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InPsych 2015 | Vol 37

Cover feature : Psychologist self-care

Psychologists’ self-care: A student perspective

Many trainee psychologists are aware of the need to maintain healthy levels of self-care yet often experience difficulties putting this into practise. Postgraduate professional psychology degrees involve a demanding workload (e.g., Nedeljkovic et al., 2014) and a steep learning curve. Trainee psychologists are often concurrently designing and writing a thesis, staying on top of course material and assignments, applying for placements, attending supervision, and have a client load. All of these activities require the trainee psychologist to constantly switch roles, often numerous times a day. In addition, postgraduate psychology trainees are often juggling part-time work, either moving back in with parents (so they can afford to study!), renting or desiring to purchase their first home, managing changing relationships (some even starting families), and establishing their professional identities. Altogether, this provides an extensive list of stressors in the lives of postgraduate psychology trainees.

In support of this, research has shown that psychology trainees are at risk of increased levels of stress (for a review see Pakenham & Stafford-Brown, 2012). Regardless of the length or type of psychology training, the vast majority of trainees reported moderate to high levels of distress particularly towards the end of their degree (Cushway, 1992). Some of the difficulties for trainees include dealing with ambiguity and ethical issues (Pica, 1998), as well as professional self-doubt (Cushway, 1992; Kumary & Baker, 2008).

Self-care for psychology trainees

Self-care aligns with the APS Code of Ethics, which states that psychologists must ensure “that their emotional, mental, and physical state does not impair their ability to provide a competent psychological service” (p. 19). What better time to establish solid self-care practices than during training for a career in psychology. It is recognised that different university courses incorporate elements of self-care into their programs, however it is largely the responsibility of the individual student to implement these practices into their already busy lives. It is one thing to understand the importance of self-care; it is another to apply it, especially during peak times of stress.

Does self-care warrant specific tutelage at postgraduate level? Are there other appropriate ways to incorporate self-care into psychology training? It is evident that self-care can be emphasised to trainee psychologists in a number of meaningful and long-lasting ways.

Self-care incorporated into postgraduate psychology degrees

Self-care can be incorporated into the ethics course material, preferably in the first year of the postgraduate training program. Self-care is linked to the understanding of competence and developing insight into one’s own experience. The course material may include self-care psychoeducation with a discussion of the consequences of poor self-care, perhaps with examples of psychologists who have struggled to achieve this. In addition, trainees could be encouraged to develop a personal self-care plan, implement new self-care strategies, and reflect over the semester as an assessment requirement.

Self-care incorporated into registration standards

Self-care training could be incorporated into registration standards or the APAC accreditation standards for psychology programs. Training could be achieved through compulsory professional development workshops, or extensive self-care training modules to be completed either before registration is attained, or as part of CPD requirements for registered professionals. An alternative way to cement self-care practices for trainee psychologists is to include self-care instruction in the mandatory supervisor training, giving supervisors the responsibility to assess, monitor and support the trainee in practising weekly self-care behaviours.

Personal therapy

Due to the emotional intensity of postgraduate psychology training, some countries have mandatory personal therapy in particular psychology courses. Personal therapy may provide a vital experiential, self-awareness and self-care opportunity that can have positive effects on the professional and personal wellbeing of the trainee. Even though some negative effects of personal therapy (e.g., personal discomfort, financial burden) have been reported, the overarching recommendations from qualitative studies is that personal therapy is a vital aspect of clinical training (Ivey & Waldeck, 2014; Norcross, 2005; Risq, 2011). The long-term effects of self-awareness and recognising triggers are likely to outweigh the short-term initial discomfort in most cases. Thus, personal therapy may aid the self-care process for trainee psychologists.

Collectively, emphasising self-care practises during postgraduate psychology training may result in less stressed students and better trained psychologists. Furthermore it can lead to the implementation and maintenance of career-long self-care routines. This may, in turn, reduce burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and diminished wellbeing among psychologists.

Recommendations for self-care instruction of trainee psychologists
  • Incorporate self-care into ethics subject and assignments
  • Introduce compulsory professional development on self-care
  • Monitor and encourage trainee self-care behaviour through supervision
  • Complete self-care training modules as part of general registration
  • Encourage personal therapy

The first author can be contacted at angela_gale@live.com.au

References

  • Cushway, D. (1992). Stress in clinical psychology trainees. British journal of clinical psychology, 31(2), 169-179. DOI: 10.1111/j.20448260.1992.tb00981.x
  • Ivey, G. & Waldeck, C. (2014). Trainee clinical psychologists’ experience of mandatory personal psychotherapy in the context of professional training. Asia Pacific Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 5(1), 87-98. DOI: 10.1080/21507686.2013.833525
  • Kumary, A., & Baker, M. (2008). Stresses reported in UK trainee counselling psychologists. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 21, 19–28. DOI: 10.1080/09515070801895626
  • Nedeljkovic, M., Chaffey, L., Murray, G., & Brennan, C. (2014). Postgraduate clinical psychology placements in Victoria: The experience of students and supervisors. Australian Psychologist, 49, 348-357. DOI: 10.1111/ap.12067
  • Norcross, J. C. (2005). The psychotherapist's own psychotherapy: educating and developing psychologists. American Psychologist, 60(8), 840-850. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.8.840
  • Pakenham, K. I., & Stafford-Brown, J. (2012). Stress in clinical psychology trainees: A review of current research and future directions. Australian Psychologist, 47, 147-155. DOI: 10.1111/j.1742-9544.2012.00070.x
  • Pica, M. (1998). The ambiguous nature of clinical training and its impact on the development of student clinicians. Psychotherapy, 35, 361–265. DOI: 10.1037/h0087840
  • Risq, R. (2011). Personal therapy in psychotherapeutic training: Current research and future directions. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 41, 175-185. DOI: 10.1007/s10879-010-9168-7

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on February 2015. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.