10 Traits That Really Direct Success in a Mental Health Career

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Mental Health Career Traits for Newcomers

Are interested in knowing whether a mental health career is for you?  Let me be the first to say, it is no picnic.  I’ve been in the mental health field since 2011.  I’ve worked with a lot of people- both clients and colleagues.

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Over this period of time, I became aware of several characteristics that seemed to really help newcomers fit in and stick around for the long haul.  There are also many of such that seemed to be incompatible with the field.

Keep in mind that my experience comes primarily from the community mental health systems.  However, these points should prove fairly accurate whether you are seeking a position within a psychiatry office or other behavioral health clinic.

I have identified five traits of a social worker that are assets to a mental health career.  This isn’t exactly an exhaustive list but the most likely to lead to success!

10 traits if you are new to mental health field
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1. Tolerance of Ambiguity

Flourishing in the gray is one of the significant traits of a social worker.

We must treat everyone individually.  And because of that, there are almost never any “hard and fast” rules.  Clients also may say some very questionable things leading to a host of actions by you.

This might involve safety checks, figuring out benefits, or simply trying to understand what a client intends to convey.  Individuals with severe mental illness often have difficulty expressing themselves.

In your mental health career, a client may tell you one thing.  The reality might be completely different.  This is not to intentionally be misleading.  It is part of their illness!

The field of mental health likely will not become more rigid any time soon.  So if you are the type that needs an absolute rule to apply across situations, I encourage you to consider how this ambiguity may affect you.

2. Acceptance of Change

In the years that I have been in mental health, there has yet to be a six month stint where a major change hasn’t occurred.

There is constant legislation at the federal and state levels that causes behavioral health systems to wind and weave about.

There are some changes, which are great.  However, you must constantly adapt yourself and your craft to new rules and expectations.  I’m not sure what will emphasize trait number one if that doesn’t!

Social Work Interviews and Resumes!

As a hiring supervisor for a Community Mental Health, it’s evident that those who think they know how to write a resume really do not! It wasn’t too long ago that I really struggled knowing what to put into a cover letter and resume.

With change come many opportunities for ongoing learning.  You are no longer just looking at services in a silo.  The integration of substance use and medical fields now supports an expanded skill set in a mental health career.

Though, this legislation also requires new assessment tools, demographics to collect, and other paperwork.  New requirements continually evolve mental health jobs.  Therefore, the traits of a social worker in the field should also be dynamic!

Can you hack changing standards?  Mental health may then be up your alley.

3. Efficiency

The new documentation and requirements can slow down even the most seasoned social worker.

So how do you stay on top of the mountain of paperwork?

You will need to figure out an efficient process to complete it all.  There are many tricks to the trade.  Some of these tricks include concurrent documentation, voice to text, completing a rough draft document in Word, advocating with your client, and many others.

The team that I supervise is comprised of clinicians, case managers, peer supports, vocational workers, assistants, and nurses.  I have had many case managers tell me that it is impossible to accomplish all that is expected of them.

My response is that they are right.  And that’s why they have a team to support them.  Part of efficiency and underlying traits of a social worker include teamwork!

It’s not my intent to be unsympathetic.  There is a lot expected of them.  The field requires an assortment of documentation to be completed.

4. Strength’s Focused

The mental health career must be oriented toward empowerment.

That means focusing on strengths.  Through that lens you can begin to support your client on what they can do.

The need for this orientation isn’t just to promote positive change.  It is for your prevention of burnout.  In the mental health system, I have unfortunately seen too many with great potential lose their bearings and collapse under the system.  Because, they often have had the wrong mentality.

As a society we focus on the negative.  If there is a deficiency, we note it and criticize it.

We want that deficit to change.  In mental health, I’m sorry, but it likely won’t be as profound as you’re hoping.

There is amazing change that happens within the behavioral health system.  To take note of it, consider each client individually.  If you can see this change and focus on it, your chance of burning out will be drastically reduced.

Let me add a plug here.  Self-care is one of the most important traits of a social worker!

5. Supportive of Welfare

Let me explain.  Welfare is a supplement for low income individuals.

Welfare really is a generic term that can mean any form of public assistance.  If you are of the mindset that everyone should be 100% self-sufficient, even those with barriers and disabilities, serving the general public may prove difficult.

In the mental health career fields, you will likely need to help clients apply for benefits and connect them to appropriate agencies that promote independence.

In your role, you absolutely can- and should, be encouraging the same.  However, we must use a personal yardstick for every person served.

There are many who are totally disabled and only receive $735 per month.  In many cities, that barely covers rent!  So any judgment of the welfare system must be set aside.

To provide added perspective, I encourage you to reference Feedspot.com and their top social work blogs list.  This array of information will further help you improve your knowledge of social issues including welfare, poverty, and discrimination.

There Are 5 Traits of a Social Worker That Don’t Align with a Mental Health Career

The Mental Health Career Field
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The five traits discussed are assets to anyone working in a mental health career.  In contrast, there are, at minimum, five incompatible traits of a social worker in the field.

