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7 things you didn't know about my job as... a child psychologist

The long road in college is worth it, says Sara O’Byrne of Treehouse Practice.

Treehouse Practice
Treehouse Practice
Image: Treehouse Practice

“WHEN I MENTION I’m a psychologist people often think, ‘I wonder if she can read my mind’,” laughs Sara O’Byrne, Clinical Director at Treehouse Practice.

“Which isn’t always the case!” she adds.

Sara set up Treehouse Practice, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to child mental health and behaviour, in 2013 after many years working as a Senior Clinical Psychologist for the HSE. Sara told TheJournal.ie that her supervisor once said to her, ‘Do what makes your heart sing’. For Sara, that means working with children in care.

The road to becoming a Clinical Psychologist can be a long one, with a standard eight years of studying required to fully qualify. The area of specialisation then, she says, can often be a case of pot luck that depends largely on the employment opportunities available. Here she tells us how she ultimately ended up doing what makes her heart sing.

1. There are opportunities to work in diverse settings

You’ll find clinical psychologists across forensic settings, prisons, mental health services, to name a few. It’s quite a wide scope of a job. I worked in the HSE until I had my children and that was my reason for leaving to set up Treehouse Practice. When I was in the HSE I worked in Child Family Care and Child Protection Services working with children up to the age of 18 and their families in a community setting.

2. There is a lot of complex assessment work

You need to work as part of a team to try to figure out what might be going on with a child. You could be working with a Speech and Language Therapist and an Occupational Therapist to look at all aspects of the child’s development and treating the assessment in a very rigorous way. You’d be looking at their language, their motor skills, how they interact, how they play…

Eventually after a good few weeks arriving at a conclusion that either rules a diagnosis in or out. Then you’re working to support the family with that process and helping them figure out where the child needs to go from that point.

3. You have to have tenacity

Working with children in care gets me up in the morning. I love providing a safe place for those children to come to. Building a relationship with them over a long period of time years at a time in some cases.

I work with the foster parents and the social workers to try to understand the child’s needs in terms of, perhaps, the trauma that they’ve experienced. It’s also about helping other people respond to them in a different way because, often, traditional parenting practices just don’t work with those children.

4. Teamwork is very important

Sometimes people might not realise that you work as part of a team and that’s an essential part of the job. There are certain aspects that I’m not an expert in by any means.

That’s why you need to draw on the skills of the people around you who are experts in their field so you’re not just looking at a child’s development from one point of view. You can’t explain everything through the lens of mental health or behaviour.

Dr Sara O'Byrne Source: Treehouse Practice

5. There’s only one route into Clinical Psychology in Ireland

You have to do a basic degree in psychology, then most people would have a masters in an applied psychology – maybe something like a neuropsychology masters -  and then you have to have do a doctorate too.

A three year professional doctorate training is funded; so you get a salary for those three years as you are sponsored by, say, the HSE or a hospital or the Prison Service who pay your salary while you’re doing the doctorate.

At the end of that you qualify as a clinical psychologist. So it’s a long road in college – about eight years of study.

6. You don’t always get to pick your area of specialisation

After qualifying you look for a job – and it’s very much the available jobs that would determine where you go in terms of your specialisation. So the area you end up working in is very much determined by the employment side of things. I was always personally drawn to working with children, and fortunately that’s where I’ve ended up.

7. Clinical psychology in Ireland is a small community

There are only about 50 clinical psychologists newly-qualified each year. In Ireland it’s a small profession and it can be very difficult to get into. A lot of persistence and perseverance is needed to keep applying. Some people would apply four or five times to those courses and keep on having to build up more experience before they get accepted to the doctorate.

From my point of view it’s worth it, though. It’s a really rewarding profession, it’s an interesting job, and you’re constantly learning.

Read more: ‘Never query the salary’: How to nail a job interview by asking all the right questions

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