Hi, there! I'm glad to see you're so dedicated to pursuing this research, and I think it's wonderful. Some of my responses might be wordy, but it's mainly because I want to make sure you get the best options available to you! 1. PhD or PsyD?
PhD, without a doubt. There may be the occasional funded PsyD, but if your goal is to create your own private practice or to work one-on-one with people, ranking isn't as important as just getting into a program (and PhDs are much more likely to pay YOU to get your degree). I have two friends in clinical-focused PsyDs, and it has cost them approximately $50k in loans each, whereas several friends of mine in a clinical PhD gets paid over $20k per year. Given your situation as you described it, being an adult with a family, that's why I suggest a PhD rather than a PsyD that would be more likely to lead to more debt.
One additional thing I would mention is that both PhDs and PsyDs can be competitive. There are three major master's programs in psychology that focus on getting people into top Phds (Villanova, William & Mary, and Wake Forest), and these masters programs tend to be fully-funded. While the check isn't as large, it can waive the first two years of your clinical PhD or PsyD, the masters programs have ways to waive your application fee if you look into it, and they have extremely high success rates at getting people into clinical programs. Just an option for you to consider as you apply - their application deadlines are in January if I remember right, so its a bit after all the PhD and PsyD apps, and offer a great back-up idea. As a Villanova student currently, the friends I made last year had a great success rate at getting into fully-funded top clinical PhDs.
2. What are the realities (what can I expect) of working in the different specialties I mentioned above?
I'm not great at this part, but I will say this: my PsyD friends tend to have a decent amount of hands-on experience in their programs, but my PhD friends tend to get paid way more. The focus of a PhD will always be research, so if you enjoy trying to develop strategies to better understand or treat mental disorders, I would say PhDs are the way to go.
3. Are there any programs you would suggest that I highly check into?
I'm a social psych kid at heart, so I can't help you here. If you care about rankings, U.S. news and world report has a ranked list. If you just want to get a degree so you can help people, then it won't matter as much.
4. How many applications did you submit for grad school? (Just curious, because my list is way too long so far)
I've applied to fourteen programs, and have friends who have applied to anywhere from two to twenty-two. The golden standard, I've been told, is around twelve just because of how competitive graduate applications are. Here's the thing, though: the more you apply to, the better your chances are. The only limit when it comes to your grad applications is how big your wallet is. Many programs will waive your application fee if you have ever received a pell grant and/or are a first-gen college student: for my fourteen applications, I never paid a single fee solely because of my receiving pell grants in undergrad. However, GRE scores cost $27/school and transcripts may cost money depending on your schools. Despite not paying a single app fee, I still paid over $600 for my fourteen apps due to GRE and transcripts. So, that's my biggest piece of advice. Apply to as many as you can allow.
5. What is the best way I can achieve my ULTIMATE GOAL, mentioned above?
Here's the big question: what kind of difference are you wanting to make? You mention wanting to make one, but that can come in a variety of ways. You can help people one-on-one, which can be done with a PsyD or PhD. You can help people by researching mental health issues / developing interventions, which can primarily be done only with a PhD. You can research mental health disorders and help people one-on-one, which can only be done with a PhD, really. It's a tricky situation, and the market favors PhDs, so I would be cautious.
6. Any suggestions on how to look more favorable to grad schools?
Research, research, research. Also: research. Some programs won't care as much if you have first-author publications, but all programs will want research. it will additionally help if you have first-hand experience in the clinical field. A lot of counties throughout America have suicide hotlines that are volunteer-based, so that may be a great opportunity for you to get involved if you don't have any experience. Most areas tend to have decent opportunities.
7. What other things about this whole process, am I forgetting to think about?
Letters of rec are extremely important, and they can make or break an application. The BEST letters tend to come from people who are professors because they have an intimate knowledge of the application process. I would recommend cozying yourself up to 3 professors, especially clinical professors, because they're the ones who will make your application for either program go the farthest.
Hope this helps! My biggest advice would be to apply to some master's programs to ensure you have back-ups because clinical is extremely competitive, and to make sure you get some research experience with 2-3 professors who can write letters of recommendation. Feel free to message me if you have any follow-up questions!