When people casually enquire into what you do for a living and I tell them I’m a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, I get a range of responses. I’m proud of my title and my profession. It represents a lot of hard work. However, telling people what I do can, sometimes, change the mood of a conversation.
There are a range of questions that I’ve come to expect that can follow and I think the questions that people ask me when they meet me at functions, formal and informal, are important for everybody to know. Without proper answers to some of these questions, people may perceive barriers that may prevent them from seeking help from a psychologist if they or one of their family members ever needed help.
So, let’s see what I can do to talk down some of these barriers….
- Are you reading my mind?
Many people don’t know what psychologists do and how they differ from psychics, psychiatrists or even counsellors. Each of these kinds of jobs involves assisting others in some ways. Psychologists study human behaviour using scientifically supported ways. Psychologists do not claim to have psychic powers or gifts pertaining to peoples’ souls or minds. Unlike counsellors, psychologist in Australia have to go through a long and rigorous process to be registered to practice and this registration offers a range of protection for clients that are written in National Law. Unethical or dangerous practices can lead to de-registration. Unlike psychiatrists, who are medically trained, psychologists in Australia cannot prescribe medication, but many psychologists will work in conjunction with psychiatrists to care for their clients.
- How is talking to someone supposed to help?
Whilst listening is essential to the practice of good psychology, psychologists do a lot more than just listen and talk. A psychologist can offer a listening ear with the added bonus of years of training about what accumulated years of research can tell us how to assist.
One of the things that can stop people from accessing help, is the idea that they are a burden to others – so much of a burden that other people won’t be able to cope with their distress. One of the advantages of seeing a registered psychologist is that these are people who should know how to take care of themselves when client’s present with heavy burdens so that the client’s issues are dealt with professionally and not too personally.
- Aren’t psychologists attracted to the field because they have their own issues?
The pathway to becoming a registered psychologist in Australia is a long one with no less than six years of closely monitored and regulated training required for basic general registration. Some people may choose to study psychology after they have had an interesting personal experience or because they themselves found a psychologist assisted them when they needed it – much in the same way, people might choose to study and practice medicine or nursing after being inspired by the care they received in a hospital.
However, I believe that a large majority of people are drawn to the profession of psychology because they are interested in human behaviour and want to help people to solve difficulties in their lives. If a psychologist in training has issues that might impair their ability to practice, they should be given this feedback as part of their training.
The very desire to help others needs to be carefully titrated through psychological supervision and formal self-reflection.
It’s not just in the choosing of the profession, but in the maintenance of the profession that psychologists need to reflect on their own issues. Just because a person is a registered health professional, does not protect them from ever getting a mental health issues themselves. Self-care is critical and all psychologists should practice with plans in place to keep them as healthy as they can be.
- “That work must be so very hard – how do you manage it?”
Yes, the practice of psychology can be challenging, but a professional psychologist will always take steps to manage any stress or burden.
Indeed, self-care is one of our greatest professional responsibilities.
A failure to take steps to take care of ourselves can lead to compassion fatigue, burn out, and even breeches of important ethical boundaries. Our psychology registration board considers it mandatory that psychologists take care of themselves and stipulates that we regularly consult our peers about our work to ease stress and to open our eyes to possible blind spots, share new theories and skills and think about issues in different ways using different frameworks.
- Is it always the parents’ fault?
One of the things you learn very early when you study psychology is that human behaviour is very complex. Parenting is obviously an essential part of anybody’s upbringing, but there are also many other aspects of a person’s sense of wellbeing, especially as we get older – biology, thought patterns, other relationships, peers, health, community just to name a few and then all of the combinations of these variables, too. Of course, in cases of obvious parental abuse and neglect, parenting factors stand out loud and clear, but there are amazing stories of those who have suffered great atrocities at the hands of their parents, yet have gone on to live happy and fulfilled lives. We would love to study these people more, but they rarely present for help.
I hate to think parents might avoid bringing a child for psychological help because they are concerned they will get “blamed”, but I suspect this might be the case sometimes.
Psychologists are there to assist and promote well being and safety and address the factors that might be triggering, maintaining or exacerbating a problem. If a person has issues that have to do with parenting, then they will be assisted appropriately.
Summing up, this is how I try to answer the questions I get asked at parties…without ruining the mood of the function or event. I hope my answers can assist in reducing any barriers that people might have to seeking out a psychologist if they need to see one.