Marika Cox – Journey into Psychology

Marika Cox was born on Wilyakali land in Ivanhoe, situated on the Cobb Highway between the Lachlan and Darling Rivers in NSW, and is a descendant of the Wilyakali people. The Wilyakali tribal group extends from the Darling River basin right through to far west NSW. Traditionally it is land situated around Broken Hill and most of her family is located around the Broken Hill and surrounding district.

Marika is the proud mother of William, named after her father. Her mother is a strong and proud Barkindji woman and her father (deceased) was English. Marika is number five out of six children and was fortunate to have visited many places, growing up on Wiradjuri land (Wagga Wagga, NSW), and working in the Larrakia (Darwin, NT) and Wathaurong (Geelong, VIC) Nations. Some of her work included being a Bringing Them Home (BTH) Counsellor which involved helping the Stolen Generations and their families through grief, loss, trauma and reunions and assisting with the development of stronger emotional, social and spiritual well-being. Her other work includes being a voluntary telephone counsellor for Life Line, an Indigenous Medical Administrator and legal receptionist.

This is Marika’s story…

Why I chose psychology…

“My allied Health field is Psychology, the scientific study of the brain, behaviour and emotion. I knew at a very early age that I wanted to ‘help people’ – help them heal from personal suffering. I decided to embark on an academic journey and commenced a diploma in professional counselling through the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. I was working as a BTH Counsellor during this time. I was hungry to do more for the community and families I came into contact with. After leaving a domestic violence situation in my personal relationship, I made the decision to change my life for the better and to follow the dream of becoming a psychologist. All throughout school I was told (ever so subtlety by teachers) that I wasn’t intelligent enough to embark on a university degree, so I didn’t. However, after the truculent relationship I had, and being told by my ex-partner I couldn’t do it, I rebelled.”

A few years later, I hold a First Class Honours Degree in Psychology. My aim now is to complete a Masters or Doctorate in Clinical or Health Psychology. Watch this space.

Going to Uni…

“I completed year 12 in 1997 because I wanted to be the only one in my family who went all the way through school and also to make my mum proud. Completing school, in turn, made it easier to get into university later on. However, there are a lot of positive pathways for Indigenous students or an Indigenous person who wishes to pursue an academic journey. I highly recommend investigating these pathways at the universities you are interested in – because there are a lot of excellent opportunities. After school, I decided to travel to see this gorgeous country of ours, so I went up to the Larrakia nation (Darwin) and worked as a legal receptionist. It was here that I witnessed some of the most horrible living conditions. The Indigenous community up there have so much potential yet are suffering in silence. This broke my heart. I had to do something, at least for the general community. So I decided to volunteer as a telephone counsellor while I worked at the law firm.”

“It wasn’t that hard to get into Uni nor was it hard to get into the diploma course. What is challenging is sticking to the course once you have decided to embark upon it. I won’t lie. The courses, both the diploma and degree are hard work.  But if you can stick to it, keeping the end in mind, by keep reminding yourself why you started in the first place, it is all worth it. My family and my fiancée were and are my main sources of support. I had wonderful assistance from the School of Psychology at Deakin Uni and I had a wonderful tutor who helped me with all my woes and triumphs. For me, it was important that I found people who I could trust and go to with my problems or if I was struggling with my course work. I am a bit proud when it comes to asking for help, so it helped me a lot to have these people that I could trust and feel safe around.”

Challenges and Solutions

“The most challenging thing for me about studying at Uni was not having a lot of Indigenous students to study with.  It would have been nice to share ideas with fellow Indigenous students. When I started my Uni degree, there weren’t a lot of us that stuck it out over the four years. I ended up going over to mainstream. I think in retrospect this was good because I think I excelled and was challenged to my full potential. It unlocked a lot of my thirst for knowledge. Try not to be too scared if you have to go over to mainstream in any courses. Not only can we learn more, but I think mainstream can have an opportunity to learn about our culture too. I liked how everyone was open and curious about my culture and most of my assessments, I could write about with an Indigenous tone. So there is always a positive when it comes to crossing over to mainstream – just try not to let it daunt you.

Once I settled in a little, I started viewing it as an opportunity to help ‘bridge the gap’ between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and I was happy I was provided that opportunity and responsibility to represent our culture. In addition to this challenge, another one that stands out for me was that I had to travel interstate to participate in my study blocks (usually a week at a time). Being away from my family was hard. But I got through it by exercising, eating right, sleeping well and organising and prioritising the pile of assessments I needed to get through!! Speaking of assessments, you learn really quickly about organisation and time management skills, as the workload is heavy at times.”

Other peoples’ reactions…

“I remember telling mum that I had enrolled in the psychology degree. While she was happy that I had decided to further my education her first words to me were “Why do you want to put up with other people’s s**t for?!” Haha, not the reaction I was hoping for, but when I explained to her that it had always been a passion of mine to help people with their personal suffering, she understood and admired my courage and determination. Mum told me it was going to be a lot of hard work but as long as I did my best, she was happy. My friends were stoked and asked for free counselling sessions once I became qualified and my community is proud.”

