If you crave a career in which you’ll be able to make a noticeable difference in people’s lives, a career in mental health counseling could be the right fit. But if you hate staff meetings, paperwork and bureaucracy, working with an agency or a hospital might seem distasteful to you.
However, there’s another option – private practice. Many mental health counselors and therapists thrive in private practices, where they earn more money and enjoy more freedom to choose their own patients. Here’s what you need to do to live the dream yourself.
1) Get the Right Education
Before you can become a successful private practice mental health counselor, you need the right education. A bachelor’s in psychology, counseling or social work will get you started, but it isn’t enough. You need a master’s and, eventually, a doctoral degree to open your own private practice.
If you’ve finished your undergraduate studies and you’re anxious to get into the work force, or if you want to study abroad but lack the funds or simply don’t want to tear up stakes and move to another country for several years, you can earn a masters in mental health counseling online. A doctoral degree can be earned online, too.
2) Carve Out a Specialty Niche
The most successful private practice counselors work to meet the needs of their communities. While you may desire to and ultimately will work with people from all walks of life, you need to think deeply about the mental health problems facing the community in which you’ll operate your practice and find something that only you can offer to members of that community.
Perhaps you’d like to specialize in marriage and family counseling, sports psychology, family businesses, elder care or caring for developmentally disabled children. Find a specialty that will serve the needs of your community in a way that other practitioners can’t, and then get continuing education and other additional training to help you more effectively address those problems.
3) Promote Yourself on Social Media
Guess who’s using social media? Your patients! Their friends and family are also on social media, where they might stumble across your professional accounts and realize they need to refer their friends and loved ones to your practice. The same goes for colleagues; other practitioners in your area may have patients they can’t help effectively, and when they see your professional accounts and thoughtful posts on social media, they’ll know there’s another practitioner to whom they can refer these cases. But none of that can happen if you’re not active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the other social media platforms where your colleagues and community members do their socializing online.
4) Network, Network, Network
It’s common knowledge that most jobs aren’t filled via online job postings but by internal hires, recruiters, word-of-mouth connections and hiring agencies. But if you’re working in a private practice, you don’t need a job; you’re your own employer. So, if you’re employing yourself, why is networking so important?
It’s important because a substantial number of your clients will come through referrals from other practitioners. Not every therapist is suited for every client for a number a reasons that can range from personality clashes to a therapist’s lack of comfort with addressing a particular problem to a therapist’s full schedule.
Put effort into networking and getting to know your colleagues. Attend conferences and professional events. Join local professional associations. Make sure that you tell your colleagues what areas you specialize in, but don’t make it about getting referrals; make it about forming a genuine relationship with people. When you’re friends with a colleague, he or she will be more interested in helping you out by giving you a referral. Remember, referrals cost you nothing. They lead to healthy counselor-client relationships and are one of the best ways to get a steady stream of new clients coming in because referred clients refer more clients.
5) Beef Up Your Business Skills
A private practice is a business, and you’re going to need to spend at least one hour on business activities for every two hours you spend in session with a client – that is, if you want to keep your practice financially solvent and compliant with tax law. If you want to build a successful private practice, you’re going to need be at least somewhat good at the business side of things.
You’ll need to learn basic accounting and tax law, solid record-keeping practices and some marketing skills. If you’re going to accept health insurance, you’ll need to cope with each carrier’s billing practices, and no matter what, you’re going to have to find a way to work around erratic cash flows. Some basic courses in business would not go amiss.
A private practice can be your path to a fulfilling career as a mental health counselor. You just need to put in the work to find a specialty, build up a client base and keep things running smoothly on the business end. Someday, you could have a profitable business to fund your retirement, pass on to your children or both.