A year ago, Kubik began volunteering at a suicide hotline for overnight or weekly night shifts. The difference between this and his day job was immediately apparent.
“On the hotline, there is a huge level of respect, support and appreciation,” Kubik said. “Having my own mental health issues, 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 several women who have chosen to leave their chosen field since the start 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. The proportion had increased over the past two decades, according to the American Psychological Association: Women made up 50 percent of the psychology workforce in 2004 and 70 percent in 2019.
Yet mental health care remains inaccessible to many Americans. Mental Health America’s 2022 report found that 56 percent of Americans with a mental illness are not receiving treatment. The pandemic has made the crisis worse, leading to increased anxiety and depression and a shortage of treatment and resources.
Additionally, women suffered disproportionate job losses during the pandemic, and employers are often the health insurance providers. Others decided to leave their jobs in the midst of the “Great Resignation” and pursue opportunities that felt more aligned with their values.
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The pandemic opened Mindie Barnett’s eyes to what really mattered to her. The 48-year-old will enter her second year of a master’s degree in clinical psychology and family therapy this fall, and she attends online classes while she runs her public relations firm and juggles her duties as a single mother.
“Post-pandemic, I’ve had time to reflect on my own life, the level of stress I’m dealing with as a PR firm owner, and my newfound interest in mental health,” she said. Barnett has represented mental health experts in his role as publicist and attributes this exposure, in part, to his increased interest in entering the field.
However, becoming a doctor is not the only mental health-focused path that women are following. Anushka Dias, 26, left an advertising job she held for three years to become a mental health researcher. She had felt no connection to advertising work, she said, and the pandemic left her reconsidering whether she would still be happy there 10 years later. She is now close to completing a master’s degree in mental health and global society.
The move uses Dias’ psychology and anthropology degree, she said, and makes her feel like she’s contributing to changing the things that really matter to her in the world, especially in her native India.
“I feel like there are voices of suffering and joy that are left out of the conversation when we look at mental health from a singular perspective of solving the problem before trying to understand it,” Dias said. “A variety of personal experiences and observations about how mental health care is structured told me that something is wrong. People I knew were seeking therapy and taking medication, but the feeling of getting better seemed to level off after a point.”
The decision to start over in a new profession has, at times, felt like a regression for Dias, he said. He still suffers from burnout as he immerses himself in research, a problem faced by people throughout the mental health field. He sometimes wonders if it would have been better to pursue a career where personal and professional issues didn’t intersect.
“Those lines get blurred very often and I get emotionally drained easily,” Dias said. In fact, a July 2020 study of more than 2,000 psychiatrists in North America found that 78 percent had high levels of burnout and 16 percent qualified for a diagnosis of major depression. Women were more likely to experience both.
But women continue to enter the field of mental health, and some are taking preventative steps to take care of themselves. Dias has dealt with burnout by focusing more on self-care, finding time to enjoy unrelated activities, and spending time with friends with whom he can talk openly about struggles.
Kubik, for her part, hopes that the mobility of the field will allow her to move on to a different aspect of mental health work if being a doctor becomes too overwhelming. In the meantime, he is also exploring coping mechanisms, such as yoga and breathing, to protect his own mental health, he said.
Quanesha Johnson, 41, quit 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-focused workers who provide each other with support. Johnson found that working in the mental health field during the pandemic has further emphasized “the importance of proper rest, taking care of my body, and that even though I’m in the helping profession, it’s okay to seek support for myself,” she said. .
Johnson noted that even as she grapples with the emotional weight of issues like full caseloads, racial injustice and working from home, she has never been more empowered to provide education and support around mental health.
“I want to help increase representation in the field and see that mental health resources are equally accessible to communities of color,” he said.
Indeed, the pandemic has shown many women that their careers are not as fulfilling as they could be. But this understanding does not equate to automatic change: For many people, keeping the job they have is critical to maintaining economic stability.
For Kubik and Dias, who made the leap, there is the fear of not being able to get jobs. But, they said, they are sure this is the right thing to do.
“Work is a big part of our day and I wanted to be able to enjoy what I was doing,” Kubik said. “More importantly, I realized that I feel energized working with people and making a difference in their lives.”