Embarking on a career as a psychologist can be a very different reality compared to the expectation. It’s nothing like the movies. It’s not all IQ tests and inkblots, CBT and behaviour modification. Nope. Especially not when you choose the path of a psychologist in the criminal justice system.
As a fresh faced uni student with the whole world ahead of me, I hoped my chosen field of study would be an exciting challenge, never dull and full of so many different experiences. This part was at least in line with the expectation.
However as you are jumping through the hoops needed to gain the qualifications you seek, and even once you start that early career in the field, there is so much you don’t know or expect.
I expected a challenging and exciting career working in a forensic setting. My passion was mental health. In particular – psychopathy and abnormal psychology. Private practice seemed like something you did later, when you were ready for quiet and repetitive.
My first and only psychologist role has been in corrections. I started out as a provisional psychologist, with no practical skills behind me. Newly graduated and ecstatic to have scored the first position I applied and interviewed for.
It was daunting in the beginning. I had limited support due to resignations with people moving on to greener pastures. I had what I affectionately refer to as ‘Deep End Training’, which is simply being thrown in the deep end and having to sink or swim. It’s a quick, but not ideal, way of learning. I try and avoid doing the same to my own staff now that I am in a senior position.
Back then everything seemed exciting… and naturally a little scary. Of course right from the start you knew there were risks involved. Risks to your safety… to the safety of others… ethical dilemmas… policy and procedures that can be so rigid, yet unclear. Like a sponge, you absorb all this information and head out into the big wide world to try and make a difference.
It only took a short time before I realised my role was mostly about preventing suicide. A sad but true reality. We learnt early on that intervention in that environment has limited effectiveness and therefore was rarely utilised aside from the standardised group setting intervention programs.
So here I was, 24, a little bit introverted, completely inexperienced… and female, interviewing men of all ages from backgrounds you could barely imagine, some who had committed crimes that would make your hair curl or your skin crawl, and using all the tools in my psychology toolbox to encourage them to stay alive. Was this really what I had wanted? It in no way resembled CSI or Silence of the Lambs.
For the most part I enjoyed the work. There were days that were frustrating and stressful. There was that first (and only) time I realised a prisoner was masturbating under the interview table. There were tears when I got home that night. I’ve seen a whole lot of male anatomy since. The first time a prisoner yelled at me. I held my shit together til I got back to the office… then I cried like a girl. It actually hasn’t happened since… the yelling (or the prisoner making me cry). Or those times when was the only registered psychologist on staff and having to manage the acute psychological needs of 500 men. Those times were tough.
There were a lot of positives. A diverse learning environment. Those moments when a prisoner said ‘thank you’, and genuinely meant it. That moment one of the most challenging and personality disordered violent prisoners I’ve known was due for release and was reduced to tears as he expressed his gratitude for all I had done to assist him over the years and for simply being transparent. That was something else.
Some of my most treasured friendships have come from inside those fences. Fellow professionals who have mostly all moved on to new and exciting roles elsewhere. I am grateful for all I have learnt from each of them… and for the laughs we had as a result of the truly warped sense of humour you develop working in a prison.
But then there is the one experience that I want to forget. The situation every psychologist fears most. And that moment where you wonder if you failed.
Starting out in corrections I knew there was a very real risk that one day someone would take their own life, despite our best efforts and procedures in place to prevent these things. Sometimes it’s still not enough. Yet until it happened, I guess I never really thought it would happen in my career.
It still hurts deep inside to know a person who had the potential to turn his life around, who I had shared many a challenging day with, a laugh, a frown, progress towards rehabilitation, suddenly decided enough was enough.
Receiving that phone call at 11PM one night to inform me there had been a suicide was a moment when time seemed to stop, frozen in the horror of the news.
No matter how confident you are in your skills, you still end up second guessing yourself after an experience so tragic. You ask yourself every variety of ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’ question, hoping it will suddenly make sense. It still doesn’t. It won’t.
If you asked me did this experience change things for me, well… yes. It probably did. Do I still love my job? Not so much. It’s not the only reason, but it was around that time the cracks perhaps began to form.
It highlighted the fact that despite our best intentions and efforts, a psychologist in such a setting is so limited in what they can achieve and knowing that very fact feels so hopeless. Sure you can make a little difference here and there, but with the amount of restriction and lack of resources, little is about as good as it gets in most cases.
That’s no longer enough for me. That is why I am choosing to follow a different path soon.
What I am grateful for though, is the strength and resilience I have developed as a result of this challenging career choice.
My time for parole is nearer. I am ready for a new adventure.