If you're studying to become a mental health counselor, psychotherapist, or psychologist, at some point you'll want to think about specialties.
What is a mental health specialty?
A mental health specialty is “a particular subject area” in which a provider practices. The specialty influences the education and training you receive, the kind of patients you see, the theories guiding your therapeutic approach, and the methods you use to assess, diagnose, and treat mental illnesses.1
Although your job title may be “psychologist” or “counselor,” your specialty area describes the essential details of the work you do and will typically precede the job title. For example, “clinical psychologist” or “grief counselor” denotes a specialty area.
How do you choose a mental health specialty?
For the most part, there are three basic ways to select a specialty area in mental health. In some cases, all of these factors may impact a clinician’s specialty.
By Theoretical Orientation...
A theoretical orientation is, “a school of thought or approach to therapy” and practice in psychology. There are numerous psychology schools that offer online and on-campus programs, in areas such as Psychoanalytic, Cognitive (or Cognitive-Behavioral), and Humanistic. These theoretical orientations determine the type of techniques and skill sets a clinician may use in practice.2
By Branch of Psychology….
Another way to choose a specialty area is through subfields in psychology. These may include branches like Clinical, Experimental, Social, Developmental, and Industrial-Organizational. Branches are defined by the aspect of human behavior studied and how they are examined.3 When researching psychology schools you should research which branch of psychology that school excels in.
By Preferred Population...
Some clinicians choose a specialty based on the clients they serve. For example, a child psychologist may work only with pre-adolescent children. A marriage and family therapist serves couples and families. A trauma counselor works with those who have survived traumatic events.
By Family History/Upbringing...
Another, more personal way to choose a specialty is from one's own experiences. Let’s say a girl grows up with a mother who suffered a traumatic brain injury. Those childhood experiences may inspire the girl to become a neuropsychologist. A teen boy whose parents neglected him due to drug addiction may choose to become a substance abuse counselor.
There are many ways to choose a specialty area in mental health. You will select your given specialty by considering the theories you believe in and which practical techniques align with those beliefs. However, your personal preferences and background will also influence your decision.
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on the Health Professions Education Summit. “Health Professions Oversight Processes: What They Do and Do Not Do, and What They Could Do.” Health Professions Education: A Bridge to Quality. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK221526/.