Psychiatric technicians work with mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or developmentally disabled people. Their duties vary considerably depending on place of work, but may include helping patients with hygiene and housekeeping and recording patients’ pulse, temperature, and respiration rates. Psychiatric technicians participate in treatment programs by having one-on-one sessions with patients, under a nurse’s or counselor’s direction.
Another prime aspect of the psychiatric technician’s work is reporting observations of patients’ behavior to medical and psychiatric staff. Psychiatric technicians may also fill out admitting forms for new patients, contact patients’ families to arrange conferences, issue medications from the dispensary, and maintain records. There are approximately 61,000 psychiatric technicians employed in the United States.
Psychiatric Technician Career History
Although some mentally ill people were treated as early as the 15th century in institutions like the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem in London (whose name was often shortened to Bedlam, hence the modern word “bedlam”), the practice of institutionalizing people with mental disorders did not become common until the 17th century.
During the 17th, 18th, and even into the 19th centuries, treatment of mentally ill patients was quite crude and often simply barbarous. This state of affairs started to change as medical practitioners began to see mental illness as a medical problem. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, hospitals began concentrating on keeping patients clean and comfortable, building their self-respect, and treating them with friendliness and encouragement. This method of treating mental illness resulted in the establishment of specially designed institutions for the care of mental patients.
Beginning in the 1940s, mental health institutions sought more effective therapeutic services for their patients, including more social activities and innovative treatment programs. Treatment shifted from a sole reliance on state mental hospitals to provision of more services in general hospitals and community mental health centers.
The object was to shorten periods of institutionalization and to decrease the stigma and dislocation associated with treatment in mental hospitals. However, these changes also sharply increased personnel needs. One strategy for dealing with this has been to train more professionals: psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and others. Another strategy has focused on training more nonprofessionals: aides, attendants, orderlies, and others.
The drive to develop new therapies and the trend toward deinstitutionalizing patients have led to the creation of a new category of mental health worker with a training level between that of the professional and the nonprofessional. Workers at this level are usually referred to as paraprofessionals or technicians, and in the mental health field they are known as psychiatric technicians or mental health technicians.
The Job of Psychiatric Technicians
Psychiatric technicians not only take over for or assist professionals in traditional treatment activities but also provide new services in innovative ways. They may work with alcohol and drug abusers, psychotic or emotionally disturbed children and adults, developmentally disabled people, or the aged. They must be skilled and specially trained.
Psychiatric technicians are supervised by health professionals, such as registered nurses, counselors, therapists, or, more and more frequently, senior psychiatric technicians. Psychiatric technicians work as part of a team of mental health care workers and provide physical and mental rehabilitation for patients through recreational, occupational, and psychological readjustment programs.
In general, psychiatric technicians help plan and implement individual treatment programs. Specific duties vary according to work setting, but they may include the following: interviewing and information gathering; working in a hospital unit admitting, screening, evaluating, or discharging patients; record keeping; making referrals to community agencies; working for patients’ needs and rights; visiting patients at home after their release from a hospital; and participating in individual and group counseling and therapy.
Psychiatric technicians endeavor to work with patients in a broad, comprehensive manner and to see each patient as a person whose peculiar or abnormal behavior stems from an illness or disability. They strive to help each patient achieve a maximum level of functioning. This means helping patients strengthen social and mental skills, accept greater responsibility, and develop confidence to enter into social, educational, or vocational activities.
In addition, psychiatric technicians working in hospitals handle a certain number of nursing responsibilities. They may take temperature, pulse and respiration rates; measure blood pressure; and help administer medications and physical treatments. In many cases, technicians working in hospitals will find themselves concerned with all aspects of their patients’ lives—from eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene to developing social skills and improving self-image.
Technicians working in clinics, community mental health centers, halfway houses, day hospitals, or other non-institutional settings also perform some specialized tasks. They interview newly registered patients and their relatives and visit patients and their families at home. They also administer psychological tests, participate in group activities, and write reports about their observations for supervising psychiatrists or other mental health professionals. They try to ease the transition of patients leaving hospitals and returning to their communities. They may refer patients to and arrange for consultations with mental health specialists. They may also help patients resolve problems with employment, housing, and personal finance.
