“Do you want to read people’s minds?” Misconceptions of studying Psychology in ‘BAME’ families.
Noreen Dera, Trainee Clinical Psychologist
My decision to study Psychology was challenged by my parents. It took a while for me to convince them of my passion for Psychology. I believe this might have been due to them not actually knowing what Psychology was about. Their question (so you want to read minds?) was of interest to me; the very nature of their question denoted a sense of mysticism and suspicion of the unknown. Misconceptions of psychology are prevalent but more endemic within BME communities (Shah, 2010) where ‘psychology’ and ‘mental health’ are perceived as western ideology and aetiology, respectively.
Now you can only imagine the vehemence of disapproval I faced upon telling my parents I wanted to study Psychology. This led me to survey the possible reasons for this. I reflect on several things in this blog.
As a daughter of third-wave African immigrants, acceptable career paths are often inflexible. Unless one is a lawyer, doctor or banker, they have failed to live up to the expectations. I believe this may be in part because these professions are not only highly-esteemed but they have the power to elevate a person’s social and political status. I believe this fuels pressure to pursue these careers and anything outside this set is seen as a precarious route. This anxiety is commonplace. As immigrants, my parents fought hard
to preserve their once held social-economic position upon arrival to the UK. Assimilating into a Eurocentric society was a difficult transition for them as their earned accolades were not held with credence. It made sense why they felt inclined to encourage a career path they thought would save me from their struggles.
Going back to my earlier point about mysticism, misconceptions of Psychology are prevalent and may contribute to the dearth of diversity at a higher level. There is a ‘bottleneck’ effect whereby, at the undergraduate level, I studied with many students from BME backgrounds, but this is diversity was not always reflected in professional psychology.
The misconceptions of psychology may stem from mysteries about the psyche and ailments that are invisible to the naked eye. In my culture, mental health is not at a parity with physical health, in fact, in some cases, it is not recognised. While this might also be the case in the West, it is clear that attitudes to mental health have improved. Unless the inequality between mental health and physical health is accosted, the misconceptions will continue to uphold. A seismic shift in this area I believe will also affect parental attitudes to Psychology.
3.Lack of understanding
If I were to ask my parents what I do for a living, their descriptions would probably be vague and somewhat comical. Despite the difficulties I faced when I chose to study Psychology, over the years, I’ve seen my parents’ attitude to the field change too. How did this happen? It took a great deal of resilience and tenacity on my part to affect this attitudinal shift. I remember sitting down with my mum when I was in upper sixth as she asked me about my future plans in Psychology.
I laid out my five-year plan as plainly as possible, which at the time, seemed a far-fetched dream. I spoke about these plans with wavering confidence and often retracted my statements. It was interesting to see how her anxiety about my choice started to slowly mirror itself in my responses. I also went through a phase where I began to question whether I had made a wise career choice. I knew I had this unshakeable zeal for Psychology and despite the spate of doubt that engulfed me, I often a had an encouraging ‘imaginary mentor who kept telling me it was all going to be alright.
There was a pivotal moment in the second year where things took a turn for the best. I was offered a placement as an Assistant Psychologist on an Inpatient Neurological Rehabilitation Unit. I remember accurately describing the nature of my work to my parents and my involvement in a multi-disciplinary team of consultants, doctors, nurses providing neuropsychological rehabilitation to survivors of mild to severe brain injuries. It was here that the strobe light struck into my parent’s eyes.
While describing the nature of my work, which in some respects was very entrenched in medical psychology, they started to realise studying Psychology was simply not about ‘reading minds’ but actually involved in some part, assessing and treating real-life patients with real-life problems. I notice their level of interest increased as myself and my mum (who is a nurse) started to communicate in a shared language. She began to tell me about a consultant psychologist in her team who she had spoken to informally to offer me career advice. A once thwarted and anxious mum slowly shifted from a place of anxiety to becoming genuinely interested and invested in my passions. As I excelled academically and professionally, my parents’ enthusiasm correlated accordingly.
There was a time when I went out shopping my father and we bumped one of his friends who hadn’t met me before. He proudly introduced me as his daughter completing a Masters in Clinical Psychology, while he got this completely wrong as I was doing my PWP training at the time I couldn’t fault him nor correct him at this point as I felt I had won my battle. It was a memorable heart-melting moment.
From this whistle-stop description of my journey into psychology, I have reflected on two main things. The choice of studying Psychology may not be widely accepted in BME families in comparison to mainstream career paths and this may sometimes act as a barrier pursuing Psychology. Secondly, a lack of understanding about the profession perpetuates unhelpful misconceptions about what psychologists do or study. Although I have to say, the latter is not purely endemic in BME families but is commonplace in society.
I believe as a BME, more challenges are faced when choosing a career path that is not seen as the standard. There are greater challenges which may be centred around fear of the unknown, anxiety about career stability and also whether psychological problems actually exist.
From my experience, my advice to BME students/postgrad/graduate wanting to pursue psychology is;
1. If your parents or guardians have misconceptions about the subject, make it your job to challenge them (politely of course). Use examples that they can relate to access to emphasise your passion for the subject.
2. If at undergraduate/postgraduate level, seek out opportunities to go out on placements or voluntary work within various disciplines in Psychology. People often understand things better when explained from a practical perspective rather than a theoretical standing. Just simply mentioning you passed the scent of a Doctor while on placement, for example, might just be the game-changing first step!
3. Take the first job you can in your industry. The job doesn’t matter, getting your foot in the door does! Don’t underestimate how far roles such as Healthcare Assistant or Support worker roles can take you!
4. Yes, Psychology is probably one of the most difficult professions to enter, but there is a dearth of diversity in the profession and being from a BME background is one of many factors that will help you stand out! You are so needed in the profession!
5. Be genuinely passionate about what you do. Have a clear game plan of what exactly what you want to achieve. It takes a lot of fore-planning to make the necessary steps into the profession. Involve your parents and guardians where you can and introduce them to the language and engage them in conversation. It’s not enough to just say, ‘I’m doing it because I love working with people.’ Why else?
6. DO NOT GIVE UP! It will be a challenge and you will be met with a lot of barriers. It is the
art of the process that helps you grow; the best diamonds withstand the strongest heats. It’s all part and parcel of the process and probably a great quality to have for any future training.
The views expressed in this blog are my own. I am not a career advisor. I am writing from my personal experiences of studying and pursuing a career in psychology.