Behavioral Health Director – A Day in the Life

Mental illness may be invisible to the naked eye, but it’s a painstakingly real issue. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five American adults lives with mental illness. Annual spending on the care of these conditions is over $200 billion every year. Experts say behavioral health disorders could cost the global economy up to $16 trillion by 2030. These are crisis-level numbers.

Located within the broader bureaucratic landscape of healthcare, behavioral health services exist in a fragmented, interdisciplinary, and complex environment. Behavioral health directors are tasked with unifying and managing it at the facility in which they work. This often requires a blend of both managerial and clinical understanding, as well as the ability to collaborate across departments and facilities.

While this is a predominantly administrative position, the work of a behavioral health director has very real impacts on the population it serves. Behavioral health directors ensure the stability and efficiency of their facility, connecting patients to the compassionate treatment they need to cope with, and sometimes cure, their disorders.

While caregivers work to provide treatment to patients, behavioral health directors ensure the treatment facility is running smoothly. Typical tasks like optimizing budgets and managing staff may seem like the work of a corporate director, but in behavioral health, the product is practically invaluable: treatment that empowers people to live their lives in a peaceful and self-sufficient manner.

This isn’t an easy job. But it’s a massively important one. Read on to get a look at a day in the life of a behavioral health director.

Work Environment of Behavioral Health Directors

Behavioral health directors can work in a number of different settings: hospitals, substance abuse clinics, psychiatric facilities, or specialized treatment sites. While a behavioral health director is certain to work from an office in one of these facilities, this isn’t a role for someone who wishes to remain purely stationary. Behavioral health directors will need to collaborate across different departments, partner facilities, and the wider community.

Clinical Team

Behavioral health services require a team-based approach. As such, behavioral health directors need to work with a wide variety of stakeholders: physicians, nurses, social workers, administrative staff, patients, families, and partnered social services. Behavioral health disorders often have impacts across a range of different issues, and require a multifaceted response. It’s the job of behavioral health directors to coordinate between multiple departments in order to keep the facility running as efficiently as possible.

Typical Daily Responsibilities of Behavioral Health Directors

A behavioral health director’s daily responsibilities vary depending on the specific facility in which they work. But the typical tasks can generally be broken down into two areas of focus: internal and external. The internal responsibilities of a behavioral health director are focused on managing the administrative and clinical operations of their facility, while the external responsibilities are focused on outreach, collaboration, and compliance.

Some typical daily responsibilities of a behavioral health director include:

  • Aligning budgets with a facility’s public and private income streams
  • Ensuring compliance with federal, state, and local regulations
  • Designing and implementing programs of development and marketing
  • Working with senior leadership to determine strategic goals
  • Developing systems to hire, train, and manage staff
  • Coordinating with other behavioral health services in the community
  • Overseeing the transition to new IT systems

Despite all the administrative upkeep that’s required in this position, in some ways behavioral health directors determine their own responsibilities. What does a facility need in order to perform to its full potential? How can processes improve the pipeline of treatment for patients? The answers to these questions, and their implementation, are the most important responsibilities of a behavioral health director.

Required Skills & Knowledge

This isn’t a purely administrative role, but it’s not a purely social services role either. To excel as a behavioral health director, one needs solid foundations in two very different spheres of knowledge.

For their undergraduate degree, many aspiring behavioral health directors focus on the technical knowledge they’ll need and pursue degrees in psychology, social work, or public health. For their master’s degree (which a majority of behavioral health director’s hold), they may focus on either the administrative side or the services side of the profession. A master’s in public health (MPH) will cover the service-oriented aspects of behavioral health, while a master’s in healthcare administration (MHA) will cover the administrative and organizational aspects. Both degrees prepare graduates for leadership roles.

Soft skills are a critical component of a top behavioral health director. In addition to the technical and administrative knowledge gained in bachelor’s and master’s programs, skills like collaboration and communication are necessary to align the fragmented parts of the behavioral health landscape. And, due to the vulnerable population they serve, compassion is of paramount importance for behavioral health directors. While behavioral health disorders may be invisible to a majority of Americans, it’s a behavioral health director’s job to keep them firmly in his or her sights.

Certification for Behavioral Health Directors

Some of the more intensive and clinically-centered behavioral health director positions require candidates to have a medically-focused educational background. This means that an eligible candidate needs to be either a registered nurse (RN) or clinical physician (MD), or hold a doctorate (PhD) in an area like social work or psychology. Still other positions will request that candidates have previous hands-on experience as a mental health counselor.

In each of these acute cases, behavioral health directors are required to be board certified and/or licensed by the state in which they practice. Certification and licensure requirements will vary from position to position and from state to state.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging issues in healthcare administration and public health, with a particular focus on progressive policies that empower communities and reduce health disparities. His work centers around detailed interviews with researchers, professors, and practitioners, as well as with subject matter experts from professional associations such as the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) and the American College of Health Care Executives (ACHCA).

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