Most psychiatric technicians are trained as generalists in providing mental health services. But some opportunities exist for technicians to specialize in a particular aspect of mental health care. For example, some psychiatric technicians specialize in the problems of mentally disturbed children. Others work as counselors in drug and alcohol abuse programs or as members of psychiatric emergency or crisis-intervention teams.
Another area of emphasis is working in community mental health. Technicians employed in this area are sometimes known as human services technicians. They use rehabilitation techniques for non-hospitalized patients who have problems adjusting to their social environment. These technicians may be primarily concerned with drug and alcohol abuse, parental effectiveness, the elderly, or problems in interpersonal relationships. Human services technicians work in social welfare departments, child care centers, preschools, vocational rehabilitation workshops, and schools for the learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, and mentally handicapped. This concentration is particularly popular in college curricula, according to the American Association of Psychiatric Technicians (AAPT), although it has yet to find wide acceptance in the job market.
With slightly different training, psychiatric technicians may specialize in the treatment of developmentally disabled people. These technicians, sometimes referred to as DD techs, work with patients with such activities as supervising recreational activities or teaching patients basic skills. They generally work in halfway houses, state hospitals, training centers, or state and local service agencies. These jobs are among the easiest psychiatric technician jobs to get, and many techs start out in this area. On average, however, the pay of the DD tech is considerably less than that of other psychiatric technicians.
Psychiatric Technician Career Requirements
A high school diploma is the minimum education requirement to find work as a psychiatric technician, although in many cases psychiatric technicians are expected to have two years of training beyond high school. In general, high school students should take courses in English, biology, psychology, and sociology.
The two-year postsecondary training programs usually lead to an associate of arts or associate of science degree. It is important to note that many hospitals prefer to hire applicants with bachelor’s degrees.
In general, study programs include human development, personality structure, the nature of mental illness, and, to a limited extent, anatomy, physiology, basic nursing, and medical science. Other subjects usually include some introduction to basic social sciences so that technicians can better understand relevant family and community structures; an overview of the structure and functions of institutions that treat patients; and most important, practical instruction.
Certification and Licensing
Psychiatric technicians must be licensed in California, Colorado, Kansas, and Arkansas. Ask your guidance or placement counselors for more information about licensing requirements in your state. Voluntary certification is available through the American Association of Psychiatric Technicians. To receive certification, you will need to take a written exam covering topics on mental disorders and developmental disabilities. Those who pass the test receive the designation nationally certified psychiatric technician and can place the initials NCPT after their names. Depending on the employer, a certified technician may qualify for higher pay than a noncertified worker.
Most mental health technology programs emphasize interviewing skills. Such training guides technicians to correctly describe a patient’s tone of voice and body language so that they are well equipped to observe and record behavior that will be interpreted by the treatment team and sometimes even a court of law. Some programs also teach administration of selected psychological tests. You may also gain knowledge and training in crisis intervention techniques, child guidance, group counseling, family therapy, behavior modification, and consultation skills.
Because psychiatric technicians interact with people, you must be sensitive to others’ needs and feelings. Some aspects of sensitivity can be learned, but this requires a willingness to listen, being extremely observant, and risking involvement in situations that at first may seem ambiguous and confusing. In addition, you need to be willing to look at your own attitudes and behaviors and to be flexible and open about changing them. The more you know about yourself, the more effective you will be in helping others.
Patience, understanding, and resilience are required in working with people whose actions may be disagreeable and unpleasant because of their illnesses. Patients can be particularly adept at finding a person’s weaknesses and exploiting them. This is not a job for the tenderhearted. A sense of responsibility and the ability to remain calm in emergencies are also essential characteristics.
Exploring Psychiatric Technician Career
Prospective psychiatric technicians can gather personal experience in this field in a number of ways. You can apply for a job as a nurse’s aide at a local general hospital. In this way you gain direct experience providing patient care. If such a job requires too much of a time commitment, you might consider volunteering at a hospital part-time or during the summer. Volunteering is an excellent way to become acquainted with the field, and many techs’ full-time jobs evolve from volunteer positions. Most volunteers must be 21 years of age to work in the mental health unit. Younger students who are interested in volunteering can often find places in the medical records department or other areas to get their feet in the door.
