My professional life as a psychologist involves me wearing two hats: one as the CEO of Umbrella Wellbeing, the other as Adjunct Teaching Fellow in the clinical psychology training programme at Te Herenga Waka. Often when I’m wearing my ‘teaching hat’, people – usually eager psychology students – ask me what they should read that will really help them in their training and understanding of others. I think they are looking for that one book, the holy grail of psychology textbooks, that will give them everything they need to be the perfect psychologist! While there are many excellent texts out there by world-leading and inspirational psychologists and therapists, my advice is to read novels and autobiographies from as many different perspectives as possible, particularly those that have a mental health theme.
I believe there is a real power in books (and movies!) that allows you to put yourself in the shoes of another person, and that power is enhanced when the characters are from backgrounds and worldviews that are different from your own. It’s never possible to fully understand someone else’s life and lived experience, but being open to and curious about the experiences of fellow humans helps create empathy, understanding, and self-reflection – attributes that are essential for any psychologist.
Here are some of my favourites in the past few years.
How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus: Set in the 80s, the same time I grew up in, it centres on a 10-year-old girl, Ellie, and her experiences of her mother’s ‘breakdown’ (admittedly an old-fashioned term, but one reflective of the period). For me, the power of this book comes from the child’s view of a parent with a mental illness and the discomfort one feels reading it having the knowledge of what’s ‘wrong’ with Ellie’s mother, but Ellie being unaware of this.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride: This is a technically challenging read as it’s written in a stream of consciousness, a stream which ebbs and flows, winds and unwinds, unites and separates over the course of the book. The main character is a young woman whose childhood is marked by her brother’s brain tumour and the long-term effect this has on her development into adulthood. It touches on themes of sexuality, family violence, and isolation.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison: The author herself is a clinical psychologist and also has bipolar disorder. The book traces her experience of living with bipolar and the impacts, both positive and negative, it has had on her life.
Moab Is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry. Fry will be well known to many as a comedian and social commentator. These books are the first two parts of his autobiography (there is a third which I haven’t read yet!). Fry comes from a privileged background of English boarding schools and Oxbridge education and writes about his life experiences and mental illness with wit and humour.
Different people will of course find different books more or less interesting or relatable. But I believe that continuing to enrich your life and your world view by learning about and understanding others’ points of view is just as important as keeping up to date with technical expertise.
Dougal has been working as a clinical psychologist for over 20 years, with an Adjunct Teaching Role at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington and is also the CEO of Umbrella Wellbeing. Dougal's work providing psychological support to workplaces and employees has seen him assist an array of organisations, including government departments, private companies and the Sir John Kirwan Foundation.
Marcus, Carmen. (2018). How saints die. Vintage, London. ISBN: 9781784705510
McBride, E. (2014). A girl is a half-formed thing. The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, Vic. ISBN: 9781922182234
Jamison, K. R. (1997). An unquiet mind: A memoir of moods and madness. Picador, London. ISBN: 9780330346511
Fry, S. (2014). Moab is my washpot. Soho Press, New York. ISBN: 9781616954727
Fry, S. (2018). The Fry chronicles. Penguin Books, London. ISBN:9781405933728