By Anna Godek
“Why do you like psychology? What makes you interested in studying it?”
I was asked these questions by the two graduate students interviewing me for a research assistant position in the Cornell BABY (Behavioral Analysis of Beginning Years) Lab. For a moment, I was taken aback and unsure how to answer because being interested in psychology just seems so obvious and easy to me; I don’t really know how people aren’t interested in it. But after taking a second to organize my thoughts, I could answer and say, “Well, to me, nothing is more important or interesting than trying to understand people—us, humans. Figuring out why we are the way we are, how we got there, why we work a certain way—what’s more interesting than that?” I guess my answer was good enough, because I got the job.
Understanding people—our thoughts, emotions, behavior, and brains—is the crux of psychology. Not only do I love psychology, I love defending it. Well, maybe it’s better to say that I often have to defend it. The field is still trying to shake off Freud and his deeply unscientific approach and form a better reputation; no psychologists or psych researchers today are going to tell you that we go through the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages of development. And it’s not unfair to point out that there were years of unethical and unscientific psychology research, though this is true of all fields of science. But unlike in the past, psychology today is overall a field dedicated to the scientific process and empirical research methods (meaning they are based on testing hypotheses through objective measures). One of the best things I’ve gotten out of my psych education at Cornell is the ability to evaluate and think critically about scientific ideas and research methods.
But now we come to another issue for the field of psychology. In an attempt to distance itself from its rocky and empirically ungrounded past, Cornell’s psych department is all about the research. We don’t really talk about the ugly duckling sibling of psychological research—therapy! It’s even less prestigious and respected than psychological research; plus, mental illness is still a stigmatized issue. The Cornell psych department is, I think, woefully uninvolved in discussions of mental health and there’s not much direction for students who become interested in therapy. And that’s right, what I’ve realized I want to do after I graduate is be a therapist specialized in working with children. I could even end up as a social worker, which has even less prestige attached to it. If you think people don’t react well to psychology as research, try telling them you want to do therapy with kids. “Wait, kids need to go to therapy?” is a question I’ve gotten before. A noncommittal and monosyllabic response such as “Oh?” is common.
But therapy is incredibly important. Mental health matters, as we’re constantly told by op-eds in the Sun and emails from Martha Pollock. However, our discussion never seems to go beyond the superficial and into how we really make mental health better on campus. What do we do? What do we change? I’ve never really heard any psych professor talk about it either. And therapy is no longer about laying down on a couch and talking to a silent psychologist for an hour, although it is still dogged by that Freudian imagery. Good therapy today is based in really helping people and addressing what problems they might have, whether that’s depression, anxiety, PTSD, grief, addiction, or just facing a difficult time. And while therapy is harder to fit into the box of hyper-logicality than research is, good therapy is also deeply tied to critical and empirical thought. You have to evaluate your methods and see if you’re really helping your patients. It’s harder to operationalize these things because progress and success in therapy are more subjective and ambiguous, but it’s still doable. And, of course, therapy involves that least prestigious form of intellect—emotional intelligence. You can just hear someone saying, “yeesh, sounds pretty girly, doesn’t it? Is that even a real thing?” Well, it is real and it’s an important skill for therapists and, well, everyone. Our culture has to stop looking down on mental illness and emotional intelligence if we want to improve mental health in a widespread way.
It doesn’t help the perception of therapy and social work that psychology is at its most inherently political when it branches out to these areas. Consider community psychology, which is about, well, helping communities by increasing mental health and wellbeing overall in a larger group of people. This means reckoning with systemic inequality around race, class, and gender. This means institutional change that challenges American ideas about individuality and even capitalism. It means things like public funding for mental health programs and a belief that poor people know what their communities need better than social workers, rich people, and policymakers. It involves public funding and asking questions like “what are our obligations to people in distress, who are struggling with poverty and housing?” The fundamental belief that we do owe them something and that they aren’t deficient people just because they’re struggling is a part of community psychology, and it’s pretty damn radical. If you’re wondering if white savior complexes can be an issue here, you’re right they can. That’s why a good social work or community psychology program will teach you to empower people, not rescue.
Understanding people, helping people, figuring out how they became who they are, is all related to what makes me love psychology, whether it’s research or therapy and social work. And it’s time for the field to stop being ashamed of its social services side. Acknowledge it, hold it to the same rigorous standards of quality that you would anything else, and realize that researchers, therapists, community psychologists—we can all come together and make each other more effective and better at what we do.