The mental health workforce has a profound impact on the quality, accessibility, effectiveness and sustainability of the mental health system. It is critical to delivering services across all types of care.
A career in mental health can be very rewarding. It can offer diverse opportunities across a range of environments, and there are a range of professions to suit different skillsets and training. There is no one type of person suited to a career in mental health.
Roles and services
There are a huge range of roles available in the mental health workforce.
Find out more information about the type of training required and career pathways for each of these professions:
- occupational therapist
- community mental health worker
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health worker
- mental health social worker
- lived experience or peer worker.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have done specialised training in mental health to help people with emotional and mental health problems.
Psychiatrists diagnose and treat mental health issues. They can prescribe medication for mental health conditions, and some may also use talk-based therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
Psychiatrists can work in hospitals, clinics and with community mental health services and in private practice.
How to become a psychiatrist
You need to complete a medical degree and specialise in psychiatry to become a psychiatrist. This usually involves an internship, residency and five or more years of vocational training.
Psychologists are trained in human behaviour and processes of how people think or feel. They help people to deal with a range of mental health concerns and conditions, including:
- relationship problems
- eating disorders
- learning difficulties
- substance abuse
- parenting issues
- loss or grief
- managing the effects of a chronic illness.
Unlike psychiatrists, who usually treat more severe or chronic conditions, psychologists cannot prescribe medication.
Different types of psychologists work in areas such as schools, hospitals, community health services, courts, prisons, businesses and private practices. For example, they may specialise in helping children, teenagers or families.
How to become a psychologist
You need to complete a minimum of 6 years of education and training. This typically includes 4 years of undergraduate study in psychology, followed by a combination of postgraduate study and supervised practice. You will then be able to apply for registration as a psychologist.
Registered nurses, enrolled nurses and nurse practitioners are registered health professionals who work with, and care for people who have a mental illness such as:
- postnatal depression
- bipolar disorder
Many nurses who work in mental health have additional post-graduate qualifications in mental health and work in a variety of settings across the health system.
They work with psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals to provide information, support and advocacy care to help treat people with mental health issues.
A nurse who works in mental health, helps people to manage their lives, putting the person at the centre of the care. That might be specifically about their mental health, but it might include helping with physical, social, cultural and spiritual needs.
Nurses work in many different mental health settings, including:
- the community
- psychiatric hospitals
- mental health units in hospitals and nursing homes
- primary care practices including independent practice
- residential care facilities in disability and aged care.
How to become a nurse in mental health
You need to complete an undergraduate degree in nursing through a university to become a registered nurse. You can also complete a diploma through a university, Technical and Further Education institution (TAFE), or Registered Training Organisation (RTO) to become an enrolled nurse. Registered nurses may choose to complete further postgraduate study through a university to specialise in mental health. Enrolled nurses can continue their education with an Advanced Diploma of Nursing.
A counsellor is a general term for a person who talks to people to support them to overcome difficulties. They can help people develop problem-solving skills and talk through issues like:
- the loss of a loved one
- helping people move on through life.
Counsellors do not diagnose issues. They help people to recognise and define their emotional, health, mental and lifestyle problems and to understand themselves and their behaviour better.
How to become a counsellor
Counsellors usually need a diploma of counselling through a university or TAFE. Many counsellors will choose to complete further qualifications, including an undergraduate degree or masters degree through a university.
Mental health occupational therapist
Mental health occupational therapists can help people to be independent, develop strategies to cope with everyday tasks and overcome mental health issues.
Mental health occupational therapists work with people of any age, including children and older people, to help them do things that ‘occupy’ their time. They might help with rehabilitation after an accident, work with children who have learning difficulties, and help people have improved confidence in social situations.
Occupational therapists work in welfare agencies, hospitals, community health centres and other human services and justice organisations, for example.
How to become an occupational therapist
You must complete a Bachelor of Occupational Therapy through a university to become a qualified occupational therapist.
Community mental health worker
Community mental health workers give help and coordination in the community for people with mental health problems. They may also give help to people struggling with other problems such as substance abuse, poverty and social problems.
They often work in a community care centre but may also visit patient’s homes. Their services are generally available to the public at no cost.
How to become a community mental health worker
You must complete a Certificate IV in Mental Health or similar through a TAFE or university to become a qualified community health worker.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workers
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workers have a critical role in indigenous communities. They understand the mental health issues of First Nations people, deliver mental health care in a culturally appropriate way and give cultural education.
They are generally not medically trained but might have undertaken training in mental health and psychological therapies. Their role often includes:
- case management
- assessment and referrals
- health promotion and education
- helping Aboriginal people access mainstream mental health services
- supporting the families of First Nations people with mental health problems.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workers work in mental health clinics, hospitals and Aboriginal health services.
How to become an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health worker
You may not need training but may choose to do training in mental health and psychological therapies. There are many training courses offered by tertiary institutions, governmental organisations and community-controlled organisations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workers. Including a Certificate IV in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Primary Health Care which you can complete through a TAFE.
Mental health social worker
Mental health social workers train in assessment and treatment of mental health issues. They work with people who have mental health problems in a holistic practical way to manage social factors to help them get well. Factors can include:
Mental health social workers often work in welfare agencies, hospitals, community health centres and other human services and justice organisations. Some social workers are also qualify as counsellors.
Hear more from a social worker on their experience working in the field.
How to become a mental health social worker
You will typically need a Bachelor of Social Work undergraduate degree from a university to become a social worker. Additional credentials demonstrating specialised skills and experience may be needed when becoming a mental health social worker.
Lived experience or peer worker
Lived experience or peer workers are mental health professionals who have their own personal experience of mental health problems and recovery. They have valuable skills and experience in how to use personal experience in ways that are:
- support policy and program delivery and change.
Peer workers are a relatively new type of mental health professional, but many different types of mental health services are increasingly employing them. Peer workers do not base their work on diagnoses or standard treatments of mental illness. Instead, they focus on respect, shared responsibility and mutual agreement of what will help someone.
They usually base themselves in community mental health teams and give in-reach support to people. Many people with lived or living experiences of mental ill-health and suicide are also employed to:
- consult with people using mental health services
- advocate on their behalf for improvements.
These lived experience workers use their lived experience at a system, policy or program level rather than engaging directly in service delivery. This is called systemic advocacy.
How to become a lived experience or peer worker
You may need to complete a Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work to become a lived experience or peer worker.
Ways to join
Learn more about starting your career in mental health.