Opportunities are there for you…

“This year, I was approached by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Careers Development Program (Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, AIDA); to participate in the Murra Mullangari Pathways Alive and Well program as a Peer Mentor to Indigenous high school students who wanted to embark on a degree. I mentored an Indigenous student (who I am very proud of!). In addition to this, I have recently become successful in my application to attend this year’s Aurora Indigenous Scholars International Study Tour. It is an amazing opportunity for Indigenous students considering postgraduate study overseas to the USA and UK. Its aim is to visit universities and to meet with academics, administrators and current postgraduate students in your area of interest.

Prior to this I was awarded The Australian Psychological Society (APS), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and Psychology Interest Group (ATSIPP), Indigenous Student Conference Attendance Award (Perth) in 2011/12 ( I was a Puggy Hunter and Rotary Indigenous Health Scholar (2010/12). Currently I am a student member of the APS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and Psychology Interest Group (ATSIPP) and a graduate member of Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA). So as you might be able to see, starting a degree in psychology can be a little overwhelming to start with, but the opportunities for you to excel in this field are out there and may be waiting for ‘you’.”

“I am not a practising psychologist yet. However, when I was working as a counsellor, the feeling I got when I assisted someone through their troubles was wonderful for me. Being invited on a journey of self-discovery, healing or awareness is an immense privilege, not a right, just because I have a piece of paper telling me I can do my job. Seeing and watching individuals empower themselves, learning about themselves – about their strengths and weaknesses, being asked to walk beside clients when the road becomes uncertain for them is a wonderful feeling for me. It is empowering to promote and facilitate the uniqueness of our culture and use this as the core strength in guiding individuals through their personal journeys.  Using evidence based practices in a culturally safe and meaningful way is important, both to the field of psychology (in research and in the clinic) and to the client and their family. Using traditional talking (yarning) methods, family based strategies and techniques, it is important that science and tradition come together in practice, in a way that both are respected and implemented successfully.”

My tips if you are thinking of being a psychologist…

“This is what I have learned about my journey into my allied health career thus far and I hope you are able to take on board some of these suggestions for your own journey:

  • First, do some research into the Universities you want to attend because not all will offer psychology and that are close to your home (I didn’t do this). So be prepared to travel if this is the case.
  • Psychology is a LONG degree – minimum six years of training (also something I didn’t look into before I started). It is worthwhile to check out the latest rules and expectations from the Australian Psychology Society (and other relevant associations and boards) and go from there.  There are several pathways to achieve provisional registration. Don’t be disheartened.
  • It is a challenging degree. Hurdles in almost every year to overcome. YES! BUT!!! It is worth it! Have a long hard think about what you think psychology is all about and why you want to do it. Would Social Work suit you better?  Conduct some of your own research into what psychology is about and see if this marries up to your expectations and what you want to do. A lot of people think that psychology is all about counselling. Yes, this is true if you are a counselling psychologist, however, the exciting thing about psychology is that there are many branches in the field that you can go into (for example, educational, forensic, organisational and clinical). Given this, it’s worthwhile accepting now that psychology is the scientific study of brain, behaviour and feelings. That means, continuing your professional development and also contributing to the field of psychology by keeping up to date with the latest research in the field, and conducting your own ground breaking research (because at the end of the day, we want the best treatment for our clients and what we do in the clinic is guided by our knowledge and research in the area). Therefore, that means a lot of research projects and statistics. Yes, statistics – the thing that I almost didn’t pass in year two, but aced in year four (finally). Kind of takes the shine off it huh!?  Don’t let this deter you though. Look – stats can be easily implemented …. Watch …. Did you know though, that in 2012, there were only 81 registered Indigenous psychologists in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012)? That’s a true stat by the way. Although there is no doubt that this small representation of registered Indigenous psychologists are doing a wonderful job of delivering evidence based clinical practices, wouldn’t it be great though, if we could increase this number of registered Indigenous psychologists in Australia? Think about all the people you might be able to help with mental health problems by using current scientifically validated methods in a culturally supported/appropriate way? This excites me – I hope it does for you too.
  • Be prepared to learn a lot about yourself – it all isn’t about helping others you know. This degree certainly challenges you, both professionally and personally. However, this continued development should assist you to grow into a budding psychologist. Be prepared to take a good honest look at yourself during this course. What type of psychologist do you wish to become? Why?
  • If you need to go over to mainstream, remember, it is an opportunity for both sides of the fence to learn and to be open to new adventures, skills and knowledge. Share our wonderful culture! The world has a lot to learn. This can start with you!

Where might I be in 5 years?

“When I was younger and thought that time would go slow, I thought that by the time I was 25 I’d have it all… The house with the picket fence, a tribe of kids, travelled around the world and a good paying career!! When I was 18, 25 seemed so old and I thought time would not be an issue – alas – time waits for no one! In five years time, my son will be 5 years old and starting his first years at school. So that is where my priority will be for a little while. Although, I’m not much of a fortune teller, in five years I would like to have obtained (or working towards) either full registration, eventually open up a small bulk billing clinic or working towards further education to obtain these goals.”

A message to you…

“YOU CAN DO IT! You have it in you! Put your mind to this, accept that there will be challenges but it is nothing you can’t handle. I’m sure you have achieved and come through far more challenging things in your life.”

“In closing, I would like to wish you good luck with your dreams and aspirations. By embarking on a career in psychology, you will be given a unique opportunity (in training, research and development) to potentially change people’s lives and to contribute to the field of psychology. If your degree gets too much for you, my best advice is, always start with the end in mind, and when it gets hard, always remember the reason why you started in the first place. Strong mind. Strong spirit.”