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Careers in Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

You probably wouldn’t know it just from walking down the street, but about one out of every five people you pass on the average trip down to the local coffee shop are experiencing some form of mental illness.

A further one out of every twenty-five experience a serious mental illness… something significant enough to warrant a DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis for a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder acute enough to interfere with regular life activity. That could be a struggle with bulimia, a major depressive episode, a substance abuse problem or another addiction, or almost any kind of debilitating psychological problem.

And if any of those folks you happened by were between the ages of 10 and 34, shocking outcomes may occur as a result of those illnesses… suicide is the second leading cause of death in that age range in the United States.

They desperately need the kind of professional care that mental health agencies and providers can offer them. Yet only 43 percent of them received that care in 2018… a sign that the industry must do better. The only way that will happen is through skilled and well-trained administrators stepping up to the plate.

You need a deft touch as well as leadership skills, empathy, and solid administrative know-how to step into a management role in mental health services and do it justice. But those skills go a long way since they allow you to make differences in the lives of thousands of people over the course of a career, those quiet ones you pass on the street and hundreds more.

What Is Mental Health Services Management and Administration?

The stigma associated with mental health conditions only complicates matters when it comes to managing mental health facilities and getting people the exact kind of help they need. No one is embarrassed to get the medical care they need; almost no one wants others to know they have ever been within shouting distance of a mental health facility, though.

Even if not everyone likes to talk about it, mental healthcare is enormously important, and deserves to have caring and capable managers at the helm. Healthcare administrators at mental health facilities have to handle all the same basic operational matters as those at medical centers, everything from housekeeping and keeping the facility in supplies, to staffing and human resources, to billing and finance, to patient services and customer relations. But It can be argued that because of the sensitive and varied nature of mental health conditions, it’s a role that actually presents more challenges than general medical management jobs do.

The day-to-day grind of health facility management involves spending a lot of time on the phone and computer, just coordinating between different departments, with patients, with clinicians, and with outside human services and public health agencies. Administrators work to eliminate all the barriers that complicate the process of getting people the help they need, anticipating problems and heading them off at the pass, and making sure services are provided without a lot of extra hassle to patients.

That means you’ll spend plenty of time doing research and making strategic plans, both for the business and to ensure patients in the community have access to the exact services they need, whether that’s working in a Veteran’s Association hospital and hiring clinicians and counselors intimately familiar with combat related trauma and stress, or in a rural community plagued by the opioid crises and in need of skilled substance abuse counselors in the faculty ranks. Budgeting is always a big part of administrative work; it seems there’s never enough money for mental health services while there’s always a big demand for them.

But despite all the office hours, successful managers also spend time out on the floor. You’ll get to know some amazing providers and staff, people who work in mental healthcare because they have a depth of caring and compassion that is inspiring. And you’ll probably get to know some of your patients, too, human beings in need of help who deserve respect and a chance to become happier and healthier… with your help.

Paths Into the Specialty Area of Mental Health Administration

Despite the demand and the unique nature of mental health services administration, there are relatively few degrees that offer a concentration in the subject. Especially at the undergrad level, you’re going to be looking at degrees in healthcare administration as your closest match.

Mental health services are also closely affiliated with large-scale concerns for population health, and are delivered as public services, so degrees focusing on public health, public administration, or human services administration can also offer good preparation.

On the other hand, like every other part of the healthcare industry, mental health services are a sort of business—often a not-for-profit or government-run business, but nonetheless delivered with the same organizational challenges and processes as any other business. So many administrators also come into the field with a business degree in their back pocket, typically one with a healthcare administration specialization.

And also like other areas of healthcare, it’s fairly common for practicing mental health providers to advance to a level where they will make the jump from treatment to administration. So starting off as a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist can be another path into management… a difficult path, but one that offers unparalleled expertise and insights into the business.

Meeting the Degree Requirements to Become a Mental Health Administrator

No one graduates from high school with an intuitive understanding of budget spreadsheets and how to solve nursing union labor disputes. So a higher education is going to be your first stop on the path to becoming a mental health administrator.

Associate and Bachelor’s Degrees for Mental Health Administration Professionals

At the entry level, you will probably start off with a two-year associate or a four-year bachelor’s degree.

An associate program won’t qualify you for much more than a spot at the front desk checking in patients or standing in back filing records. It can, however, serve as a launch pad to a more useful bachelor’s degree… Associate degrees are typically designed to serve as transfer degrees, so with the right arrangements in place between colleges, you can use those two years as an inexpensive substitute for the first two years of a bachelor’s degree and seamlessly glide into the second half of a four-year program.

