Career Profile: Mental Health Specialist

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Service members around the world need physical and spiritual care, but many -- whether to deal with the stresses of combat or of ordinary day-to-day life -- also need the support of mental health professionals. And though all the service branches (except the Marines, because we let the Navy handle the touchy-feely stuff) employ licensed psychiatrists and psychologists, don't you think the docs could use a little enlisted help?

That's the job of mental health specialists, by whatever name you call them. The Army refers to them just so, as part of military occupational specialty (MOS) 68X. The Navy prefers the less politically-correct "psychiatry technician," while the Air Force, always eager to add more syllables, calls airmen in career field 4C "mental health service specialists." Take that, Army.

Semantics aside, mental health specialists keep the gears of mental health clinics oiled with administrative assistance, but more than that, they take an active role in treating and preventing mental health crises. Their duties include administering patient interviews and psychological tests, providing individual and group counseling for psychological and substance abuse problems, and providing for patients' physical needs.

Military Requirements

Obviously, all branches require enlistees to have a high school diploma and take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) before joining.

  • Army mental health specialists need a 110 or higher-skilled technical score on the ASVAB. In addition, ideal applicants are "[i]nterest[ed] in chemistry, biology, psychology, general science, and algebra," according to GoArmy.com.
  • Navy psychiatry technicians are actually a specialization (or Navy enlisted classification code) for sailors in the hospital corpsman (HM) career path. That means to work in behavioral health on the high seas, you've got to join the Navy first as a basic medical technician and apply for additional schooling and assignment afterward. See the linked article for the requirements to become an HM. Corpsmen are only eligible for behavioral health specialization between paygrades E-3 and E-6, and gaining that assignment depends on your individual qualifications and the needs of the Navy.
  • Air Force counselors must be free of "any speech impediment" and may be denied service in the mental health field if they have a history of "emotional instability, personality disorder, or unresolved mental health problems," says the USAF Enlisted Classification Manual. The manual also suggests that applicants with some college education involving psychology, counseling, or sociology may have an edge.

Education

Hold on, slick: You're not getting out of going to boot camp just because you're the gentle, soothing Freud-type. (Freud's beard wouldn't pass muster by current grooming standards anyway.)

After you've had your head shaved (minus the ladies) advanced training for behavioral health technicians takes place for all branches at the consolidated Medical Education and Training Campus (METC) in Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

The course length is a fuzzy issue since METC's course catalog is silent on the point. Air Force recruiting materials say the course is only 67 days long. Meanwhile, GoArmy.com insists that 68Xs receive "20 weeks of Advanced Individual Training," though that also covers "[e]mergency medical techniques." The Army may be working in time to bring their soldiers up to speed as basic medical technicians (remember, Navy students are already trained corpsmen) so as far as your stay at METC, I'd skew closer to the Air Force's estimate.

What is clear is that the METC course combines classroom and supervised clinical practice. According to their course catalog, students from all three services learn about "communication techniques, human development, psychopathological disorders, psychological testing, consultation, interviewing, psychiatric behavioral interventions, counseling, and Combat Operational Stress Control (COSC)." (That last one translates roughly to "preventing, recognizing, and treating post-traumatic stress disorder," by the way.)

Certifications

Army Credentialing Opportunities On Line (COOL) lists numerous professional certificates that 68Xs might qualify for based on education, experience, and examinations, including:

  • Certified Social Worker
  • Certification in Couple or Family Therapy
  • Alcohol and Drug Counselor
  • Addiction Counselor

    The downside? Army COOL isn't clear on whether they'll provide any assistance paying examination fees, and the only certification eligible for GI Bill reimbursement is National Certified Counselor.

    Navy COOL lists only three professional certifications for psych-qualified corpsman that are eligible for exam reimbursement: Mental Health Technician (through the American Medical Certification Association) and Nationally Certified Psychiatric Technician levels one and two (through the American Association of Psychiatric Technicians.) Of course, corpsmen may also qualify for more non-mental health credentials based on their general medical experience or other specializations.

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