Life After Active Minds: Pursuing a Career as a Mental Health Advocate

9 min

Melina Acosta
Melina Acosta

This post is the second in a two-part series on life after Active Minds.

Have you ever considered Active Minds to be more like a second major or part-time job than an extracurricular activity? Has your time with Active Minds in college made you consider a career in mental health advocacy? Are you seeking any and all career advice you can get?

Look no further! We’ve talked to professional mental health advocates (all of whom are former Active Minds members!) to ask about their transition from student advocate to professional advocate and to solicit advice for post-graduation life.

  • There is no recommended or preferred degree for those looking to work in mental health advocacy.

Ashli Haggard, a project associate for a sexual assault prevention organization, discussed the versatility of the mental health field and those working in it: “A movement as robust and involved as mental health advocacy movement needs all skill sets. No matter what you’re good at, there’s a way to apply it to make positive changes in the mental health realm.”

However, getting a graduate degree in a specific area could be necessary, depending on where you plan to work. According to Marian Trattner, suicide prevention coordinator at The University of Texas at Austin, “To work at a university [doing mental health advocacy work], you’ll at least need a master’s degree in public health or social work with a focus in community organizing, or a master’s in student affairs or higher education with experience in mental health advocacy work. It all depends on what specific population and setting you want to work with.”

If you are pursuing graduate study, Trattner suggested, “Focus your graduate student thesis topic on something related to mental health; this can make up for lack of experience in certain areas when applying to jobs. I had a suicide prevention assistantship in graduate school that got me in the door for my job at UT Austin, along with coursework that showed I knew how to apply theory to real world practice.”

  • Pursue experiences that will give you insight into what it’s like to work in the field of mental health advocacy.

While you’re still in college, you can beef up your resume for future advocacy positions by helping out with programs and departments that are related to mental health. Trattner suggested, “If your campus has a peer education program through the counseling center, do that.  If not, get involved with the health center’s peer education program.”

“See if you can get a student assistantship with your campus’s health center or an internship with your local mental health non-profit. Reach out to counseling services and offer to volunteer, join a student advisory board for counseling and wellness services, seek a position in these offices as a graduate student, or volunteer for a crisis hotline.”

If you have an organization in mind that you might want to work with, keep tabs on their job, volunteer, and internship postings. “I found a list of organizations that I supported, believed in and would be happy to work for. I checked their websites regularly for open positions, and that’s how I found my current job.” Hayley Harnicher, Speakers Bureau Coordinator at Active Minds, found her current job by doing just that. “The Active Minds jobs page was on my browser all the time, but it may also have just been really good timing,” she said.

  • Don’t worry – in 20 years, you’ll still have a job in this field.

Current demand and job security are factors to consider for any potential career path. How can we expect the mental health field to transform over the next few years, and what does that mean for potential advocates?

Haggard said, “The field will change but it’s never going away. The job you might have in 20 years might not be the job you think you’re going to have, but we’ll always need people doing this work because people will always have mental health.”

Maggie Bertram, Associate Director for Training and Education at Active Minds, Inc., shared, “If we advocates are doing the best that we can to change people’s minds, the idea is to work ourselves out of a job. But, the historian piece of my brain knows that social change takes a long time, and we haven’t been working on this issue of mental health advocacy for very long in the course of modern history. [In 20 years,] there will still be a field where we need mental health and suicide prevention advocates.”

  • You will derive plenty of fulfillment and pride from your work, making the tough days worth it.

When asked about his proudest moment on the job so far, Robyn Suchy, chapter coordinator at Active Minds, Inc., shared, “I spoke at the White House Summit on Millennial Health a couple of months ago, in regards to getting young people to register for the Affordable Care Act and emerging issues for young adults. I served on a panel with Mental Health America and a lot of movers and shakers in the mental health field, so that was really cool.”

Bertram feels proudest when chapter members are recognized for their successes on campus: “I largely see my role [with Active Minds] as a facilitator so that students can do the work that they’re passionate about doing. When we have a chapter member or a chapter who wins a national award or a student organization of the year award on their campus, I’m just really proud of them.”

In regards to what work-related initiative has brought her the most pride so far, Trattner shared, “In 2014-2015, the state of Texas passed a law requiring public universities to provide suicide prevention information to all incoming students on their campuses. I led a team of professionals across the state to create a video that would meet requirements of the law. It’s a free video that any university in Texas can use and it’s so humbling to know that that video is being seen by thousands of students across the state.”

  • And now, for some career advice…

Trattner recommended making connections with individuals in the field early on, especially with those whose jobs you would like to have. “E-mail people whose jobs you want and ask to do an informational interview. Just ask, ‘Can I take you out for coffee sometime and hear more about what you do?’ The worst they could say is no, but people love talking about themselves! Plus, there may be a position down the road that they consider you for first before others. Job searching is all about relationship building and confidence.”

Suchy emphasized the importance of being flexible with your plans: “[Working at] Active Minds wasn’t my plan [after college], but the background that I had with Active Minds made me equipped to send resumes to mental health nonprofits. It’s okay if plans don’t work out as you expected them to. Bringing the knowledge that you have with you wherever you go is most important.”

Bertram underscored the importance of practicing self-care, especially for aspiring mental health professionals and advocates. “[You] have to have a support network [you] can call on and good coping mechanisms in place before you get into a job in this field. Write down your self-care plan and tape it up on your desk or at home.”

Feeling pressured to find your dream job right away? Don’t! Harnicher advised, “Don’t jump at the first job opportunity thinking it’s THE one. Take your time and stick to whatever timeline makes the most sense to you, not what society tells you.”

Are you wondering how you can remain involved with advocacy efforts post-graduation, even if you don’t plan to pursue a career in the mental health field? Check out the first post in this series titled, “Life after Active Minds: 5 ways to continue your mental health advocacy after graduation.”

Interviewee Profiles

  Maggie Bertram, Associate Director of Training and Education at Active Minds (Boston, MA)

Maggie holds a Bachelor’s degree in history with a focus in secondary education and Asian studies from Illinois Wesleyan University, and a Master’s degree in higher education and student affairs from the University of Connecticut.  At Active Minds, she currently manages awareness campaigns, runs online courses for Transform You/Transform Your Campus and Our Stories, Our Strengths, and serves as a trainer for and a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau.

Ashli Haggard, Consulting Services Project Associate (Washington, DC) 

Ashli has a B.S. in community health from the University of Maryland at College Park.  She currently works with a national non-profit organization for sexual assault prevention advocacy. 


Hayley Harnicher, Speakers Bureau Coordinator and Internship Manager at Active Minds, Inc. (Washington, DC)

Hayley majored in psychology at the University of Rochester and now manages interns at the Active Minds office and works to bring members of the Speakers Bureau to students all across the country.


Robyn Suchy, Chapter Coordinator at Active Minds, Inc. (Washington, DC)

Robyn double majored in philosophy and English with minors in social justice and women’s studies at Cabrini University.  He now works with Active Minds chapters on grassroots mental health programming and advocacy initiatives.


Marian Trattner, Suicide Prevention Coordinator at The University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX)

Marian holds a Bachelor’s degree in social work and a Master’s degree in social work with an emphasis in policy planning and administration from The University of Missouri (Go, Tigers!).  She works in the Counseling and Mental Health Center at The University of Texas at Austin doing community-based suicide prevention programming and outreach.