A psychiatric assistant, also known as a psychiatric technician or mental health technician, works in a variety of inpatient psychiatric settings with mentally ill adults and children or those with behavioral disorders.
Psychiatric assistants or technicians work with emotionally disturbed or mentally impaired individuals, usually in psychiatric hospitals or mental health clinics. They work as members of interdisciplinary teams of mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, registered nurses, clinical social workers, and others. In general, psychiatric aides help patients with personal grooming and participation in educational, recreational, and therapeutic activities. They may interact and spend more time with patients than any other treatment team members. Psychiatric assistants usually have some type of formal training or education in the behavioral sciences. These paraprofessionals participate in both the planning and implementing of individual patient treatment plans. They may be given responsibility for interviewing patients, record keeping, assisting in administration of medications, and coordinating therapy and group therapy sessions. Psychiatric assistants must have good observation skills, as their job entails recognizing and reporting changes in the behavior of patients to other team members.
Psychiatric assistants or technicians work in a wide variety of settings, including psychiatric hospitals, community general hospitals, community mental health centers, psychiatric clinics, schools for the mentally retarded, social service agencies, geriatric nursing homes, child or adolescent centers, and halfway houses. They generally work a 35- to 40-hour week. Because patients need care 24 hours a day, scheduled work hours may include nights, weekends, and holidays. Most of the psychiatric assistants' work time is spent on their feet.
Psychiatric assistants are often confronted with violent patients who must be restrained, which is an emotionally draining and sometimes dangerous task. However, many psychiatric assistants glean satisfaction from assisting those in need of support and encouragement. Individuals in this field should be healthy, tactful, patient, understanding, assertive, emotionally stable, dependable, and have a strong desire to help people. They should also be able to work as part of a team, have good communication skills, and be willing to perform repetitive, routine tasks. Opportunities for advancement within these occupations are limited. To enter other health occupations, psychiatric assistants often need additional formal training. Some employers and unions provide opportunities by simplifying the educational paths to advancement. Working as a psychiatric assistant can also help individuals decide whether to pursue a career in the health care field.
Education and training
Most psychiatric technicians are required to have a least a bachelor's degree and several hours of clinical training on the psychiatric unit. Individual requirements vary from state to state, but many states require specific college coursework credits in nursing science, mental disorders, developmental disabilities, and pharmacology. To help keep psychiatric assistants current with recent advances in their field, some states require employees to complete several hours of continuing education courses every two years in order to maintain their position or certification. Some facilities provide classroom instruction for newly hired assistants, and others rely exclusively on informal on-the-job instruction from a licensed nurse or an experienced team member. Such training may last several days to a few months. From time to time, psychiatric assistants may also attend lectures, workshops, and in-service training.
Advanced education and training
Advanced training and education is not always required of psychiatric assistants. However, some psychiatric assistants choose to pursue a master's degree in clinical social work or psychology to further their career and gain useful clinical expertise. Advanced or "senior" psychiatric assistants may be required to hold a postgraduate degree in some states. The American Association of Psychiatric Technicians offers a voluntary certification exam for psychiatric assistants to test their knowledge of basic psychiatric technology. This certification is a benefit to mental health assistants, psychiatric aides, and related employees in the 46 states that do not have licensed psychiatric technicians, and also to those in the armed forces. The examination is a 201-question, open-book written test that individuals can take at home. Although it tests for basic knowledge about nursing, mental illness and developmental disabilities, it is not nearly as comprehensive as the licensing exams that some states require. National certification allows individuals to put the initials NCPT after their names, which stands for Nationally Certified Psychiatric Technician. In some cases, those who are certified receive better pay and promotional opportunities. In some instances, such as for mental health workers employed by the Navy, certification is required.
Nationally, employment of psychiatric assistants is predicted to grow more slowly than average through 2008. On one hand, some growth will result from the increasing population of elderly people. Elderly adults may have mental health problems, such as Alzheimer's disease, that require care. In addition, outpatient mental health centers will need more aides, because people are often more accepting of treatment for drug abuse and alcoholism. Thus, more people will go to these centers, and there will be a greater need for psychiatric assistants. On the other hand, employment in hospitals is predicted to decline. Because hospitals employ about half of all psychiatric assistants, this decline will have a significant effect on the occupation. The main reason for this decline is that hospitals are admitting fewer psychiatric patients because of poor reimbursement rates from insurance companies and government agencies. The turnover rate in this field is high because of low wages and lack of advancement opportunities. Therefore, many jobs are expected to open as workers leave this occupation.
According to the American Association of Psychiatric Technicians, a major area of expansion for psychiatric assistants is the compelling need to provide treatment to thousands of state prison inmates with serious mental illness and developmental disabilities. The Department of Corrections estimates that one out of every 12 inmates suffers from serious mental illness. Because the prison population is expected to grow to more than 240,000 inmates by the turn of the century, a tremendous opportunity exists for psychiatric assistants and tecnicians. Psychiatric assistants function in various aspects of this challenging new program, including crisis intervention, mental health screening, patient assessment, implementation of treatment programs, supervising suicide risks, administering medications, maintaining medical records, and quality assurance. Another function involves parole programs that prepare inmates for productive lives after release.
Interdisciplinary team— A team of professionals from many different disciplines, such as nurses, psychotherapists, social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists, and physicians.
Paraprofessional— A paraprofessional assists professional-level personnel such as nurses, physicians, and therapists in hospitals, medical facilities, and mental health facilities.
The American Association of Psychiatric Technicians. 〈http://www.psych-health.com/main.htm〉
Indiana Career and Postsecondary Advancement Center. 〈http://icpac.indiana.edu/career_profiles〉.