When Clare Gibson’s mother died seven years ago, the then second-year psychology student had just started treating patients for the first time.
Although Gibson knew that her mother had been ill with
kidney disease, her death was a tremendous shock.
“My mother lived with bipolar disorder; she was my
inspiration for going into psychology,” Gibson says. Yet her
mother would not get to see her graduate and become the
psychologist she is today.
Gibson, then 25, took a week off from her studies at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to attend her
mother’s funeral. Then she went back to school, resuming
her classes, her research and her patient appointments.
But she hadn’t considered how the death would affect
her emotionally. As she tried to continue her student life,
“it was very traumatic,” she recalls. She had a patient also
dealing with grief over a lost parent, but felt so numb herself
that she couldn’t provide effective therapy; the patient was
transferred out of her care. Gibson then learned the quality
of her research work was slipping and recognized she needed
psychological help. She began therapy for bereavement and
Gibson, now a licensed clinical psychologist in Maryland,
sees the irony of her experience — that someone trained to
help others with emotional problems didn’t know when to
seek help herself. In retrospect, she says, she wishes she had
taken a longer break, but a combination of her competitive
nature and the demands of her grad program kept her from
As Gibson discovered, life events can put kinks in even
the best-laid academic track. The question becomes how
to deal with — and learn from — the situation. So, what
should students do when the inevitable crises occur? And
how can schools help, especially in a grad school culture that
often emphasizes competition, long hours and show-no-weaknesses stamina?
Over the five years of psychology graduate school, “it’s more
than likely that students will face some kind of trauma,
challenge, stressor or losses in their life,” says Jeffrey Barnett,
PsyD, psychology professor and associate dean at Loyola
University Maryland and author of the 2014 book “
Self-care for Clinicians in Training.” “To think that they’re not —
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