Everyone has their own personal challenges and struggles. In fact, nearly one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental health disorder — that’s more than 50 million people.1 These individuals deserve quality mental healthcare delivered within a compassionate, respectful environment.
If you feel called to make a positive difference in the lives of those living with mental health disorders, you might consider becoming a mental health professional, such as a psychiatric technician. What is a psychiatric technician, and what does a psychiatric technician do? You’ll find these answers and more in the following career guide.
The Role of a Psychiatric Technician
It’s often thought that in order to pursue a job in the psychology field, it’s necessary to earn a doctoral degree. This is true for licensed clinical psychologists, but there are also entry-level jobs available that do not require advanced degrees or hundreds of hours of clinical training. One such entry-level job is that of psychiatric technician.
What is a psychiatric technician? This entry-level professional provides hands-on care on the front lines of mental healthcare. In fact, they are the most frequent point of contact for individuals in inpatient settings.
Because psychologists and psychiatrists cannot spend hours every day with each patient in their caseload, they rely on the eyes and ears of psychiatric technicians. Technicians are responsible for monitoring patients and evaluating their progress, as well as carrying out certain aspects of patients’ treatment plans. The specific job duties may vary depending on the facility and the patient population.
Some psychiatric technicians work with patients with:
- Age-related mental illnesses, including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia
- Developmental disabilities
- Substance use disorders
Essential Skills and Qualities of a Psychiatric Technician
There are a few skills and characteristics that are important for these professionals. They include the following:
- A compassionate, empathetic nature
- A positive mindset
- Strong interpersonal and communication skills
- Physical stamina
- Observational skills
A commitment to patient confidentiality is also crucial.
What Does a Psychiatric Technician Do?
Although the typical daily tasks of a psychiatric technician will vary depending on the facility and the patient population, there are some routine responsibilities. In general, technicians are charged with monitoring and evaluating patients as well as administering some therapeutic treatments. On an average day, a psychiatric technician might do any of the following tasks:
- Assist with the admission and discharge process
- Take patients’ blood pressure and other vital signs
- Monitor patients’ behavior, recording observations and listening to patients’ concerns
- Execute certain aspects of the psychiatrist’s treatment plan, such as by administering medications
- Assist patients in recreational and therapeutic activities
- Assist patients with daily activities, such as eating and grooming
In some cases, psychiatric technicians may be required to restrain patients who might become physically aggressive.
Of all the mental health professionals at an inpatient facility, patients tend to have the most frequent interactions with psychiatric technicians. Because of this, the compassionate assistance of a technician can be instrumental in the patient’s progress.
Differences Between Psychiatric Technicians vs. Psychiatric Aides
You may hear the terms “psychiatric technician” and “psychiatric aide” used interchangeably. However, they aren’t the same role, although technicians and aides do tend to have some overlapping duties, such as monitoring the behavior of the patients and assisting them with the activities of daily living.
However, unlike technicians, aides cannot administer any aspect of the patients’ treatment plans, such as by distributing medications or leading the patients in therapeutic activities. Instead, aides are more likely to handle tasks like:
- Changing the bed linens
- Transporting patients
- Helping patients with bathing and grooming activities.
Because of the difference in responsibilities, technicians and aides have different academic and training requirements. Aides are not generally expected to hold a degree. Instead, most of them enter the workforce after high school and receive on-the-job training.
Where Do Psychiatric Technicians Work?
The majority of psychiatric technicians work in psychiatric and substance abuse treatment facilities. Some of these facilities are state-funded, while others are private. A psychiatric technician could also work within the psychiatric wing of a general hospital.
Some technicians work for state or local agencies, such as public health agencies. To a lesser extent, technicians also work for outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities.
How to Become a Psychiatric Technician
If the answer to the questions, “What is a psychiatric technician and what does a psychiatric technician do?” appeals to you, then it’s time to begin planning your career pathway. If you’re still in high school, make an appointment to speak with your guidance counselor. Discuss your career goals and ask about ways to support those goals with high school coursework.
Courses in science, social science and the humanities will be most helpful to you. If your high school offers a psychology course, you should take it if possible. However, courses in sociology, language and communications, child development, history and minority studies can also prove valuable for future social science professionals.
After high school, you’ll likely want to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. However, there is some flexibility regarding your degree option. A degree in mental health counseling or behavioral health science could also work.
You may have the option to earn a degree with a specialization, such as a concentration in substance use disorders. You can certainly earn a degree with a concentration if you wish—and if it aligns with your professional interests, although this isn’t strictly necessary. If you do opt for a degree with a concentration, that will not necessarily prevent you from pursuing mental health services work outside of that concentration.
Pursuing Your Psychology Degree
After high school, the first step toward becoming a psychiatric technician is to pursue postsecondary education. It’s possible to become a psychiatric technician with just a postsecondary certificate, although those who hold four-year degrees will have stronger job prospects. Earning a four-year degree will also enable you to go on to graduate school later if you decide you’d like to climb the ladder and pursue higher-level job opportunities in the mental health field.
A Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree is the perfect fit for aspiring psychiatric technicians. You’ll acquire foundational knowledge in scientific inquiry, research and the evidence-based application of psychological techniques. You’ll also study topics such as the following:
- The symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders and syndromes, as well as the development of abnormal psychological patterns
- Scientific measurements and causal determinants of human behavior, with a look at Freudian, humanistic and cognitive theories
- Child and adolescent psychology across various stages of development
- The psychosocial, cognitive and emotional aspects of adult and geriatric development
- Foundational topics in cognitive neuroscience, including sensation, perception, metacognition, consciousness and the development of cognition across one’s lifespan
Depending on which school you choose, you may also complete a professional capstone course during your senior year. A capstone course typically involves the completion of a major project over the course of a semester. This writing- and research-intensive course is an opportunity to put everything you learned during the previous three years to good use.
While you’re in school, it can be worthwhile to speak with your student services department about local internship opportunities. By completing an internship at a local mental health services facility or agency, you’ll be able to gain valuable skills, develop a sense of professionalism and begin building your professional network. You’ll also get a firsthand look at the behind-the-scenes operations of a mental health facility.
Earning Licensure and Certification
The majority of psychiatric technicians do not need a license. As of 2022, only a handful of states require that these professionals acquire a license: California, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado. Within these five states, the licensing criteria vary considerably.
Some of these states require documentation of a certain number of hours of postsecondary education, while others require proof of on-the-job experience hours. Most of these states require the applicant to sit for a licensing exam, and most of them require the payment of a licensing fee.
If you plan to work in a state that has a licensing requirement for psychiatric technicians, it’s a good idea to research the eligibility criteria well in advance to ensure that your degree program will fit the requirements. Even if you do not live in a state that requires you to obtain a professional license, you may want to pursue voluntary certification.
Although it is not mandatory, earning a certification as a psychiatric technician can provide considerable benefits. Certified technicians may be more likely to be offered employment, and they may secure a higher salary and/or a more favorable benefits package. Certification can also enable you to provide a higher quality of care to the patients under your charge.
The chief certifying body for psychiatric technicians is the American Association of Psychiatric Technicians (AAPT). The AAPT offers four different levels of certification.
The higher the level, the more education and experience the technician has; a level-four psychiatric technician has a bachelor’s degree in the mental health or developmental disabilities field and at least three years of professional work experience.
All technicians who seek certification must first pass the level one certification exam, which has the lowest level of eligibility criteria. This is an open-book, at-home certification exam. An essay test is required for higher levels of certification.
Even if you don’t plan on becoming certified, you may want to explore the AAPT website as you approach graduation. This nonprofit association routinely posts job openings for psychiatric technicians.
Gain Work Experience Through On-the-Job Training
After you’ve earned your undergraduate psychology degree and obtained your license (if applicable), you can begin applying to job openings. It’s customary for new psychiatric technicians to complete a period of on-the-job training. Depending on the employer, this may be a formal training program or an informal mentorship with an experienced technician or other mental health services professional.
During your period of on-the-job training, you’ll work with patients under the close supervision of an experienced professional. You may be required to complete a structured training program, which may involve computer learning modules. Some technicians are sent to lectures and workshops to enhance their mental health knowledge and help them acquire practical skills for use on the job.
Are Psychiatric Technicians in Demand?
Psychiatric technicians and aides are indeed in high demand for the foreseeable future.2 Many of these new job openings will become available to replace existing psychiatric technicians who are retiring or transferring to other occupations. In addition, a strong demand is expected for qualified professionals to care for the aging population, as advanced age is often associated with disorders like dementia. There will also be a strong demand for psychiatric technicians to work in correctional facilities.
Options for Advancing Your Career in the Mental Health Field
As previously stated, it’s possible to enter this profession with just a postsecondary certificate, rather than a four-year degree. However, earning a four-year degree can open the door to career advancement opportunities. After you’ve graduated and gained a few years of work experience, you may decide that you’re ready to explore other options for your career.
For example, you may decide to become a mental health or substance abuse counselor. An aspiring mental health counselor must earn a master’s degree and complete anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, depending on the particular regulations of the state in which you plan to work. Counselors must also successfully pass a licensing exam and maintain their license by completing continuing education hours on an annual basis.
Other options include becoming a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. To become a psychologist, you will need a doctoral degree and a psychologist’s license. Becoming a psychiatrist (who is authorized to prescribe medications) requires the successful completion of medical school, acquisition of a license, board certification and completion of a residency program.
If you have a passion for helping others, you can blend that passion with purpose by earning your psychology degree at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree instills critical competencies in students, including those in cognitive neuroscience, abnormal psychology and health psychology. This program offers considerable flexibility, with online, on-campus and on-campus evening classes available.
Click on Request Info at the top of your screen and take the first step toward pursuing a rewarding career in mental health services.
1National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Health Information, Statistics, Mental Illness in February 2022.
2U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychiatric Technicians and Aides in February 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.