A year ago, Kubik began volunteering at a suicide hotline for weekly evening or overnight shifts. The difference between this and her day job was immediately evident.
“At the hotline, there is such a level of respect, support and appreciation,” Kubik said. “Having my own mental health struggles, I know the impact mental health services can have.”
This summer, Kubik switched paths and began applying for master’s degrees in counseling. She is one of a number of women who have chosen to leave their chosen field since the beginning of the pandemic to pursue a career in mental health.
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Women are already overrepresented in the field: In 2017, they made up about 82 percent of therapists, 73 percent of counselors and 67 percent of psychologists, according to data from the US Department of Labor. This share had increased over the nearly past two decades, according to the American Psychology Association: Women made up 50 percent of the workforce in psychology in 2004 and 70 percent in 2019.
Mental health care, however, is still inaccessible to many Americans. Mental Health America’s 2022 report found that 56 percent Americans with a mental illness do not receive treatment. The pandemic has worsened the crisis: It led to a rise in anxiety and depression and a shortage of treatment and resources.
What’s more, women suffered disproportionate job losses during the pandemic — and employers are often the providers of health insurance. Others decided to leave their jobs amid the “Great Resignation” and pursue opportunities that felt more closely aligned to their values.
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The pandemic opened Mindie Barnett’s eyes to what really mattered to her. The 48-year-old is entering her second year of a master’s degree in clinical psychology and family therapy this fall, and is attending online classes while running her public relations firm and juggling duties as a single mom.
“Post-pandemic, I had time to reflect on my own life, the stress level I’m dealing with owning a public relations firm and my newfound interest in mental health,” she said. Barnett has represented mental health experts in her role as a publicist and credits this exposure, in part, to growing her interest in entering the field.
However, becoming a clinician is not the only mental health-centered path women are pursuing. Anushka Dias, 26, left an advertising job she held for three years to pursue becoming a mental health researcher. She had felt no connection to the advertising work, she said, and the pandemic left her reconsidering if she would still be happy there 10 years on. Now she is close to completing a master’s degree in global mental health and society.
The move utilizes Dias’s undergraduate degree in psychology and anthropology, she said, and it makes her feel like she is contributing to the things she truly cares about changing in the world, especially in her native India.
“I feel like there are voices of suffering and joy left out of the conversation when we look at mental health from a singular lens of fixing the problem before trying to understand it,” Dias said. “A range of personal experiences and observations about how mental health care is structured told me that something is wrong. People I knew would seek therapy and were on medication, but the feeling of getting better just seemed to plateau after a point.”
The decision to start over in a new profession has, at points, felt like a regression for Dias, she said. She still suffers from burnout when diving into research — an issue people throughout the mental health field are facing. She sometimes wonders if it would have been better to stick to a career where personal and professional matters did not intersect.
“Those lines get blurred very often, and I find myself feeling emotionally exhausted easily,” Dias said. Indeed, a July 2020 study of more than 2,000 psychiatrists in North America found that 78 percent had high burnout levels, and 16 percent qualified for a major depression diagnosis. Women were more likely to experience both of these.
But women continue to enter the mental health field, and some are taking preemptive measures to look after themselves. Dias has coped with burnout by becoming more focused on self-care, finding time to enjoy unrelated activities and spending time with friends with whom she can speak openly about the struggles.
Kubik, for her part, hopes that the field’s mobility will allow her to pivot to a different aspect of mental health work if being a clinician becomes too overwhelming. In the meantime, she is also exploring coping mechanisms, such as yoga and breathwork, to protect her own mental health, she said.
Quanesha Johnson, 41, resigned from her position as a school educator to open a private counseling practice before the pandemic. But she said she knows the importance of finding balance, especially during this time: For her, that comes in the form of a community of fellow mental health-centered workers who provide support for each other. Johnson has found that working in the mental health field during the pandemic has further emphasized “the importance of appropriate rest, taking care of my body and that even though I am in the helping profession, it’s okay to seek support for myself,” she said .
Johnson noted that, even as she deals with the emotional weight of issues such as full caseloads, racial injustice and navigating working from home, she has never been more invigorated to provide education and support around mental health.
“I want to help increase representation in the field and see mental health resources be equally accessible for communities of color,” she said.
Indeed, the pandemic has shown many women that their careers are not as fulfilling as they could be. But this realization does not equal an automatic switch — for many people, keeping the job they have is critical to maintain economic stability.
For Kubik and Dias, who did make the jump, there is a fear of not being able to secure jobs. But, they said, they feel certain this is what they are meant to do.
“Work is such a huge portion of our day, and I wanted to be able to enjoy what I was doing,” Kubik said. “More importantly, I realized I feel energized working with people and making a difference in their lives.”