The American Psychological Association (APA) defines public service psychology as psychology which serves the needs of the public in general. The APA further breaks down public service psychology into the following five areas of government services:

Expert Contributor

Michelene M. Wasil
Michelene M. Wasil

Michelene M. Wasil is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in San Diego, CA who is currently pursuing her doctorate in psychology. In addition to work for Veterans Affairs, she works in a private practice where the majority of her caseload is Veterans or active-duty service members.

Veterans Affairs

Those who have served their country both at home and abroad leave the military with an honored designation: That of a military veteran. The Department of Veterans Affairs, known in short as the VA, is designed to serve the nation’s veterans through a network of healthcare facilities. Those who work with the VA can expect to engage in a variety of patient care, consumer activities and outreach, training and research.

Issues Faced by Veterans

Veterans can face a multitude of mental health issues, whether they have been deployed or have stayed stateside during their time in the military. These include the following:

Mental health issues after experience combat situations. This is especially true for those who were already struggling with mental health issues to begin with, such as depression, anxiety and the like.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which can manifest in numerous ways.

Trouble adjusting to the civilian world after their military service, which might lead to issues with substance abuse and addiction.

The rate of homelessness is higher among veterans; a 2011 study by the VA found that male veterans were twice as likely to become homeless than those in the general population; female veterans were three times more likely to wind up on the streets.

How Mental Health Professionals Help

Psychologists for the VA are expected to help veterans deal with all of these issues and more; but psychologists are not the only individuals needed in Veteran’s Affairs. Those who have a background in psychology, such as social workers, psychiatric nurses, family counselors, mental health counselors, patient representatives and more will be in demand in a variety of VA hospitals and facilities across the nation. Though some might work in administrative roles, many who choose to work at the VA will be dealing directly with patients and concerned family members.

Career Spotlight

Military psychology is dedicated to serving anyone who happens to be in the military, whether that person is a veteran or someone who is currently enlisted. Military psychologists might work as civilians or be enlisted officers. In addition to helping those who are dealing with mental health issues, they also do the following:

  • Serve the military itself by working to help recruit likely candidates
  • Conduct research and present relevant findings to military committees
  • Evaluate performance of enlisted officers
  • Teach and train those of various ranks
  • Provide a variety of treatment to not only enlisted personnel, but to their family as well

Where They Work

Given the fact that military psychologists treat those who serve, they might work in VA facilities, as well as the following:

  • Military installations (either overseas or at home)
  • Educational facilities or research facilities that have ties to the military
  • The Department of Defense (assigned to a certain location)
  • Businesses or companies that support the military
  • Private practice that caters to veterans or those on active duty

Michelene M. Wasil talks about her work with veterans as a therapist

What is the day-to-day job like at the VA?

I work on a research study where I am meeting with Veterans who have PTSD, depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. I use a variety of psychological assessments. I spend much of my time talking to Veterans about their PTSD, how it affects their lives and their families’ lives. Sadly, many Veterans are homeless so I do spend some of the time offering resources for housing, counseling, job training, or other benefits.

What made you decide to become a marriage and family counselor?

I was looking at the different options just before I began my MA: social worker, psychologist, MFT, or counselor. At the time, I felt like the MFT field was more systemic and broad-based in the theories and ways of helping clients. MFT’s typically view problems as having more than one cause or facet – which also means there is more than one solution.

Why did you choose to work for the VA?

My grandfather was a WWII Navy Veteran; my uncle is a Navy Veteran. I have a deep respect and admiration for the armed forces. I am grateful for the sacrifices they make to keep our world safe. It is a fulfilling population to work with – unfortunately, it is also a sick population but I welcome all the challenges that go along with working with Veterans.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

It is pretty simple – the most rewarding part is being privileged to work at the VA hospital knowing I can help a vulnerable population.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in a public service position?

Public service work can be rewarding – it’s a tough job with a lot of scrutiny but I remind myself often what my purpose and the VA’s purpose is: To Serve All Veterans. There are great benefits – insurance, retirement plans, vacation days. However, most of us are in it for far more than the financial gains: we truly love our Vets!