The bachelor’s is the real springboard into positions of responsibility and management. The four years you spend studying will cover not only business and healthcare subjects, but also an array of general education courses… mathematics, sciences, languages, social studies, history. It’s all designed to build critical thinking capabilities and problem-solving skills, while giving a better propensity for acquiring knowledge and applying it in new ways throughout your career. Few other administrative fields require this kind of creative and innovative approach to problem solving, so you’ll be glad you have at least a bachelor’s in your back pocket when getting into a mental health services administration role.

A bachelor’s is also the first level where you will start finding concentrations available in mental health administration at some programs.

Graduate Degrees for Mental Health Administration Roles

As you advance to the master’s and doctoral levels, there are more options specific to mental health administration, including degrees like:

  • MA in Human Services – Mental Health Administration
  • MS in Mental Health and Wellness – Emphasis in Integrated Health
  • MS in Mental Health – Mental Health Administration
  • DMFT – Mental Health Administration

A master’s is the standard requirement for any major managerial position, like running a counseling department at a major hospital, managing a large outpatient counseling and mental health center, or even running in-patient facilities that deal with the clinical side of mental health treatment for people with more acute illnesses. For the largest and busiest of those practices, a doctoral degree may be in order.

A master’s degree can run anywhere from two to three years in length while doctorates are about three years. Both involve more intensive studies that build on your undergraduate courses, but also considerably more independence… you will be responsible for at least part of your study plan, customizing your coursework and investigations to line up with your own goals and interests.

Those include either a thesis or dissertation—a lengthy research project that culminates in a publication-quality paper—or, alternatively, a practical capstone project that dives into real-world challenges in healthcare administration and that gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your ability to apply the principles and techniques you have learned to resolving challenges and solving problems.

Post-Master’s Certificates Offer Paths to Administrative Professionalism for Practicing Clinicians

Some of the best-qualified people for managing mental health programs are actually practicing mental health professionals. Psychologists, nurses, and other clinical providers have the training and experience to understand the real-world demands and challenges of delivering these important services. That’s a huge advantage when it comes to running the whole show.

But clinical expertise doesn’t automatically translate to administrative excellence, as anyone who has ever worked directly for a doctor can tell you. Clinicians who are serious about becoming managers need training to give them the skills they have been missing on the paperwork side of the business—but they have also already spent enough hours earning advanced degrees that it’s simply not practical to start over again on that path.

The post-master’s certificate in healthcare administration is the answer for these folks. Designed specifically for professionals coming into administration from other professional backgrounds, post-graduate certificates skip much of the elementary aspects of master’s programs in favor of only the advanced topics surrounding health services administration. They are highly focused and much shorter than master’s degrees, and usually delivered in a convenient online or nights-and-weekends format based on the assumption that students currently hold a position that places a lot of demands on their time.

The Curriculum in Medical Administration Degrees for Mental Health

There’s no one right answer to what type and level of degree you should earn, but there are some common subjects you’ll need to learn about if you want to succeed in mental health administration.

Accounting and Finance – Balancing budgets, estimating expenditures, and ensuring reimbursement matches services all take a keen head for numbers. You’ll start learning the basics of accounting early and continue in depth throughout your studies in healthcare administration.

Human Resources – Healthcare overall is facing an epic staffing shortage, and mental health has not been exempt from the overall trend. California alone, for example, will see a short-fall of one-third the number of psychiatrists necessary to meet demand by the end of the decade. You had better believe that recruiting and retention are going to be a major focus of your career. They need to be a focus of your education, too.

Health Informatics and Technology – Mental health is less driven by advances in medical technology than some healthcare sectors, but it is as reliant on digital records and the analysis of patient data as any of them. Electronic health records, patient privacy, and security concerns all demand that you become familiar with the state-of-the-art in health information management and the informatics used to improve treatment and patient outcomes.

Healthcare policy and regulation – Mental health services operate within a strict regulatory environment with regs covering everything from guardianship concerns, to the administering of antipsychotic medications and other interventions, to soundness of mind considerations in granting consent. Understanding the framework for how healthcare services are governed is an important part of your studies.

The depth and specific topics covered in these courses will vary depending on the degree level the course is built into, but at every level you will find a similar set of subjects covered.

If you enroll in one of the relatively few master’s degrees with a concentration in mental health administration specifically, you can expect that coursework to be padded out with additional classes in areas like Fiscal Administration for Mental Healthcare Systems and Mental Health Compliance.

