Lately I have very mixed feelings about the time I spent as a counselor, working in a community mental health agency. While I’m glad I was able to help people, and the profession helped me grow as a person, I’m realizing that I gained very few marketable skills in that job. It’s strange how something that requires a master’s degree can have so little translation into any other field. When I started my current job this summer, I didn’t even know how to schedule a meeting on Outlook. Part of this is probably due to the small size of the lovely, family-like rural mental health agency I worked at. If you wanted to meet with someone, you just knocked on their open door!
Yet part of it is deeper. I do feel resentful of the years I spent training for, and pursuing a field that gave me so little in return. In grad school, a professor told us that the average cap salary in our field was $42,000 per year. Given that I started at $31k, you can see that the potential for advancement is dismal compared to other fields. Yet counselors are liable to be sued for any number of reasons, and are able to diagnose much like a psychologist. It’s sad but true, that this young profession bears great responsibility, but receives little recognition. Furthermore, the skills we learned and used were mostly soft skills… listening, conflict management, etc. These are invaluable at a personal level, but they exclude many of the skills that one would include on a professional resume.
And even deeper still, is that the work drained me. I am an introvert, no doubt, and spending so much face-time at work, I found that my social life suffered, as I had very little left over for my friends or family. I spent a lot of time in recuperation mode.
Now that I’m working an office job, I find reserves of energy, creativity and goodwill that I didn’t know I had. I guess the key for me is protecting my energy, and creating a lifestyle that works. The contrast between “me” these days, and “me” before is stark and stunning.
I only wish I had figured it all out sooner. Personal growth takes time, and that I don’t regret. It’s the sense, though, that those early years of my career are gone forever, that bugs me. At 34, I’m learning the basics of working in an office… things I could have, and should have learned before. I’m also having to pay off credit card debt (again!) and rebuild my savings, as the salary of a counselor did not afford for me to save up for any kind of life transition. So it’s as if I’m starting from scratch, despite having worked so hard as a full-time helper of others. Those who still work in the field, my hat is off to you, and you deserve a 200% raise, across the board. Someday I hope our society will wake up to the actual value of mental and emotional well-being, as a crucial keystone to the health of society as a whole, and honor this profession to the fullest extent. Until that time, I advise anyone with doubts: it’s OK to jump ship! I absolutely don’t regret it at all!