Date: February 2023
Location: South West
Field of Study: Psychology
University of Southern Queensland Master of Clinical Psychology student Alex Donoghue’s love for her rural backyard and its people is infectious.
A career as a mental health occupational therapist has led her to expand her skillset to soon become a psychologist to help the people in South West Queensland.
Alex says her preoccupation with how people tick began when she was practising remedial message therapy when she was younger.
“I had a longstanding interest in the body, the mind and the integration of the two,” Alex said.
“I was doing a neck release with a lady who had whiplash. As the muscles released, the trauma memory of the accident (which had been held as muscle memory) was also released and she burst into tears. She reported feeling lighter, and more comfortable emotionally and physically. My obsession with emotional processes, their physiology and how to support emotional release was born.”
Alex completed her occupational therapy degree in 1994. After working in Australia and in the United Kingdom in intensive psychiatric care units and forensic settings, Alex settled in South West Queensland.
“I’ve always been rurally orientated. I grew up in northern New South Wales," Alex said.
“I drifted back to my rural roots and increasingly enjoyed the challenge and reward of working in rural and remote mental health."
Alex is passionate about the mental health of people in the bush, a group that are often isolated and face extreme hardships.
“Human beings are wired for connection. When you step into that space with somebody, you create brain change. There are neurochemicals that are released thathave a calming effect. So just being there and getting it before you even open your mouth is helpful."
“People can be very charismatic and interesting. There’s a real range in the bush in terms of personalities and attitudes. People are naturally resourceful, and I find that inspiring.
“It’s important to be client-centred and to meet the client where they are at. That literally may be at the back of a truck. I’ve had client sessions at Dirranbandi Truck Stop, it may be over bacon and eggs.”
Since 2013, Alex has had a private practice as a mental health occupational therapist in St George, co-located in the St George Medical Centre.
“I decided to go back and get my stripes as a psychologist, just to upskill that little bit to bring those skills to my community.
"It’s been ten years part time and I have just a few months to go. That sounds daunting but that’s because I did it very slowly."
In 2022, Alex completed a placement doing psychometric assessments, while remotely supervised by a clinical psychologist. The assessments supported GPs, paediatricians, and psychiatrist, informing their diagnoses and treatment and in some cases facilitating access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Alex said she was able to complete the placement in St George, only 130 kilometres away from her cattle property where she lives with her husband and teenage children.
“This speaks to one of the nuances of rural and remote placements, we actually created the placement,” Alex said.
“I worked with UniSQ and we recognised that there was a gap and a need for specialist psychological assessment services.
“I had a couple of clients that received a diagnosis of ADHD, ADD and various learning disorders which enabled them to access supports such as the NDIS and medication that was quite literally life changing. It was hard work, but it was very rewarding. I certainly learnt a lot.
"I was happy to source the assessments and to take responsibility for driving the program. The university endorsed it as a placement that was very specific to apsychologist’s skillset.
"So it was a collaboration between UniSQ, SQRH, local services on the ground, myself, and my supervisor, Dr Aaron Osmachenko.
“For the end of my studies, I am in Roma with Lumsden Psychology providing much needed psychological supports. This has been a placement filled with diverse opportunities, and rich daily learnings. I have been very well supported.
"Psychologist and Director of Lumsden Psychology Marguerite Lumsden has been a source of great practical clinical knowledge, through supervision with a strong rural lens. Michelle Aniftos from SQRH has also provided me with supervision with a strong focus on the science-practitioner model. My university placement co-ordinator Dr Rebecca Black from UniSQ has always been a phone call away. I have been spoilt surrounded by senior clinicians ready to share their support and knowledge".
“I have found that my university has been really supportive and has actively promoted rural placements.
“They have been prepared to be creative, to find solutions, and have consulted with the community to make sure that they are meeting a need when organising placements. It’s not just a placement for a placement’s sake."
Alex’s story is inspirational for anyone thinking of changing careers or heading back to study later on down the track when life is full of responsibility.
When asked how she feels about the term ‘mature age student’, she said, “I’ll own it, it is what it is.”
Alex said that there are difficulties studying later in life, but they can easily turn into positives.
“You have to be assertive, you have to be flexible, you have to take responsibility, you have to be resourceful,” Alex said.
“But I think they are professional skills you’ve got to develop anyway, particularly in rural areas. I think the challenges for mature age students are not greater thanfor younger students, just different."
With graduation in sight, Alex’s future looks bright.
“In the future, I want to pursue my clinical endorsement as a psychologist and expand my mental health OT practice to be a private psychology practice, from operating out of my clinic,” Alex said.
“To the best of my knowledge, I will be the only private psychologist west of Goondiwindi, that permanently resides out here.”
Alex encourages health students to take the opportunities rural placements or positions can have to offer.
“Be open minded, stay humble and be prepared to be innovate and open to creative solutions to challenges."
“Don't forget to enjoy your surrounds. Stop and smell the roses. There are beautiful sunsets, interesting people, dynamic activities on the weekend like camp drafting.
"If you’re going to make the effort, particularly to go west, enjoy it. Enjoy everything it has to offer and get amongst it.”
From Toowoomba to Charleville, Kingaroy to Goondiwindi, our students’ complete rural placements all over regional, rural, and remote Southern Queensland (across more than 400,000 square kilometres).
Learn first-hand from students, just like yourself, about their experience going on a rural placement, and why it’s an experience like no other!