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Day in the Life: Psy.D. student helps inmates receive psychological assessments, get much-needed treatment

Stories | 05.14.24

Logo of Day in the Life seriesBy Amanda Sullivan, RCC
Student, Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.)
Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology, ‘18

Originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I moved to British Columbia in 2012 for my educational pursuit, including enrolling at Adler University in 2016 for its Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology program.

During my educational journey, I began volunteering in the prison system in B.C., which helped me gain employment, research, and practicum experiences in correctional centres, halfway houses, group homes, and inpatient and outpatient forensic psychiatric settings. I was always fascinated by the fields of criminology and psychology.

After graduating from Adler University in 2018, I became a registered clinical counsellor (RCC), delivering counselling services in public and private settings to date. However, I wanted to offer my clients more, including psychological assessments, which is unique to the role of registered psychologists. In 2022, I decided to return to Adler and pursue my doctorate degree in clinical psychology.

The Psy.D. program at Adler includes an assessment practicum, where students receive hands-on training in how to conduct psychological assessments required to make diagnoses. It is completed in the second year of the program. I made the decision to apply for and accept an assessment practicum in the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) because I was interested in continuing my clinical work in this field, and was eager to gain experience in conducting psychological assessments with this population.

I am currently almost eight months into my assessment practicum at the Regional Treatment Centre (RTC) at Pacific Institution located in Abbotsford, B.C. This is a multi-level federal correctional facility where individuals who receive sentences of two years or more reside. The RTC is a hospital unit within the facility where inmates who are struggling with severe mental health difficulties are transferred for stabilization, psychological assessment, and treatment.

Conducting psychological assessments to inmates transferred to RTC units are important because many are often struggling with a wide range of presentations, including psychosis, depression, suicidality, substance abuse, PTSD, and behavioural problems. Typical referrals for psychological assessments include cognitive functioning and psychoeducational assessments, psychodiagnostic assessment, and risk assessment. It is standard practice in this setting to screen for malingering or exaggerated illnesses in each assessment due to the high prevalence of secondary gain that can come with certain presentations (e.g.: getting to stay in the much more comfortable hospital treatment unit as opposed to returning to their home institution).

So, what does an average day as doctoral-level psychology student at this type of site look like?

For me, it involves travelling to Abbotsford twice a week, and spending approximately 16 hours on site per week. An average day involves managing my to-do list of ongoing assessments (approximately 3-4 assessments at a time) and coordinating with both the inmates and the unit schedule for my meetings. Inmates have access to a wide range of programming while receiving treatment on this unit, including work programs, school, spiritual and religious ceremonies, and recreational activities, such as art and bingo.

I try to schedule my assessment appointments around their schedules when possible, so they do not miss any programs that they enjoy and are an important part of their treatment and rehabilitation. There are specific times I am permitted to see inmates in the unit during mornings and afternoons, in between regularly scheduled lockdown times where all inmates have to be in their rooms to comply with the institutional schedule and routine. I always also have to be prepared for unexpected and urgent lockdowns when there are risk-related factors present.

To prepare to see a client for the first time, I conduct a file review to determine any risk-related factors. I then enter the unit, test and secure a personal alarm system — which I need with me at all times in case of emergency. When I call the client over the speaker system, I then evaluate their willingness to see me and participate in the assessment.

I am able to see clients in private rooms in the unit, but this setting is not without distractions including ongoing speaker announcements, doors slamming, and staff and other inmates bustling around. Because no outside electronics are permitted into the institution (e.g.: personal cellphones and laptops), testing is done with pen and paper, without the help of tools such as tablets or laptops. Typically, I meet with inmates on various occasions to complete all testing, complying with institutional scheduling.

File reviews make up another large portion of assessments and are quite time consuming because they often include extensive and detailed information, including previous psychological assessments, any available medical, legal, and school records, and collateral information from any other sources.

I view this population as complex, and both fascinating and difficult to work with at the same time. I appreciate the experience in working with them because you always need to be on guard in this setting, be confident and firm with boundaries, patient, and skilled with rapport building. It is my belief that if you can work comfortably and effectively with inmates, you can work with anyone.

Amanda is a second-year student in the Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology program at Adler University, where she also earned her master’s degree in counselling psychology. Her goals are to continue working in forensics and corrections in the future, in addition to private practice once she completes her education and is a registered psychologist. Her favorite spare time activity includes exploring dog-friendly spots in the lower mainland with her Chow Chow, Kevin. 

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