Applied Psychology

4 Career choices in the South African mental health industry

Feb 28, 2020 | By Laura Wilson

If you want to make a difference, consider these career choices, which allow you to play a role in addressing South Africa’s mental health needs.

Key takeaways

  • South Africa’s mental health system does not meet the needs of most South Africans, suffering from lack of state appointed manpower and underfunding
  • Mental health is an area where young South Africans can make valuable and rewarding contributions, while also developing themselves and gaining useful skills in the process
  • There are a number of career paths in mental health, all of them catering to different strengths
  • A focus on community mental health is crucial for the mental health in South Africa

Mental health is a broad field, with no shortage of career choices and paths where young South Africans can truly make a difference. Mental health is important in almost every context, whether it be at home, at work or at school and it is therefore important for individuals in different capacities and with different skills to be aware of how they can advance wellbeing in South Africa.

Statistics from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) show that as many as one-in-six South Africans suffer from depression, anxiety or substance abuse problems (and this does not include conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia). Furthermore, Dr Eugene Allers, a leading South African psychiatrist and former President of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP), believes that when crime and motor-vehicle accidents are taken into consideration, up to 6 million South Africans could suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

recent study suggested that up to 92% of people in South Africa who live with mental health problems, epilepsy or intellectual disability will never receive the treatment they need. While an increase in the budget dedicated to mental health would certainly be valuable, much more needs to be done to broaden access to mental health services. Sharing the responsibility for addressing mental health problems and increasing collaboration between health and mental health sectors will play a vital role in taking the country forward.

Career choices in the mental health field

1. Professional psychology

Professional psychology is a field made up of psychologists that are registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) in domains, such as educational, counselling, clinical, research, organisational and neuropsychology. Whether it be by conducting research, counselling, developing and employing interventions, conducting psychological assessments, educating or supervising other mental health professionals, all psychologists are committed to helping people cope with the problems that they face and enhancing their overall wellbeing.

How do I pursue this field? A three-year undergraduate degree with a major in psychology; a one-year Honours in psychology; and a two- to three-year Masters in psychology in a HPCSA accredited programme, followed by a National Examination with the Professional Board for Psychology in the psychologist category.

2. Registered counselling

Becoming a registered counsellor is a direct route to the front lines of mental health service provision. They can be seen as “emotional paramedics” in cases of trauma, to intervene appropriately, and to refer when and where necessary. They provide short-term supportive counselling (excluding psychotherapy) in a range of environments with diverse individuals and groups, and identify (but not diagnose or treat) possible mental health disorders, referring clients to the appropriate professionals. They provide psychological screening and intervention for the purposes of enhancing functioning.

SACAP’s Counselling Hub in Woodstock is an example of the important work registered counsellors do, providing low-cost counselling services to underserved communities. At R50 a session, The Counselling Hub demonstrates the power of registered counsellors playing their part in addressing the country’s mental health needs.

How do I pursue this field? A four-year Bachelor of Psychology (BPsych) degree, which includes three years of undergraduate courses and one year of postgraduate courses with a concurrent year of fieldwork. Alternatively, you can complete a three-year undergraduate degree with a major in psychology together with an 18 month BPsych Equivalent programme, which includes a year of fieldwork. In either case, one can register following the successful completion of the National Examination of the Professional Board for Psychology in the Registered Counsellor category.

3. Social work

Social work focuses on helping individuals, groups and communities to improve their wellbeing. Social workers often interact with the most vulnerable members of society, working hard to improve their lives and ultimately their futures. Social workers can operate in a range of fields, including child and family welfare, marriage and divorce counselling, care of the elderly, and addiction treatment.

How do I pursue this field? A four-year Bachelor of Social Work as well as registration with the South African Council for Social Service Professions (SACSSP).

4. Community mental health

There has been growing global recognition that mental health is not solely mandate of professionally registered mental healthcare workers and a call, not only for better collaboration between health professions, but also to begin thinking very seriously about how access to mental health services can be broadened. It is simply not realistic to expect mental health professionals to carry the responsibility for the mental health of a country and it is certainly not feasible for the ~9 million people in South Africa who experience common mental health problems to be treated individually by these professionals, no matter how much you increase the mental health budget.

Psychological research has demonstrated time and time again that people are far more likely to develop mental health problems if they face many social problems, like discrimination or exclusion. And unlike mental health problems, which require professionals to treat them, social problems can be solved by everyday people who work together – by communities. As such, community mental health practitioners aim to improve the wellbeing of people, by empowering communities to solve their own social problems and preventing mental health problems in the long run, rather than trying to treat them one by one after they emerge. They are analysts who can identify how a wide range of factors impact on mental health and interventionists who build solutions that are multidimensional and embedded within the context of the community.

How do I pursue this field? Any undergraduate degree and Honours degree in the social sciences that focuses on human and community development, such as psychology, social work, counselling, education, nursing and many more. SACAP offers a Masters of Social Science (Community Mental Health Promotion) which brings together the wealth of knowledge from various disciplines within the social sciences to deal with complex issues as a strategic leader and social innovator skilled in the promotion of community mental health.

For more information on careers in the mental health field, and how you can do your part to address South Africa’s mental health crisis, seek advice from SACAP, South Africa’s leading provider of psychology and counselling courses. For more information, enquire now.

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