Salt Lake City Mental Health Counselor Frank Clayton talks about his career.  You can find Frank on his website here and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (a mental health counselor). I specialize in Happiness (positive psychology).

How would you describe what you do?

I help people (in individual, couple’s, families and groups) to feel mentally and emotionally better.

What does your work entail?

Sitting patiently with people and truly listening to them and through a variety of techniques, helping them to find the answers they are looking for. I also find myself in a pseudo-teacher role as well, educating about assertiveness, thinking errors, communication, the dynamics of thoughts, beliefs and behaviors and how they play a role in emotional experience.

What’s a typical work week like?

Lately my schedule has been packed, which means that I have back-to-back appointments with only 15 minutes in between and a lunch break of 1 hour. I usually do three appointments starting at 11:30am and do another four appointments starting at 4pm, so I usually don’t get home until 9pm or later. I always make sure I get out to do things. This is a way for me to take care of myself. I have a standing date with my three year old God daughter. It gives me something to look forward to and keeps me young

How did you get started?

I used to work in the financial securities industry (you know, stock brokerages?). I passed the broker’s equivalent of “the bar” but realized sell stocks and mutual funds was not really for me. I took the Myers-Briggs and Campbell’s tests to help me figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. “Therapist” was on both lists, but that would have meant 4-6 years of college. In my early 30s I decided to go for it. After 9/11 I was laid off from the securities industry. I went to work as a line staff at a residential treatment center for teens.

I worked there while I went to school. Eventually I got my degree and then performed 4,000 of (paid) internship at various agencies until I acquired, what I call, my “big boy license” – which means instead of working for someone else, I could open my own practice. That’s what I did while working part-time other places. I was laid off from an agency I was working ¾ time two years ago. Rather than looking for a part-time job, I put all my attention into my practice and it has thrived so much that I recently incorporated and will soon be hiring other therapist to help (the phone just keeps ringing! J )

What do you like about what you do?

One day after seeing nine clients in a single day, I came home and asked my wife how she would like to spend the couple of hours we had together. She asked if I wasn’t exhausted after such a grueling schedule. I realized I wasn’t spent at all. If I were still working at the stock brokerage, I am sure I would be wiped out. The difference? I absolutely love what I do. It is what I was built for; my calling. I believe there is no higher purpose than walking with people along their path, helping to alleviate pain. Some people who see me had no hope of ever being happy. To see that hope in their eyes is an amazing gift.

What do you dislike?

The paperwork. There is a lot of client maintenance I must do. Also after each session I must do a “chart note” telling a bit about the session. This covers me in case I ever got sued (a possibility) or taken to court, but also is an expected standard practice.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

A hard fact that I first vehemently resisted is that approximately HALF of your profit goes to places other than your pocket. To specifically answer the question, my going rate is $80. However, many of the insurance panels I am contracted with, pay less – often the average is around $70. After the back office is paid, rent, malpractice insurance, utilities, advertising, staff, I probably pull about $35 on the average session.

How much money do Mental Health Professionals make?

If you’re asking how much the average mental health professional (such as Licensed Professional Counselor and/or Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I would say $25-$30/hour for those that work for agencies and probably $35-$45 (net) for those in private practice. That’s just based on what I’ve seen in the industry. I would like to add that while just sitting and listening to someone might not sound like “hard work” in a blue collar sense, but I can tell you it can be very draining. I really love what I do. It is my calling. But when I tell my peers I do on average 30 appointments a week, they audibly gasp. So, don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you make $35 an hour (take home) that you automatically multiply that by a 40 hour work week.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

Well, I started out offering my services at a rate of $40 per hour and I did this part-time and worked a full time job. Then I raised my rates to $60 per hour and went to ¾ time at another job. Etc.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to become a mental health counselor?

To be a fully licensed therapist you need a master’s degree. At that point you get your “junior license” which allows you to work as a therapist but you must have someone supervise you until you get 4,000 hours of internship. Some internships pay and some do not. Honestly, it was not hard to get a paid internship. Just a note, once you are fully licensed, you must maintain that license with Continuing Education Units (CEUs). 40 every two years. Getting 6 units worth of training can cost anywhere from $50 to $150.

What is most challenging about what you do?

It is challenging when I want to help someone who really does not want to be helped. I end up working harder than they are. Also some people are just really committed to being miserable and play the martyr. I have had to learn to step back and pace the client. Those clients aside, sometimes just sitting with people in their pain can be very, very difficult but I would say I get one of those sessions only once or twice a week.

What is most rewarding?

Seeing change. Often when people come to see me, they have very little hope and watching them transform over time. There is no greater reward.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

There are a lot of different ways to be a counselor and even more options if you are a social worker. I will tell you that building a private practice is very hard work. I’ve been very successful but if I had to do it all over again, I don’t know that I would. There are times that just working a 9-5 job and letting other people worry about how to pay the company’s bills sounds pretty appealing. There is one other important thing: If I had to do it all over again (and I am talking about when I was in a different career and had not gone back to school), I would have become a Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor (LSAC) before becoming a therapist.

One does not need a master’s degree to practice as an LSAC. Therefore as you are going through school to get your master’s degree, you can already practicing in the field – and not as a psych tech or line staff (psychology’s equivalent of the grunt) but as a type of counselor. This experience will put you way ahead of your peers who are also going after their master’s to be a therapist or social worker.

How much time off do you get/take?

Time off? What’s that?? Seriously – this has been one of my challenges. I have had poor boundaries with this in the past. It’s been really easy to go to check my E-mail and end up working. I am better about it now, but it’s challenging. It feels like I am always working. I have opened myself up to Saturday hours – at least for the next couple of months. Also, taking time off is difficult. There is no “Paid time off” and for every hour that I take off, is an hour I could have been paid. If I need to take the day off sick, it can be well over a $500 loss. A week? As much as $2,000. This is one of the down-sides of being in business for yourself.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

People think that therapists “fix” people – like you’d take a car in to the shop to be fixed. It doesn’t work like that. There are many, many factors involved, not the least of which is the client’s willingness to make changes in their life. The therapist acts as a partner, helping the client where they want to go. We can’t “fix” anyone – especially those who do not want help.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

What a great question. Thanks for asking. I am currently in an office building with noisy neighbors. I would one day like to move the practice to a renovated house where I could have at least three other therapists and a prescriber on-site. It would be great if we could have a couple of other holistic professionals on-site and a space (maybe a large, finished basement) to hold groups and classes.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

From a vocational stand-point, what I would like people to know is that this profession isn’t for everybody. I have seen many therapists who see this as a drag or draining. While it truly does have its challenges and I have my days where it wipes me out, but overall I think when you’re doing what you love; when you are engaged in your true calling, it is NOT draining and I think that holds true whether we are talking about therapy or any other profession.