is about.  And if one accepts those portrayals, therapists are all a bunch of immaculately-dressed, well paid, eccentric/brilliant and/or unpleasant/neurotic people with amazing office space who can’t keep from having affairs with their most attractive but least stable clients.

And while that is pretty much my life in a nutshell—aside from all of those parts—getting to the stage of your career as a therapist where you make a high-six-/low-seven- figure income by sitting around dispensing wisdom to the worried well is a potentially treacherous path that is not for everybody.   So it’s probably much better to just embrace the idea of filling a role more like Mariah Carey’s Social Worker character in “Precious” than the jet-setting millionaire therapist she played in “Glitter.” (Admittedly, I haven’t seen “Glitter” for a while and may be misremembering some things).

The short version of how the process works is: first, get a bachelor’s degree.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be in psychology, although that might help.  Once you’ve realized your bachelor’s degree doesn’t really count for anything, and everybody you know who skipped college is making more money than you, go back for a master’s degree.  Don’t worry, there are plenty of private schools out there now that will gladly take insane amounts of your money (or the government’s money that you get to pay back) so that you can get a master’s degree.  Be forewarned that in order to get a master’s degree that will be good toward becoming a therapist, you actually get to borrow money to pay a school so that you can go work for an agency for free for a period of roughly nine months.  The length of your unpaid employment will depend on how quickly you can rack up hours meeting with clients and your supervisor.  In most instances, getting the hours shouldn’t be that problematic, because there’s a good chance you will be saddled with a far larger caseload than you can reasonably manage, especially since you won’t really know how to manage a caseload.  Your clients are likely to remind you on a regular basis that they are very aware that you don’t know what you’re doing and that they would prefer to have a real therapist.  Don’t let this bother you—most of them would say the same thing if Alfred Adler himself came back from the dead for the sole purpose of conducting sessions with them.

Once you have your master’s degree, try not to think about how much money you owe in student loans—you can’t possibly afford the therapy that it would take to manage your anxiety and your sense of hopelessness about ever paying it back.  One good thing, though, is that you are now probably able to get a job where you are making as much or slightly more than at least half of the people you know who skipped college altogether.  Of course, given the severe drubbing the public mental health system has taken in budget cuts over the last decade or so, jobs can be a bit tricky to come by.  Assuming you get a job in the field, be happy in this job—you will be stuck here for at least two more years as you attempt to rack up enough supervised hours to qualify for your license as a counselor.  In addition to the supervised hours you need to log, you also get to pay hundreds of dollars to take a test designed to prove that you have learned enough in grad school and your various forms of employment to be let loose on the public without supervision.

Now you can open a private practice and just let the cash roll in—assuming you can find and maintain a big enough client load in a space with a reasonable rent payment.  You might also want to go through the painstaking and tedious process of getting on various insurance panels, or establish your suitability to take on government contracts, or…whatever else you need to do to stay afloat.  There is no shame in moonlighting in the food services industry, although you have to remember not to acknowledge any of your clients should you, say, end up delivering a pizza to their homes—unless they acknowledge you first.  And depending on the specifics of your various licenses and endorsements, you will pay hundreds or thousands a year to keep up those endorsements, as well as paying to attend various seminars and conferences to keep up your ongoing education credits in all of the relevant fields.

Just remember that anywhere along this process, anybody who gets mad at you for whatever reason can file a complaint causing you no end of distress and the possibility that you will lose everything you worked for.  Keep up your liability insurance payments and remember that homicidal ideation can be grounds for a mental health detention.

On the other hand, if you want to be a life coach, all you really have to do is watch a minimum of four episodes of “Scott Baio is 45…and Single,” (which, admittedly, is getting much harder to track down) and find a web site that allows you to print off a life coach certificate—I think Crayola’s site has some good ones.

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