Resources

Community and State Hospitals

Generally speaking, a state hospital refers to state-run psychiatric hospitals which specialize in the treatment of mental disorders and related problems. The primary purpose of a state hospital is to provide mental health care. The primary purpose of a community hospital is to provide services to those in the surrounding area, which is often rural or underserved. A community hospital is often the only provider of acute care in the area.

How Mental Health Professionals Help

State hospitals typically handle more serious mental health issues, such as those patients who are considered a danger to themselves or others, while community hospitals tend to take on cases that are more easily treated. Community hospitals might care for patients who are in the facility for only a few days or weeks at a time, while state hospitals are designed to provide much longer-term care for those who need it, including those who are involuntarily committed by the courts or concerned family members.

Numerous people are needed to handle the influx of patients at state and community hospitals. These individuals must be highly trained in dealing with patients who need extra help, especially those who are suffering from significant mental illness and related issues. To that end, these hospitals employ social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians with a deep knowledge of mental illness and treatments, psychiatric nurses, clinical psychologists, case managers and the like.

Issues Faced at State and Community Hospitals

Mental health professionals have unique challenges when it comes to providing the best care possible to their patients. One of the largest issues is state budget cuts, which directly affect every part of the hospital system. State hospitals are often understaffed and undersupplied. Adding to the pressure is the ever-present possibility of treating patients who might take a violent turn, such as those who are in the process of medication adjustment or prisoners who might see the hospital as a possible means of escape.

Community hospitals often face the added burden of dealing with an underserved or very rural community; in that case, the hospital itself is often the only source of medical care for those in that area. The result is a constantly busy emergency room, filled with patients who are using the emergency facilities as their primary care. This drives up costs for both the patients and the facility, and can make it tough for patients to get regular follow-up care for their issues.

Resources

Criminal Justice

The world of criminal justice offers plenty of room for those in public service professions. From social workers who deal with custody issues to forensic psychologists who are called to testify in court, those embarking on a career in criminal justice can find numerous pathways to choose from. Some positions, such as that of social worker, corrections officer, rehabilitation specialist and the like can typically be had with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Those who want to work as forensic psychologists will have to earn the doctorate and complete all licensing requirements before beginning work in the field.

The Role of Psychologists
in the Criminal Justice System

Forensic psychologists work in clinical, legal or forensic aspects. Clinical work might include diagnosis, psychological assessment, treatment and prediction of issues among those in the criminal justice system. Forensic work goes into detail with legal questions, such as mental capacity to make decisions or how a particular mental illness might affect criminal proceedings. Finally, the legal aspects of the job include knowing where to obtain relevant legal information, working with attorneys or judges, testifying in court, creating official reports and the like.

Forensic psychologists typically work with attorneys and other members of the court system, but they might also work with criminals or victims of crime. In many cases, the forensic psychologist is charged with determining the mental state or capacity of those who are in the justice system. In addition to the clinical work they perform with these individuals, they must also take those assessments to the courtroom, where their diagnosis and recommendations can make the difference when it comes to court proceedings and sentencing.

Issues Facing Forensic Psychologists

Reports and testimony from a seasoned forensic psychologist can hold a great deal of weight, and that can lead to ethical and moral challenges. For instance, the testimony of a forensic psychologist might determine that a person is fit to stand trial, and if that person is found guilty, the death penalty might be imposed. Issues like these are often wrestled with by those in the psychology field.

Forensic psychologists don’t just work in the courtroom, though that is a very common place to find them. They also work in a clinical capacity in state hospitals, community hospitals, mental health facilities, correctional and rehabilitation facilities and more. They might also work in private practice, where they hone their research into criminal and civil matters that pertain to mental health.

Resources

Police and Public Safety

From patrolling the streets to stepping in on domestic violence calls to providing aid to those who are stranded or otherwise in need, police and public safety officers do good deeds on a daily basis. But they also face significant emotional upheavals during the course of their work; that’s where a psychologist comes in.

Understanding the actions of criminals, quick thinking on how to diffuse tense situations and knowing how to deal with individuals in a compassionate, thoughtful manner is the most basic of skills those in the field must have. Therefore, a strong background in psychology can enhance the work of the police or public safety officer.

