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Report: Public knowledge and perceptions of careers in mental health

We have today released new research showing that, while many people might be interested in working in mental health, there are widespread misunderstandings about careers in the field.

All employers in the mental health workforce need to work together to bust some of these myths and raise awareness of how accessible and rewarding careers in mental health can be.

Ella Joseph, Chief Executive of Think Ahead

With more mental health professionals urgently needed, including to deal with the impact of Covid-19 on the nation’s mental health, we set out to understand the public’s knowledge of and attitudes towards mental health careers. As a charity that attracts people into mental health roles and has interacted with tens of thousands of candidates, we wanted to build on our experience and support organisations across the public, private, and third sectors to address barriers that may be putting talented people off mental health careers.

For this report, we worked with YouGov to survey over 2,000 UK adults, asking them a variety of questions to better understand how people feel about working in mental health and what may be preventing them from choosing this field.

Read the report 

Update: This research has been covered by national media outlets:

  • A piece in The Guardian featured Paddy Hartigan, who trained as a mental health social worker through our programme, talking about his role supporting people with serious long-term mental illnesses. He said: “I think the biggest satisfaction you get working in mental health is the bond you develop with people.” Read the Guardian article here. 
  • A piece in The i highlighted some of the misconceptions that may put people off mental health roles. Read the i article here.
  • Our Chief Executive Ella Joseph has written an opinion piece for the Independent, explaining the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nation’s mental health and why this makes the mental health workforce more important than ever. Read the Independent article here.

I think the biggest satisfaction you get working in mental health is the bond you develop with people.

Paddy Hartigan, Think Ahead participant

What did the research find?

Encouragingly, our research shows that the majority of people recognise the valuable nature of mental health careers, and that many people might in principle be open to considering a career in mental health:

  • 93% of those expressing an opinion agree that mental health professionals get to make a real difference to the people they work with.
  • 11% of working-age adults might consider a career in mental health – this could be in the region of almost 4 million people across the UK.

Yet, there is a widespread lack of knowledge about mental health careers:

  • Up to a third of people feel unable to answer questions about entry requirements for jobs in the sector.
  • Up to half cannot express an opinion on what working in mental health is like.

Many of those expressing an opinion also have negative misconceptions about what mental health roles are like. For example:

  • 90% believe that mental health professionals are at risk of attack.
  • 85% think they have to work long and unsociable hours.
  • Only 42% believe that they are paid well.

In fact, figures show that the risk of being attacked is low. Many roles follow standard working patterns, and in reality the starting salaries of mental health professionals compare favourably to those of other public service options.

The research also found that people tend to overestimate the entry requirements and financial means needed to train in mental health. For example, of those expressing an opinion:

  • Over 30% wrongly think you need a prior degree to begin training as a mental health nurse, social worker, or occupational therapist.
  • 49% believe that you can’t train to be a mental health professional if you have personally experienced severe mental health problems.
  • Over half think you must be able to self-fund living expenses or tuition fees, despite routes being available for many roles that cover tuition costs and provide an income during training (including Think Ahead’s own graduate programme, which provides full funding for tuition fees and living costs).

Read the full report

What should be done about this?

In order to address the barriers which may be putting talented people off careers in mental health, the report suggests that action should be taken to:

  • Increase awareness of the range of roles available within mental health.
  • Increase understanding of entry routes and requirements, as well as the support available.
  • Where possible, address negative misconceptions about mental health roles.
  • Apply these efforts across all sections of the population, as there is interest in the field across all demographics and the workforce will be more effective with as diverse a mix as possible of backgrounds and experiences.

On the findings of the research, our Chief Executive Ella Joseph said: “Our research highlights the enormous opportunity there is to get more people into mental health jobs – but also the mountain of misunderstanding that needs to be conquered first. The devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on mental health will increase pressure on the mental health workforce. Our findings are an urgent wake-up call for everyone involved in recruiting people to work in this critical area.

“All employers in the mental health workforce need to work together to bust some of these myths and raise awareness of how accessible and rewarding careers in mental health can be.”