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Working in counselling psychology

By Nicole Detering

I don't believe that a pre-defined plan led me to the career path I walk today - circumstances and some life events shaped my decisions and choices. After an Honours degree in psychology I undertook a six-month placement in organisational psychology but did not find it satisfying and my search for alternative employment led me to the Department of Defence. Seven years in the army gave me the opportunity to try various facets of psychology and is where I discovered my strong interest in counselling psychology.

At that time, there was no APS-approved Masters in Counselling Psychology in the Brisbane area so after leaving the army and during my second pregnancy I completed a Masters in Educational Psychology.

I began a private practice that evolved slowly around my children's kindergarten and pre-school timetables. With both children now at school, I have more flexibility (and time) and have a practice operating five days per week.

As a self-employed counselling psychologist I derive work from a number of sources and have no typical day as such but I am fortunate to have found a variety of tasks that interest me and professionally challenge me.

Some client problems centre on relationship issues where I am able to help clients to identify previous life patterns that affect current relationships. I am also contracted to a military hospital for two to three days per week. Cases involve the assessment and the treatment/management of clients with a range of mood disorders. Other work involves providing psychological assessments for WorkCover Queensland and working as a group program facilitator for the Vietnam Veterans' Counselling Service. I have developed and deliver group programs dealing with anger management, conflict resolution, and living with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While in the army, I worked on a project to assess the impact of the geographical relocation of several General Reserve Units. At the time I was surprised that psychologists were used in this capacity but pleased to see that we were used to great effect in what was not traditionally considered the domain of a psychologist. More recently, I was asked to develop a pain management program, helping clients with their adjustment to injury. My initial understanding of this area was limited but the opportunity has led me to an aspect of psychology I enjoy. I now actively seek clients who need assistance managing pain.

Many individuals have had a positive influence on the way that I operate professionally. An Army Major had a profound effect on my assessment skills, report writing style and the subsequent presentation of fact and opinion while a Lieutenant Colonel gave me the realisation that you do not have to know all the answers; you just have to know how and where to find them. A current colleague provides me with invaluable insights from his experience in charge of two surgical teams during the Vietnam conflict, which ties in with my case work on post-traumatic stress disorder and physical injury.

My best piece of advice is to never stop being a student of psychology. And don't worry if it is not always obvious how the material in your degrees will help you professionally - for example, I don't work with children but much of what I learnt in my Masters in Educational Psychology has been useful in the areas of rehabilitation, adjustment to injury/disability as well as career transition.

Even with more than 15 years of professional work experience, continuing education provides me with new insights and skills. While extending your professional repertoire is essential, it needs to be balanced with knowing your limits. Sometimes it may be in the best interests of the psychologist, or (more importantly) the client, to be referred to another psychologist or health professional with more specific knowledge and expertise. Not all cases are straightforward so continued supervision is essential: having advice, confirmation of ideas or even challenges to one's belief system is a valuable learning experience.

It is important that ‘counselling psychology' is recognised as a distinct area with important and valuable skills. I am aligned to the College of Counselling Psychologists but work in areas where clinical or health psychologists could be just as ably employed yet the service I provide is well-regarded by other health professionals as well as by the clients. Hence I would like to see a little more prominence and recognition afforded to counselling psychologists across the profession.