Behavioral health is very broad and dynamic.  Continue to imagine yourself working in the situations identified to envision if you can hack it!

6. Strong Feelings about Lifestyle

I’m going to start by saying that identifying as LBGTQ is not a mental illness.

If you personally believe that it is, I strongly suggest that you meet someone who identifies as so.

You are just as likely to meet someone who identifies as LBGTQ anywhere within the general public.

If someone else’s lifestyle matters to you, what about others you may come in contact with: unmarried couples living together, single parents, women who have children by different fathers, and the list goes on.  Where do you draw the line?  A mental health career must be void of judgement.


That being said, don’t be judgmental because someone is different than you!

Different doesn’t mean wrong.  If you have a strong sense of right and wrong relative to someone’s lifestyle, please consider how these beliefs may be confronted if you work with the public.  One of the primary traits of a social worker is being able to treat everyone with dignity, respect and promote self-determination.

You will have a very difficult time continually setting your belief system aside if it condemns lifestyles outside of a nuclear or patriarchal family.

If you are new to behavioral health, you need these traits!
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7. Belief That They Can “Will” Themselves Better

Mental illness has both environmental and neuro-physiological roots.

Either does not allow one to “will” the mental illness away.  Recovery takes a tremendous amount of time, effort and treatment.

It is just as sound to say someone could “will” away diabetes.  You can’t.  There is a very real biological origin to the condition.  This mentality will get you no where in a mental health career.

In my experience, when someone holds this view, there is a need for education on the topic.  If you want to enter the field to proselytize or feel you can somehow get someone to snap out of it, I strongly suggest that you reconsider your career plans.

First, I encourage you to try volunteering or finding a way to meet someone with a mental illness.  You will likely find that no dose of religion or miracle healing is going to cure them.  They need the professional traits of a social worker promoting treatment.

8. Despondent View of Recovery

Similarly, if you feel that no one can recover, your actions and attitude will likely prevent it from happening.

Your optimism might be all your client has to continue on.  A mental health career is a job- yes, but you can quite literally affect someone’s life for the better or worse in any moment.

Many organizations now employ Peer Support Specialists because of their perspective that recovery is possible.  They have that firsthand experience in recovery and offer hope.  Generally, this is one of the traits of a social worker that is hard to replicate.

Whether you are working with someone who has a mental illness, or someone who also has a substance use disorder, treat them how you would want to be treated.

If you cannot believe someone can change, you will only focus on relapses and not accomplishments.  Those we serve will pick up on our underlying beliefs.  Ever hear the saying “communication is 90% non-verbal”?

Be sure your attitude and spirit are in the right place before making the plunge into a mental health career!

9. Uneasy around Aberrant Behavior

Within your mental health career, you are likely to come across some abnormal behavior.

Someone may be responding to voices, having compulsions, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, or myriad other symptoms of their illness.  Likely- for most of their lives, these individuals have been stigmatized and treated differently.

“Treat your clients like people who have wishes, goals, and aspirations for themselves.”

If you want to have a mental health career, check your discomfort at the door.  Treat your clients like people who have wishes, goals, and aspirations for themselves.  Learn to understand that the behaviors you are noticing are symptoms of that mental illness and shouldn’t be feared.

There may have been an experience with someone that makes you feel anxious.  Sit back and reflect on why.  When you can identify the feeling, it’s not far off that an uncomfortable thought is what triggered it.  Please work out those issues as much as possible.  You will push someone away from treatment with uneasiness.

10. Punitive Approach

There is no room for punishment in your mental health career.

Any behaviors you see are, by definition, psychiatric disorders.  Would you intentionally hurt someone with diabetes because their sugar is too low in the morning?  I hope not!  Foundational traits of a social worker include recovery oriented approaches.

If there is a behavior occurring that is difficult to handle, the individual needs a form of treatment- psychoeducation, therapy, behavioral analysis, etc. not punishment.

If you are feeling compelled to withhold anything from a client, talk to your supervisor about this counter-transference.  The frustration that you are feeling can lead you down a very bad path.  In-fact, it also can result in a malpractice suit.

Mental health is not be a good fit if punishment is a part of your personality and belief system.

The field of mental health is oriented to recovery and promoting the strengths of those served.  Knowing beforehand whether you embody the traits of a social worker first will reduce risk of harm for you, potential clients, and the employer.

Helping people is a great service.  If that is your sole reason for looking to enter the field, really evaluate how you stand up to these ten characteristics.  There are many ways to serve your community.  It takes a special person to work in the behavioral health field.

What do you think are the primary traits needed for a successful mental health career?  The How to Social Worker would love to hear from you.  Comment below and start the discussion!


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Hi! I'm Ben

I’m a licensed clinical social worker and addictions counselor who has also dealt with significant mental health struggles over the years. Here, I share the best mental wellness support and resources to help you live your best life.


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