Public safety, police and law enforcement is not limited to those who work in police stations. They might also work in fire departments, emergency medical services, rehabilitation centers, corrections facilities, nuclear regulatory agencies and much more. Those with a background in psychology might find a good fit in the investigative track, searching for those who have committed crimes; in the profiling sector, where they try to determine why individuals would commit crimes and what can be done to stop them; and in the legal system, where they focus on criminal behavior in the courtroom, and how that might affect the outcome of the case or the safety of all those involved.

When it comes to mental health, those with a degree in criminal psychology can be a strong asset to the judicial system and law enforcement. These graduates have a unique background that allows them to observe and assess individuals, create reports pertaining to attitude, probable intent or motive, speak intelligently about the criminal mind, and take appropriate measures to keep the public safe and secure. In addition, they can also work within the system as counselors, social workers or psychologists who provide aid to those who are on the front lines of safety every day.

Resources

American Indian and Alaskan Native Communities

Native American communities face significant issues that desperately need attention. For instance, the rate of suicide among young Indian men is the highest in the nation, far surpassing all other demographics. Serious behavioral health problems, such as substance abuse and addiction, are quite common.

How Mental Health Professionals Help

Those who choose to work with Native American Communities can make a huge difference, one family at a time. Social workers, case managers, medical officers, school counselors and psychologists with a strong knowledge of Native American and Indian culture are sorely needed in these communities. Though they might work in health clinics, mental hospitals and the like, it is more likely that they will be working directly with families in these underserved areas. It is especially important for those in the mental health professions to understand the unique Native American way of looking at the world – encompassing the idea of connections, completeness, and balance.

Currently, there are only about 200 American Indian psychologists in the United States, and that number is growing by only about a dozen per year. Part of that might be attributed to the high rate of burnout among those who do work with these communities – the work is emotionally draining with few clear rewards. However, the need is becoming more desperate by the year, so those who have interest or investment in Native American or Indian heritage might find this as a worthy calling.

Resources

Public Service Mental Health Career Map

Community and State Hospitals

Community and state hospitals are major providers of mental health care in the public sector. As a consequence, there are many jobs available. There is also a huge demand for workers in this area of public service, especially state hospitals, although government funding usually prevents state hospitals from hiring adequate personnel.

  • Clinical Psychologist

    Clinical psychologists assess, diagnose and treat mental health disorders. Clinical psychologists need a doctorate degree, state licensure and a requisite number of years of supervised experience before they can practice.

    2014 median salary:

    $68,900

  • Psychiatrist

    Psychiatrists are similar to psychologists in that they require a large amount of graduate education, work experience and licensure, and work with patients who suffer from mental health problems. However, since psychiatrists are medical doctors, they treat patients more from a physical illness viewpoint and therefore have the ability to prescribe medication.

    2014 median salary:

    $181,880

Criminal Justice

Those who are incarcerated have a high chance of suffering from some form of a mental disorder. As a result, mental health professionals are very involved in the criminal justice system, at both an administrative and inmate level.

  • Forensic Psychologist

    A forensic psychologist provides psychological expertise to assist the legal system. As with most other psychology jobs, a doctorate degree and licensure is needed.

    2014 median salary:

    $92,110

  • Psychiatric Technician

    Psychiatric technicians that work within the criminal justice system provide support to other mental health staff by directing and monitoring patients and inmates as they receive care. A post-secondary certificate or associate degree is usually the only educational requirement.

    2014 median salary:

    $31,130

Police and Public Safety

Police and public safety psychology is a subset of forensic psychology. Assistance can take the form of providing advice, mental health assessment and evaluation. Tasks range from hiring employees to hostage negotiation.

  • Police Psychologist

    A police psychologist works with police officers and departments to provide various forms of psychological support. Support can include pre-employment assessment, debriefing law enforcement personnel after a traumatic incident and criminal profiling. A doctorate degree and state license is required.

    2014 median salary:

    $92,110

  • Director of Stress Management

    The director of stress management oversees the counseling and training of law enforcement personnel, as well as their families. A master’s degree and license is necessary for this position.

