In my work as a researcher, therapist, and teacher, I’ve seen few things have as pervasive of an impact on mental health as what work we do, and more importantly, how we feel about it. In social settings, the question “So, what do you do?” almost inevitably comes up in the first five minutes of meeting someone new. Consider how you feel about that response (or the response you would want to give someday)? The World Health Organization describes mental health as “not just the absence of mental disorder. It is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” The fact is… what we do for work provides us with much more than an income! For many, our work offers a sense of purpose, belonging, and even makes up part of our identity.
It is important to recognize just how many people struggle to know how to go about making important decisions like those involving academic and career paths. We see the impact of this in the exceptionally high rates of depression and anxiety in our college-aged population, who are those most consistently working through these career decision-making tasks. Stated simply, it can be hard to feel good about yourself if you are struggling to feel confident in where you are heading!
There are many things that influence the career choices we make. While we know that personal interest is one of the most important factors in career selection, it can be nerve-wrecking to base such a life-long decision on interest alone. Our approaches to work are unavoidably influenced by other elements in our lives. What am I capable of? What is realistic for me? What kind of work options were modeled around me? What messages have I received about work? What level of financial security do I need/desire? Last but certainly not least, what are the values that feel important for me to prioritize in my work? All of these things impact our sense of awareness, confidence, and motivation in decision-making, ultimately forming the foundation for the choices we make. Figuring out what is important to you in your work, understanding what it may take to achieve your goals, and thinking through how you as a person might fit within that workplace environment can support an informed career decision that works to bolster your mental health.
Here’s what I know- feeling like you have support from others is crucial in making career-related decisions. If you are farther along, perhaps already engaged in work, consider talking to a trusted friend, mentor, or therapist about the work you do. Thinking through how this work fills you up, or leaves you feeling depleted on a personal level, can help you gain insight into this important element of your life. If you’re an adolescent or college student still engaged in the decision-making process, it can be invaluable to seek support from parents and teachers along the way! Talk with these people about the things that influenced them in their career choices and consider sharing some of the questions you are grappling to answer about your own hopes and desires for work. A therapist well-trained in career counseling can be an excellent source of support to both explore yourself as a person and discover how specific career choices might fit within the scope of your life. Finally, career assessment can be an excellent option to help narrow your focus or highlight ideas you have never considered!
Rest assured… this is just hard stuff. Career and mental health outcomes go hand in hand throughout our whole lives. Starting to understand what this means for you early in life stands to improve your relationship with your work, yourself, and with others.
– Dr. Morel