Expert Contributor
Gary Brown, PhD

Gary Brown, PhD, LMFT, FAPA is a licensed psychotherapist from Los Angeles, CA. In addition to his private practice (www.DrGaryBrownTherapy.com), Gary leads the Critical Incident Response program at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center.

There are many ways to help others. Aid and assistance might take a physical turn, or it might tap into emotional reserves. Some focus on helping others on an intellectual level, while others turn to spirituality to guide them into doing what feels right.

Those who want to make a career out of caring for, helping, aiding and assisting others can turn to numerous job options that put their need to help front and center. Whether the path leads to therapy, counseling, psychiatric help, teaching and so much more, there are numerous ways a person with a desire to help others can turn that calling into a lifelong career.

Interview with an Expert

Licensed psychotherapist Gary Brown discusses his helping career.

What is a typical day like for you?

The majority of my work is in private practice helping individuals, couples, and families navigate various challenges that they encounter in life. Typically I see clients in my office across the street from UCLA. I work three full days seeing clients from about 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and sometimes on Mondays and Fridays as well – those are usually shorter days. My private practice represents about 80 percent of my work life.

The rest of my professional time is devoted [to] providing crisis intervention services (www.LACriticalIncidentResponse.com) to include crisis response, education, and training. The majority of that time is spent assisting healthcare professionals such as nurses and doctors to recover from traumatic incidents that they sometimes encounter during the course of their daily lives. In addition to leading the Critical Incident Response program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, I also consult regularly with the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, Department of Homeland Security and Safety, Crisis Response Team. Upon occasion I have worked for various disaster relief agencies on a pro-bono basis (e.g. American Red Cross and the Salvation Army).

What drove you to dedicate your life to helping others?

Becoming a therapist was never really my original professional goal. Without too long a dissertation, I came to the realization years ago that I wanted to do something that would help people through not only the inevitable challenges that life presented, but also something that could help them realize more of their own potential. Working in the area of crisis intervention has certainly been a large part of this for me.

Community service was strongly emphasized in my family so that was a given. We benefit from living in our community and we are naturally supposed to give back. That value has been a driving force throughout my life and continues to this day.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

There are so many aspects of my work that are rewarding that it is genuinely difficult for me to reduce it down to one thing. Here are some examples of the rewards:

Helping a teenager to learn how to manage their anxiety and stop self-harming activities.

The feeling you get when a suicidal client realizes that there are indeed reasons to value their life and they decide they want to live.

Helping a married couple who are on the brink of divorce save their marriage.

The feeling you get when you help someone leave a dangerous situation of domestic violence.

Helping a wounded veteran with catastrophic injuries find a way to adjust to the new normal of his or her life. (All work I do with fellow veterans is pro bono.)

The list truly goes on. I guess the bottom line is that it is incredibly rewarding and an honor to be invited into someone’s life at what is perhaps one of the most intimate and vulnerable times and knowing that I was able to help them not only get through whatever suffering brought them to my door, but to help them get through the other side in a way where the overall quality of their life is improved. People are incredibly resilient and it brings me great joy to help someone get acquainted with that part of themselves.

What is the most challenging part of what you do?

The most challenging part of what I do is similar to the vulnerability that all of us in the helping professions seem to have at times: sometimes in our need to help others we overextend ourselves. Over the years we learn to develop a sense of boundaries in terms of our own self-care and when we don’t, we suffer from what is sometimes referred to as “compassion fatigue”.

What advice would you give to those considering becoming a therapist or counselor?

As relates to becoming a therapist or counselor, I would offer the following advice: make sure that this is something you really want to do. Make sure this is truly your CALLING and not a job. By the way, I would recommend this to anybody who is contemplating any endeavor in life. You know you are in the right place when it doesn’t feel like work.

Make sure that you take your own self-care seriously. Be mindful of the types of people you like to work with and focus on that. Know your limitations in terms of who you are not particularly good at working with and refer them to someone who is.

Mostly, develop feelings of gratitude that absolute strangers are walking through your door every day who are honoring you by placing a tremendous amount of trust in you. Be grateful that you get to do this work and make sure that you pace yourself. Your clients deserve the best you have and embracing your own self care is good for you and good for them.

Who Needs Your Help?

So you know you want to help people. That leads to another question: Who do you want to help? There are numerous groups of people in the United States and across the globe who need specialized, personalized help from someone who is trained to make their life better. These are just a few of the populations who are looking for those who can reach out and give them the assistance they need.