Should You Be Taking Online Programs in Mental Health Administration?

In many cases, certificate programs are conveniently offered online because they are specifically designed to accommodate working health administrators who have a lot on their plates already. But, increasingly, so are degrees at every level. Though that’s a trend that’s been in place for a number of years, it’s only accelerated in the COVID era as schools moved quickly to accommodate student preferences for remote courses, converting many traditional campus programs to make them available online. That’s a trend that hasn’t reversed, even post-COVID.

Improvements in curriculum delivery systems for asynchronous classes, sophisticated software like Zoom for live streamlining synchronous classes flawlessly, along with student preferences for remote learning have all come together to make online programs every bit the equal of traditional programs.

Modern learning management systems can deliver crisp video, on-time coursework assignments, chat venues for questions and interaction, and quiz and test options that will keep you right in the thick of the action. And for working students, the ability to study at any time of the day or night, from anywhere you can snag an internet connection, makes online options quite literally the only option.

Specialty Accreditation for Mental Health Administration Programs

Accreditation probably hasn’t been at the top of your list of things to check when looking for colleges to attend. That’s because, by and large, every American university you’ve ever heard of holds at least a general institutional accreditation from a regional accreditor. Recognized by the Department of Education, these types of accreditors are recognized as being capable of certifying academic and administrative quality at the institutional level only. It’s an important qualification, but so common no one really checks it anymore.

For specialized degree fields, however, there’s another level of accreditation that can be enormously important. Specialty accreditors go beyond the general work of verifying the academic integrity of the school and administration to look into the details of curriculum, instructor qualifications, and program resources in specific fields to ensure that they all line up with the current expectations of the industry. Graduation from a specialty accredited program means hospitals can hire you knowing that you are already up to speed on all the important aspects currently affecting the industry.

There are different specialty accreditors for different types of degrees. The ones you are likely to encounter in healthcare and business administration are:

Mental Health Services Administration Jobs and Salary Outlook

Overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical and health services managers have both a high salary potential and terrific prospects to look forward to. For 2019, the median pay for the role was $100,980, and the Bureau estimates a job growth rate between 2019 and 2029 of 32 percent, while the average for all jobs doesn’t even crack the double digits.

Within that overall role, many mental health managers will work for outpatient care centers, where the average is $95,320, and residential care facilities, with an average pay of $86,820.

The BLS goes further to track the salaries at psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals specifically. Your role there could include any of the following jobs and the corresponding median salaries:

  • Chief Executive – $203,910
  • Medical and Health Services Managers – $112,080
  • Financial Manager – $128,360
  • Human Resource Managers – $98,140
  • Administrative Services and Facilities Manager – $90,020

Like most healthcare jobs, you’ll tend to find most of these positions in areas where there are the largest population demands for service… in other words, anywhere there is a large population. Currently, California, Texas, and New York are the three states with the highest employment level in the occupation.

Resources for Future Mental Health Managers

Mental health administrators have just as much, and maybe more, of a need to lean on peers for support throughout their careers as any sort of healthcare manager. Although there are few dedicated organizations that focus their support on mental health administration exclusively, there are many resources and organizations that offer continuing education, training, mentorship, and networking opportunities for healthcare managers in general. Tapping into these resources early in your career can make a big difference as you progress through the ranks.

  • Association for Healthcare Administrative Professionals: Dedicated to the professionals who support the nation’s top healthcare leaders, this organization provides leadership opportunities through work on committees and groups in order to strengthen the delivery of healthcare.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness: A non-profit that is dedicated to spreading awareness, de-stigmatizing, and improving access and supporting services to individuals affected by mental illness across the United States.
  • American Association of Healthcare Administrative Management: AAHAM represents a broad base of healthcare professionals, providing information, education, and advocacy in the fields of reimbursement, admitting and registration, data management, medical records, patient relations, and so on.
  • American College of Healthcare Executives: This international organization of executive healthcare leaders advances professionalism and expertise in the field of healthcare management. Members receive the latest research and education and receive policy updates at the annual Congress on Healthcare Leadership.
  • American Health Information Management Association: Members of AHIMA receive the latest updates on topics such as privacy and security, coding, electronic health records, reimbursement, and compliance, as well as professional development and networking opportunities.
  • Healthcare Financial Management Association: This member-based organization supports individuals and organizations by providing education and development opportunities, deciphering the complexities of American healthcare financial practices to build more stable and effective organizations.
  • Health Resources and Services Administration: This agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) supports the training of health professionals and distribution of provider care to geographically isolated, economically or medically vulnerable areas.