People interested in this career might also consider volunteering at their local mental health association or a local social welfare agency. In some cases, the mental health association can arrange opportunities for volunteer work inside a mental hospital or mental health clinic. Finally, either on your own or with your teachers, you can arrange a visit to a mental health clinic. You may be able to talk with staff members and observe firsthand how psychiatric technicians do their jobs.
Psychiatric technicians work in a variety of settings: the military, hospitals, mental hospitals, community mental health centers, psychiatric clinics, schools and day centers for the developmentally disabled, and social service agencies. They also work at residential and nonresidential centers, such as geriatric nursing homes, child or adolescent development centers, and halfway houses.
Other potential places of employment for psychiatric technicians include correctional programs and juvenile courts, schools for the blind and deaf, community action programs, family service centers, and public housing programs. Approximately 61,000 psychiatric technicians are employed in the United States.
Graduates from mental health and human services technology programs can usually choose from a variety of job possibilities. College placement officers can be extremely helpful in locating employment. Students can follow want ads or apply directly to the clinics, agencies, or hospitals of their choice. Job information can also be obtained from each state’s department of mental health.
Working as a psychiatric technician is still a relatively new occupation, and sequences of promotions have not yet been clearly defined. Seeking national certification through the AAPT is one way to help to set up a career path in this field. Advancement normally takes the form of being given greater responsibilities with less supervision. It usually results from gaining experience, developing competence and leadership abilities, and continuing formal and practical education. In cases where promotions are governed by civil service regulations, advancement is based on experience and test scores on promotion examinations.
In large part, advancement is linked to gaining further education. Thus, after working a few years, technicians may decide to obtain a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Advanced education, coupled with previous training and work experience, greatly enhance advancement potential. For instance, with a bachelor’s degree, experienced technicians may be able to find rewarding positions as instructors in programs to train future mental health workers.
Salaries for psychiatric technicians vary according to geographical area and work setting: technicians in California generally receive substantially higher wages than those in other areas of the country, and technicians in community settings generally receive higher salaries than those in institutional settings. Psychiatric technicians earned median salaries of $23,275 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $15,870, and the highest 10 percent earned $34,820 or more.
Most psychiatric technicians receive fringe benefits, including health insurance, sick leave, and paid vacations. Technicians working for state institutions or agencies will probably also be eligible for financial assistance for further education.
Psychiatric technicians work in a variety of settings, and their working conditions vary accordingly. Typically they work 40 hours a week, five days a week, although one may be a weekend day. Some psychiatric technicians work evening or night shifts, and all technicians may sometimes be asked to work holidays.
For the most part, the physical surroundings are pleasant. Most institutions, clinics, mental health centers, and agency offices are kept clean and comfortably furnished. Technicians who work with the mentally ill must nonetheless adjust to an environment that is normally chaotic and sometimes upsetting. Some patients are acutely depressed and withdrawn or excessively agitated and excited. Some patients may become unexpectedly violent and verbally abusive. However, institutions treating these kinds of patients maintain enough staff to keep the patients safe and to protect workers from physical harm. Psychiatric technicians who make home visits also may sometimes confront unpleasant conditions.
Finally, psychiatric technicians work not only with individuals, but often with the community as well. In that role, technicians can be called upon to advocate for their patients by motivating community agencies to provide services or by obtaining exceptions to rules when needed for individuals or groups of patients. Successful psychiatric technicians become competent in working and dealing with various decision-making processes of community and neighborhood groups.
Psychiatric Technician Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor projects employment for psychiatric technicians to grow more slowly than the average job through 2014. Demand for technicians, though, is expected to continue in large part because of a well-established trend of returning patients to their communities after shorter and shorter periods of hospitalization. This trend has encouraged development of comprehensive community mental health centers and has led to a strong demand for psychiatric technicians to staff these facilities.
Concerns over rising health care costs should increase employment levels for technicians, because they and other paraprofessionals can take over some functions of higher paid professionals. This kind of substitution has been demonstrated to be an effective way of reducing costs without reducing quality of care.