Homeless

Those who are living on the streets or getting by day-to-day in shelters across the nation need help in finding the appropriate services and shelter for themselves or their families. Sometimes those who are chronically homeless find themselves on the streets because of underlying problems, such as drug or alcohol abuse, or mental illness that has gone undiagnosed or untreated.

LGBT

In many parts of our society, those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, questioning, or of ambiguous sexuality might face discrimination, a lack of acceptance or even hatred – and that can be tough to handle.

Refugees

At any given time, there is turmoil somewhere in the world. Refugees who have been displaced from their homes and countries – and might have left behind everything that mattered to them – are facing a very difficult road.

Addicts

Those who are deep into drugs, alcohol and other addictions will often reach out when the situation becomes too severe for them to handle. Having help at the ready might actually mean the difference between life and death.

Children

The youngest among us are often the most vulnerable. Fortunately, there is a huge safety net in place for them, and that includes social workers, community health organizations, physicians, psychologists, therapists, and many others who have dedicated their lives to making children happier and healthier.

People Living with Depression and Other Mental Issues

From postpartum depression to severe anxiety, from phobias that seem insurmountable to mental issues such as schizophrenia, mental health issues do not discriminate. Those who are suffering from any issues that affect their day-to-day life can use the help of a counselor, therapist, psychologist and the like.

The Helping Careers: Understanding the Difference

When it comes to helping others, the opportunities are virtually endless. But there are a few professions that rise to the top of the list in the many ways that they offer help. Work as a psychologist, counselor or therapist are among the top careers someone can choose if they intend to make a life-long commitment to assisting those who need their skills the most.

Psychologists The Job:

Psychologists work closely with patients by observing, assessing and gathering information that will help them treat the underlying problems. Though many psychologists go into research in an effort to help a wide range of people, some choose to work as clinical psychologists, which put them in direct contact with patients on a day-to-day basis. Other branches of psychology, such as industrial organizational psychology or school psychology, seek to help those in a particular population.

The Education: Psychologists must earn a doctoral degree in order to practice, though some might be able to obtain entry-level jobs with a master’s degree. In all states, those who intend to practice independently must be licensed. In most cases, this means the applicant must have a doctoral degree in psychology, serve an internship, have one to two years of solid experience, and pass an examination.

Counselors The Job:

Counselors are much like psychologists in that they are driven to help people, but the nature of the work means they work much more closely with patients on a day-to-day basis. Counselors might specialize in a certain area, such as becoming a marriage or family counselor, or working as a school counselor or mental health counselor. They can help anyone who is dealing with an emotionally trying time, including those going through divorce, dealing with grief, suffering from addictions and more.

The Education: A master’s degree is usually the minimum requirement for counselors, and licensing is also a must. Obtaining a license usually consists of a master’s degree, passing an examination administered on the state level, completing between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of practical experience, and keeping up with continuing education requirements.

Therapists The Job:

Therapists also help individuals by pinpointing problems and solving them, but the field is a bit broader than that of a counselor or psychologist. The work is often more long-term, with therapists working with clients over a long period of time. Therapists might include those who help treat issues of the mind and emotions, as well as the body. For example, occupational therapists can help individuals learn better ways to work, while physical therapists can help patients learn to overcome injuries.

The Education: The education required depends upon the career path a therapist chooses, but in most cases, a bachelor’s degree is required or entry-level work and a master’s degree is a must for licensure. Licensing requirements vary depending upon the chosen career, but most include passing an examination and a certain number of hours of practical, supervised work.

Career Map: Helping Careers & Where They Can Lead

Therapist

Therapists are at the ready to help individuals who are suffering from mental illness, disabilities, emotional trauma, and other issues that affect their mental and physical health. Therapists work closely to help clients understand the reasons behind what is happening to them, as well as how to treat whatever the situation might be.

  • Occupational Therapist

    These therapists work closely with those who are injured, ill or disabled, and as such as limited in activities of daily living. Occupational therapy helps patients learn to adjust or overcome their issues in order to live a happier, more productive life.

    2014 income: $78,810

  • Marriage and Family Therapist

    They work closely with individuals, couples and families to help them through difficult situations, including issues such as substance abuse, stress, addiction, self-esteem issues, marital problems, and much more.

    2014 income: $48,040.

  • Healthcare Social Worker

    These social workers focus on helping those who are dealing with acute or chronic illness, as well as those who are facing a frightening, long-term or terminal diagnosis. They work not only with the patient, but with the family as well, helping them through depression, grief and more.

    2014 income: $51,930

Counselor

Counselors help individuals through a wide variety of issues that can affect mental health, including stressors, school or career questions, rehabilitation following addiction issues, concerns about mental illness, and much more.

