As we begin our journey as mental health professionals, there are many things to consider. Whether it’s office space, EHR programs, or clinical supervisors, there are a lot of decisions to be made. Although many that we make early in our careers are important, one of the most essential considerations is deciding what population we will serve.
This post looks at several ways to hone in the clientele that you are best prepared to serve and most interested in treating. I believe that will give you increased confidence in targeting your ideal clientele.
Educational Background and Specialized Training
During my graduate studies, I was most engaged in assignments and classes regarding psychological trauma. I started loading up on electives that focused on trauma treatment or research. When I left school to work in an outpatient setting, there was a sense of confidence around recognizing and treating trauma. This led me to actively pursue that population and become more specialized in that area.
In school we acquire the basic theories, the fundamental skills on which we will build a career. Those hard-earned (and costly!) degrees open doors of employment and service. As in my case, the process of education can define the trajectory of our career, or at least narrow down the options. What do I do best? Whom do I want to serve? These are simple but essential questions that one must answer.
I suggest you start by considering which diagnosis, age range, clinical orientation or other population segment(s) were of most interest to you during your education. Consider whether or not these interests led you to take specific electives or write more on particular topics.
It’s also useful to think about why you chose your particular school, what it is known for or what sets it apart? Many schools of social work, psychology, and mental health counseling are known for a particular focus. That may have been what attracted you to it in the first place. If your school was known for expressive therapy, social justice reform, substance abuse treatment or any other niche, you are probably better equipped in these areas than your average graduate. This background can give you more confidence and credibility as you start your career.
Educational Questions to Consider:
- What did I find most interesting and compelling during my education?
- Were there certain topics, population groups, diagnoses or modalities in which I found myself taking electives or focusing my assignments on?
- What was my institution of higher learning known for?
The fundamental question every mental health professional must grapple with is how psychiatric healing takes place. The answer to this question is how we find our clinical orientation. Likely during your education, you have been exposed to a myriad of clinical modalities including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Psychoanalysis, Motivational Interviewing, Family Systems Theory and so on.
Some mental health professionals choose one orientation and specialize in it. For instance, a trusted colleague of mine solely offers Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Based on this selection of orientation, she predominately works with individuals with borderline personality disorder and eating disorders. Since this modality lends itself well to both of these diagnoses, the population who seeks out her services becomes more focused.
Other mental health professionals, such as myself, are more of generalists when it comes to clinical modalities and utilize multiple strategies. However, even when utilizing multiple strategies, we can still narrow down our served population. For instance, I feel most confident utilizing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, motivational interviewing and trauma-based modalities. Therefore, clients who are reaching out to me for sessions, and clients I am confident taking on, are those looking for these modalities or have psychiatric symptoms that have been shown to be effectively treated within those clinical frameworks.
No matter if you are going into a specialized field of psychiatry or are more of a generalist, keying on your educational and experiential background can help you define whom you will serve best.
Clinical Orientation Questions:
- Do I have a framework of how I believe individuals heal psychiatrically?
- Is there a modality/type of treatment that I have education/experience to conduct?
- If I do have a modality, what diagnosis or population is most likely to request/benefit from these services?
When deciding whom we will serve, there are also pragmatic considerations to be made. When we enter a community as a medical professional, we need to take in the lay of the land. One way to start is by looking at what treatment is already offered within your area. Identify if there are aspects of the market that are saturated with a multitude of practitioners. Take a look at what services have already been established; you may be able to tell what populations are not being served or are underserved. To take this a step further, talk to practitioners already servicing your community. They may have insights into what is needed as well as what is most likely to be utilized.
It is worthwhile to look at some general demographics of the community. This is neither difficult nor terribly time-consuming but can be a real eye-opener. Taking into account the population’s age, socioeconomic range and represented cultures can help guide you into setting up best practices for serving your community.
Community Needs Questions:
- What services are already offered to community members?
- Is there any part of the community population that might be underserved?
- What are the demographics of your community?
You entered this field for a reason. Something along the journey that is life made you decide that working in the realm of thoughts and feelings would be your vocation. It only makes sense then, that when deciding whom you want to serve as a practitioner is in line with this passion. This will make your work experience more enjoyable and sustainable.
We are taught that the fundamental factor in therapeutic success is a healthy rapport between practitioner and client. Your clients should believe you have their best interests at heart. Your empathy makes your clients feel safe to disclose their difficulties without fear. An important part of this rapport is that your clients trust you are an expert or at least have had experience treating the difficulties they encounter. Being “the expert” they need, as well as a caring individual, you feel respected and trusted. This relationship is mutually beneficial. Rapport between practitioner and client often leads to successful therapeutic outcomes. Therefore, choose those areas you are passionate about, get as much experience/training in that field as possible, and allow empathy to accompany your treatment plan.
Personal Interest Questions:
- What topics/areas of expertise excite me?
- In my past work, I connected most with clients with what variables?
Whether we are just beginning in the field or looking to make changes, exploring who you are going to treat effectively is an important question. We have looked at ways to narrow this down by exploring your educational background, clinical orientation, community needs, and personal interest. The more experience you have working with individuals from varying circumstances and diagnosis, the more confident you may be in knowing who you truly click with. For some, who they serve may stay stationary throughout their career, but for many, the answer to this question may fluctuate. Changes in experience, continuing education or taste may lead you in a new direction. These questions and considerations do not only need to be asked as we start out treating patients or clients, but can be reused to look at the direction we want to go.