Would you take your pet to a psychologist for their vaccinations and checkups?
Would you go and see your hairdresser for health advice?
Would you ask your medical doctor to fix your car?
Normally my blogs are about advocating for the veterinary profession, which is something I am very passionate about. But in this blog, I'm actually sticking up for my own profession - psychology - as I really feel sometimes we get overlooked (until there is a crisis and then everyone expects us to step in and deal with it) and there is a perception that anyone can just step up and slot right into acting like a psychologist. Yes this might be a 'soapbox' moment, but this is something that has been nagging at me for some time and I feel it needs to be addressed.
So - as the questions above ask - would you take your pet to a psychologist for their vaccinations and checkups? Would you go see your hairdresser for health advice? How about asking your medical doctor to fix your car? I guessing most of you would answer these questions "of course not!". But why not - after all, they might own pets or a car or have dealt with their own health issues right? The reason is likely to be because these people are unlikely to be qualified in these other areas and therefore not in a position to give qualified advice.
But why is this so important when we are talking about mental health?
Firstly, here in Australia becoming a psychologist isn't a simple process. Currently it involves a three-year bachelor degree, followed by a fourth year of study either in honours or a post-graduate diploma. When I went through this process back in 2004 it was very competitive, and not all bachelor graduates were offered a place in fourth year. Upon graduating from fourth year, you can apply to become a provisionally registered psychologist while undertaking either a "4+2" pathway (which means two years of supervised practice following your fourth-year) or a "5+1" pathway (which means you undertake a further year of study in a Masters program, followed by one year of supervised practice). Unfortunately the 4+2 pathway is being phased out, which I believe is a big loss to this profession. Once you have successfully completed your provisional psychology pathway, there is an exam to pass before becoming a fully registered psychologist. So all-up it's currently a six-year process (based on full-time studies and pathways - longer if taken part-time) to become fully registered and able to practice without conditions. Many of us then chose to complete further studies, like myself who went on to complete a Master of Training and Development (MTrain&Dev), Doctor of Education (EdD), and currently a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).
Given that it is a six-year (full-time) process to become fully qualified, this should allude to the fact that there is a lot to learn about psychology and that it is very specialised! It's not all about the corny perceptions of asking questions like "so how does that make you feel?" - a lot of us deal with serious (often life and death situations) like when a person is suicidal, or having a psychotic episode, or when there is a crisis or trauma. Many of us listen to some of the most horrific stories you can imagine. Sometimes we are asked to go onsite where a critical incident has occurred and be there to support witnesses (I once declined a request to attend critical incident debriefing at a public murder scene for the sake of my own wellbeing). We get compassion fatigue. We get burnt out. We can get secondary PTSD from being exposed to so much trauma. It's not always an easy job.
With this in mind, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of unqualified people offering their services (particularly in the veterinary industry) for "coaching" or "mentoring" others in mental health and psychological wellbeing. There is such a stigma to having counselling, so many elect to have "coaching" because they feel it will be much easier and they won't have to deal with any of the underlying issues. Sure - having a coach or mentor for other areas can be great, such as for clinical skills, or fitness, or nutrition, or hobbies. That's not my issue - my issue is when it comes to mental health. Why? Here's the deal - most unqualified people only deal with the tip of the iceberg - the "symptoms" if you like. They do not always understand the intricacies of things like mood disorders, personality disorders, abnormal behaviour, addictions, psychosis, and suicidality. Think of it like taking a tablet for something - the tablet is treating the symptoms and not necessarily what is causing the problem. It's a bit like giving a dog medication for a recurring ear infection without investigating the cause of the infection. Lasting change is not likely to happen if you don't get to the underlying issues - that is, the root cause. Depending on their area of specialisation, psychologists DO deal with the root cause so the real issues and problems can be dealt with. This is where the best chance of change happens.
I'm also concerned that there are some people out there who believe that because a problem exists within their profession, only those within the profession should fix it - that is, external professionals have no place to help them or are seen to be "cashing in on other's suffering". If you ask me, this is absurd! That's like me taking my pets to my psychologist friends for treatment because I want to keep it within my profession! Can you imagine the uproar that would happen if this were the case?
Just because we may have had personal experience in a particular area, it doesn't make us an expert or qualified to deal with that area. Certainly many people know (and have experienced) first-hand the stressors that happen within their respective profession, but that doesn't take the place of professional advice from a qualified person or make them an expert. I have been a pet owner for most of my life - so does that may be qualified to go and give health advice for other people's pets? I exercise and eat nutritiously - does that make be a fitness or nutrition expert? I own a car, so does that make me a mechanical expert? Of course not!
I get it - there is a stigma to seeing a psychologist, but please remember that you don't have to be experiencing mental illness to see a psychologist - a lot of us specialise in wellbeing and other areas of positive mental health as well. And just like other health professionals, this is our job - we are not here to judge or discriminate. In Australia, we have undergone at least six years of training to do our job - it doesn't happen overnight.
So next time you are thinking of seeing someone unqualified or inexperienced for your mental health - please stop and think how you would feel if your clients told you they were taking their pets to someone unqualified to take over all their treatment. Chances are it will strike a cord with you and you will get pretty frustrated right? If so, welcome to my world.
About Dr Nadine Hamilton
As a leading authority on veterinary wellbeing, Dr Hamilton helps veterinary professionals get on top of stress and conflict to avoid burnout and suicide, and also works with practice managers and owners to increase wellbeing, productivity, and retention in the workplace. Additionally, she provide workshops to small and large groups within the private and corporate sectors, and speaks at conferences and symposiums both nationally and internationally.
Her book "Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian - An Evidence-Based Solution to Increase Wellbeing" was released in March 2019 through Australian Academic Press, and is already making a positive impact within the profession - both here in Australia and internationally.
As an advocate for the veterinary profession, Dr Hamilton founded the charity "Love Your Pet Love Your Vet" and partnered with Royal Canin to reduce stigma in veterinary professionals seeking help, raising awareness within the community about the realities of working in the profession, and providing psychological and educational support to veterinary professionals.