  • School or Career Counselor

    This job goes beyond helping students determine the right school or career path; it also includes help with behavioral problems, bullying, drug use, family issues and much more.

    2014 income: $53,370

  • Rehabilitation Counselor

    Provides help for those who are recovering from mental or physical disabilities or illness; the goal is to help the client move back into independent living and form strong professional, social and personal relationships.

    2014 income: $34,380

  • Mental Health Counselor

    Those suffering from mental illness, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or other related problems can turn to a mental health counselor, who specializes in helping clients obtain the assistance, counselor and medication they need.

    2014 income: $40,850

Psychologist

Psychologists apply research and counseling methods to help individuals, families, businesses and much more. Depending upon the career path, they might work behind the scenes in research and teaching, or they might work directly with clients of various populations.

  • Industrial Organizational Psychologist

    They bring psychology to the workplace to improve productivity, employee morale, management and working styles, among other points. They also work with management on matters such as screening, hiring, firing, and development.

    2014 income: $76,950

  • Health Psychologist

    They study how psychological factors play into mental or physical illness, and use their research to promote healthy-living strategies. They might also work with targeted populations, such as pregnant teenagers, drug addicts and more.

    2014 income: $92,110

  • Developmental Psychologist

    They focus on development through the life cycle, and might work with children, adolescents, teenagers or the elderly, as well as focusing on the unique problems that might be faced by each population.

    2014 income: $92,110

Hot Helping Career

In addition to the thrill of helping others, some careers come with the added advantage of fast growth, which means excellent job opportunities. The fastest growing career in the field of psychology today is that of Industrial Organizational Psychologist.

What does an industrial organizational psychologist do?

Most of us spend a third of our life in the office. Given the vast amount of time that is spent at work, making the workplace much more friendly, professional and enjoyable is a must. That’s where industrial organizational psychologists come in. They work closely with businesses and companies to create a more pleasant working atmosphere. Using proven psychology methods and research, they contribute to enhancing everything from hiring and firing decisions to improving employee morale and productivity.

Breaking down the numbers

The working world has taken note of just how important industrial organizational psychologists are, and they are rewarding the profession with high growth rate numbers and a nice salary. Here’s a breakdown of what those interested in the profession can expect:

Salary

$76,950 median wage in 2014 (BLS)

Highest-paying states

The following states offer the highest pay:

California $105,580
Minnesota $100,030
Virginia $94,920
Ohio $93,580
Pennsylvania $92,780
National growth rate

By far the fastest growing profession in the nation, with 53 percent growth expected from 2012 to 2022, according to the BLS.

Growth rate by state

All numbers courtesy Projections Central:

North Carolina 77.5%
Iowa 75%
Mississippi 64.3%
Ohio 60.9%
New York 52.1%
Education required

A master’s degree is the minimum to enter the field; many choose to enhance their prospects by earning the doctorate.

Where the Helping Jobs Are

Nonprofit Organizations

Helping others can take many forms, and those who choose to enter the helping professions might find themselves in a variety of work environments. One of the most common ways to help others is to join a non-profit organization.

Non-profits are defined as organizations that represent the special needs or interests of certain groups or communities; these needs or interests are often unable to be met by the public sector. There are over one million non-profit organizations in the United States, making up 10 percent of the entire nation’s workforce.

Non-profits are divided into nine categories, which include health and human services, or assistance for public and societal benefit. Those who choose to work in the helping professions can make a career through their involvement with non-profits. Some examples include homeless shelters, the American Red Cross, hospitals, the Peace Corps, and more.

Just as with anything else, there are benefits and challenges to working in the non-profit sector. Here are some of the standout things aspiring helpers need to know.

High ethics, standards and morale

When helping people is the name of the game, there is plenty to make someone proud. Non-profit workers tend to have high morale and hold themselves to the highest of ethical standards.

A varied skill set

When working with a non-profit, every day can be very different from the last. That means workers quickly adapt with a remarkably diverse skill set that allows them to help even more individuals.

People come first

More than just a job, working with a non-profit can be a calling that gives workers a sense of accomplishment unlike any other. That helping attitude permeates everything, leaving even the helpers on the receiving end of wonderful things.

Lower financial rewards

Alas, there are some downsides, and at the top of that list is the lower pay that workers can expect from non-profits. When at the mercy of government funding and donations, salaries often stay rather low.

Lack of resources

Those who work for non-profits quickly become accustomed to a shoestring budget and become creative about making things stretch – but even so, the lack of adequate resources can be frustrating.