    2014 median salary:

    $40,850

    (mental health counselors, BLS)
Indian Country and Native American Communities

Psychologists and other mental health professionals that work in Indian Country or Native American communities are not much different from other mental health professionals, except they focus on the needs and issues of native populations, which often exist in isolated and underserved locations.

  • Medical Officer (psychiatry)

    As a psychiatric medical officer for the Indian Health Service, primary mental health care will be provided to American Indians and Alaskan Native. A license, a medical degree and at least one year of supervised experience is required for this job.

    2015 salary range:

    $98,967 to $240,000

  • Case Manager (mental health)

    A case manager oversees mental health patient care. The case manager will also manage the available department resources for use with mental health patients. A bachelor’s degree in behavioral or social science will be needed, but may be substituted with four years of applicable experience.

    2015 salary range:

    $39,570 to $62,920

Veterans Affairs

Professionals in the Veterans Affairs subsection of the public service sector provide mental health services to military veterans. Many of the mental health problems faced by veterans are the same as mental health issues from other populations, although within the unique context of military service.

  • Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselor

    This professional will interview veterans as a part of the veterans’ psychological assessment and/or treatment. The job requires at least a master’s degree in mental health counseling or a related field, along with at least one year experience and licensure.

    2015 salary range:

    $58,562 to $76,131

  • Inpatient Mental health psychiatric Staff Nurse

    A psychiatric staff nurse provides care to patients suffering from complex or severe psychiatric conditions. The nurse will also be able to identify if the patient is a threat to themselves or others. At least an associate degree in nursing, along with licensure is required, although higher levels of education or experience can equate to higher compensation.

    2015 salary range:

    $51,506 to $87,000

Working in Public Service:
Important Factors to Consider

When deciding on a psychology or mental health career in the public service sector, there are several factors to consider. These may point you in a different direction or further guide which particular public service career or setting you will choose to pursue.

On-the-Job Safety

Though this is not applicable to all mental health positions, some professions might require close contact with those who are violent, such as prisoners or those incarcerated in mental health hospitals.

Compensation

Jobs in public service generally pay less than their private industry counterparts. However, lower pay can sometimes be made up for with better health and/or retirement benefits due to the fact that most public service employees are also government employees.

Work Motivation

Compared to the private sector, public sector workers are more likely to deal with more serious mental health problems, more disadvantaged patients and operate in the least funded work settings. Unlike private industry, many public services must continue even if there are budget cuts. On the flipside, those who work in public service will know they are helping those in need and are working in areas where help is most strongly needed.

Industry Trends

As government employees, public service psychologists and mental health professionals are beholden to societal, economic and political pressures. This can mean budget cuts which force new ways of providing care with fewer resources, restructured healthcare due to government changes, or taking on certain types of patients or mental health issues due to outside events, like a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Loan Forgiveness

Certain federal loans may be forgiven for qualified individuals working in the public service sector. Depending on existing or anticipated student debt, knowing that a large portion of debt might be eliminated can remove much of the financial disadvantage faced by those who choose a career in public service.

Work Life

Public service workers have the potential to work odd hours and weekends, as well as be on call, especially if working as a psychologist or social worker. New public service employees may have to “pay their dues” by working the graveyard shift, travel to distant locations or a work in a less popular placement. Even well-seasoned and experienced practitioners will not be able to avoid having to be on call.

Public Service Career: Putting it All Together

Skills

Strong reading comprehension, speaking and active listening skills are imperative for work as a mental health professional in any setting.

Education

A doctorate degree in psychology is usually necessary in order to become a psychologist. Other mental health jobs, such as social worker or mental health counselor, will often require a master’s degree.

Knowledge

Depending on the area of work, in-depth knowledge about criminal law, therapy, public safety, information technology and law enforcement will be necessary.

Licensure

If practicing as a psychologist, social worker or mental health counselor, state licensing will be needed.

Experience

The more experience a practitioner has, the more effectively they can help others.

Certification

Certification is often required; at the very least, certification improves professional marketability.

Temperament

Public service mental health professionals are often underfunded, understaffed and overworked. They deal with the most severe cases of mental illnesses, as well as government bureaucracy. Patience and the right temperament matter greatly.