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Working in community psychology

By Meg Smith

I was introduced to psychology via the student counsellor at the University of New England and counselling became my career choice when I started to see its practical uses.

My first job as a psychologist was with the National Acoustic Laboratories working with young deaf people and it was there that I came up against the ‘culture fair and culture free' controversy in psychological testing.

For a number of years I worked as a counsellor and community development worker at a women's health centre, which was an exciting time for me. Much of the counselling I did was in response to a lack of appropriate and accessible services for women in the areas of sexuality, gender identity, victims of crime and medical malpractice. Gradually, counselling gave way to involvement in a variety of campaigns to improve access to services and to encourage self-help initiatives in health and I enjoyed the challenge of political lobbying for better services. I would probably have stayed there but for an acute episode of mental illness that precipitated me into my current career as consumer advocate and academic.

I became active in community mental health lobbying at a very interesting time: the Richmond Report in NSW and the reform of mental health legislation happened just after I was diagnosed with a mental illness in the early 1980s. My academic and feminist health experience gave me the right tools to participate in social action in the health area. The work I have done setting up community support groups and action groups in mental health has been a very humbling and rewarding experience.

The Dalkon Shield Action project at Leichhardt Women's Community Health Centre, where I was working, has perhaps been my most interesting project: the health centre had given a lot of women intrauterine devices until one of them went horribly wrong. We contacted all those who had received one of the devices from us and helped to organise a class action against the manufacturer in the mid-1980s.

Although my main work now is as an academic teacher, researching and validating the experience of ordinary people facing difficult health and life issues, I probably spend an equal amount of time speaking to community groups and liaising with group leaders. I have a high volume of phone calls, speaking engagements and email planning of campaigns and programs. The work I do with individuals is mostly around issues of accessing services, lobbying for changes in legislation and service delivery.

The principles of psychological research are invaluable in providing a structured and practical approach to the investigation of feelings and behaviour but I enjoy pushing the discussion beyond the concrete and the obvious.

The major influences in my career have been academics in the area of social work and sociology, who have themselves come from a background of "listening to the voices" of people they are working with. It was through these academics that I was introduced to social and political action, the technique of the qualitative interview and the linkage between personal experience and social policy development.

There are challenges facing this field of psychology. It has been overtaken by social and community welfare work, primarily because their teaching incorporates placements and the teachers' community experience is valued. Many of the best in the profession work away quietly and invisibly in their own communities, going largely unrewarded, instead of joining large institutions or professional groups. It is rare for them to publish in academic journals, making it hard for students to learn about their work. I think dialogue and discussion are a crucial part of university education, and community psychology above all stimulates the debate about community and social issues.

Your own background and cultural experience is valuable in studying and pursuing a career in psychology. You won't get a job in community psychology by sitting in lectures - it is vital that you expand your learning: sociology, government, history and politics can all help you to become a good psychologist. Reach out to the communities around you, get out and volunteer and learn from them directly. Remind yourself why you are studying psychology - ultimately it is to make the world a better place by understanding and developing communities and the people who live in them.