Tough to move up

Those who want to expand on their skills and move up in the organization might find that they don’t have much room for upward mobility. Non-profits try to keep staff numbers low so that their funds can go to those who truly need it, but that means that workers must leave in order to move up in the therapy or counseling world.

Non-Profit Resources

Governmental/Education/Health & Human Services

For those with a knack for helping others, there are numerous positions available in government programs, health and human services, and education. Those who choose to work for government agencies might often be in a position to help low-income individuals get the assistance they need, and they might also work with programs that provide other types of help, such as the Healthcare Marketplace or subsidized housing.

Health and human services workers might work with a wide variety of individuals, from the elderly who need assistance with food to the child who is facing abuse or neglect. Anyone who needs help for a health-related matters, such as those who are suffering from addictions, might be able to find it through health and human services workers.

Those who work in education can strongly advocate for students on all grade levels and help ensure that they have the tools to be as successful as possible. They might also choose to work in a more hands-on way, such as tackling Head Start and other programs that allow them to showcase their classroom skills.

Just as with any other job, there are benefits and challenges. Here’s what aspiring workers can expect:

Working as a professional helper

Those who enter the education, health and human services or government sectors can look forward to a career as someone who helps others. Professional training is offered on a regular basis to keep skills sharp.

Strongly honed skills

Speaking of skills, those who work in these sectors will have access to some of the best continuing education available, which means that they can truly specialize in one particular area and get to know it inside and out.

Well-respected positions

There are numerous options for advancement through these sectors, which can look very nice on a resume if a helper chooses to pursue a different career path. No matter what that path might be, the work in these sectors is always seen as respectable and ambitious.

Dealing with red tape

Those who work in these sectors have the downside of dealing with bureaucracy, red tape and other hang-ups that can actually make it harder to help people. That can lead to frustration and disillusionment.

Public scrutiny

Those who work in a more visible sector can expect to have their every move questioned from time to time. This means that public scrutiny comes into play, on top of the typical scrutiny one might expect from supervisors and other higher-ups.

Emotionally draining

Constantly dealing with those who need help or assistance, as well as battling against a system that sometimes doesn’t work well at all, can be emotionally taxing. This is often one of the reasons why individuals choose to leave the government sector and move on to other things.

Government, Education and Health and Human Services Resource List

Is a Helping Career Path the Right Choice?

Before jumping into the helping professions, it pays to take a very good look at what the jobs entail, what the future might hold, and how easy (or difficult) it will be to handle all of the elements that come along with these unique positions. Before taking that leap, ask these questions:

What is my experience with these populations?

Helping someone is easier if you understand where they are coming from, what their needs truly are, and how you can fulfill the void that they are dealing with. If you have experience with a particular population, such as the homeless or those who are facing serious medical issues, you might be in a better position to help them.

How much do I really know about what these clients need?

It can be easy to simply ask “what do you need? How can I help?” and let them answer – but the problem is that often a client has so many difficulties in their life that they don’t know where to start with finding help. The job of a helper is to read between the lines and figure out what the client really needs. Are you good at understanding the nuances of human nature, and understanding what isn’t said?

How much time am I willing to devote to becoming truly helpful?

Jobs in the helping professions can take a great deal of time. Counselors and therapists who are employed by government, health services, nonprofits and the like might not have set hours. Some helpers, like social workers, might be called for help in the middle of the night when a crisis occurs. Are you prepared to devote that much of your life to the job? In addition, expect training sessions to be a regular part of life, and recognize that those often take up time outside of “normal” work hours.

Will I be able to handle the emotional toll the job might take?

When you work with helping people, sometimes you see the worst of humanity. But the next day, you might witness something so kind, it takes your breath away. This rollercoaster ride of emotion is common for those who work as counselors, therapists, social workers and the like. The emotional toll of the job often leads to burnout; keeping things in healthy perspective is key. Are you prepared to face the emotional challenges and find a good outlet that allows you to keep that perspective?

What is my true motivation in joining the helping profession?

If your goal is fame or fortune, you are probably in the wrong place. Many times those who work in these professions do so under the radar, rarely receiving the recognition they deserve. The pay is not always commiserate with the time spent, either – especially in the case of those who are ready to help people around the clock, or those who work with nonprofits.

Do I have the proper education?

The jobs in helping professions often require a bachelor’s degree or higher; do you have the proper education under your belt? If not, there are many programs that might be suitable for helping you move into the profession you choose, but keep in mind that it will take some serious time invested before you are ready to leap into the job.

General Resources for Helping Professions