Meet Dr Susan Sisko

Posted by on 27 June 2017

Dr Susan Sisko joined the ACAP Melbourne campus as a senior lecturer in the School of Counselling in March. She studied in the USA and Australia; practised and taught in Hong Kong, Melbourne and several American cities. Susan has significant expertise in mindfulness, pop culture, LGBTQ, gender roles, cultural diversity and humour. Find out more about Susan:

Why did you become a counsellor/psychologist?

The simple answer is it seemed natural. I grew up in a large family so it was a familiar experience to be in the thick of interpersonal connections. As a result, I believe I had a sense of knowing that I wanted to work with people.

What’s a common misconception about counselling? Why?

That people who seek counselling for emotional or mental health support are viewed as ‘crazy’ or ‘weak’ individuals. When you consider the tragic history of the treatment of individuals with emotional or mental health issues, you can see we have a long way to go to de-stigmatise the benefits of counselling and psychotherapy. No one should be met with negative judgment or stereotyping for going to a counsellor or psychologist – but it still happens.

How do Australian and US students differ in their learning styles and interests?

I notice more similarities than differences between Australian and US students, mind you; Australian students are smarter and better looking! As a rule, counselling students tend to recognise the importance of personal qualities and their own growth and development being a relevant and significant part of becoming professional counsellors, which is unique to our field.

Which therapy approach has been the most rewarding for you so far? Why?

I have had substantial exposure to analytic and psychodynamic thought and clinical frameworks. As a result, I would describe myself as psychodynamic in my work in the counselling setting both with individuals and in relationship counselling.

Psychodynamic theory explains personality in terms of conscious and unconscious forces. It commonly holds that the mental and emotional processes of early development shape personality. This approach allows clients to look at long-term emotional patterns, which may be contributing to issues for them in the present. For me, using this framework is important in the change process with clients for insight and long-term, sustainable change.

Is there an unusual or new therapy you’d like to try? Why?

EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing). This therapy is neither new nor particularly unusual, although when EMDR was first developed in the 1980s to help people process traumatic memories, it took a long time for mainstream counsellors and psychologists to accept it.

It is considered a significant evidence-based practice primarily used to help people who have suffered trauma. The World Health Organisation and US Department of Veteran Affairs now recognises EMDR as a primary treatment intervention for traumatised individuals and groups.

Describe a time when a student inspired you.

If I have to comment on just one, it is a younger female student who was sponsored by an extended family member to go to the US from Iran. I grew to understand how she felt daily tensions and emotions adapting to a new country, a very different culture, experiencing bias, prejudice and judgment at times. She worked harder than many students did as she was learning English as well. I met her when she was a student in the graduate program training to become a counsellor. Her ability to navigate her life with grace and wisdom inspired me.

She remained reflective and thoughtful in her work, taking feedback well and always open to learning. Her end goal was to work with refugees. She has recently graduated and will be working in the field of counselling and true to her word; she completed her internship working with refugees. I feel honoured to have been part of her professional development.

In five years, what might be a common reason Australians seek counselling? Why?

I’ll have to speculate, but I would say two possible common reasons: Isolation and Trauma.
Isolation seems probable because of the current cultural obsession of burying oneself in electronic devices, resulting in possible disconnection from others. Ultimately, that disconnection is counter to a natural drive to belong and be in relationship. People may eventually experience a sense of isolation from less intimate means of connection.

Further, I would say traumatic events because there is and has been significant and random violence in the world in the past several years and this affects people directly and vicariously through social media. I suspect there may be an accumulative effect with both isolation and trauma that Australians might seek counselling in these areas over the next five years.

Where do you rank an ability to laugh at life among the traits of a successful practitioner?

For me laughter is highly ranked. Sense of humour is an important form of connection and communication in my experience. Who does not enjoy a good laugh? The ability to find lightness and humour in situations can be supportive and helpful. Humour can help people keep perspective and let go of stress.

Humour can have a ‘darker side’ when used as a defense mechanism or in sarcastic ways so, being aware of how one uses humour is important too.

Name a research topic you would investigate if money and time were no obstacles?

I have long been interested in interpersonal neurobiology. This interdisciplinary field seeks to understand the mind and mental health. I think it would be fascinating to understand more about what happens to the mind under stress, when relaxed, when traumatised and how this affects an individual’s emotional, and behaviour well-being.

Unlike any other time in history, we are so fortunate with science and technology to better understand the mind and how it functions, however, there is less understanding about the impact of how counsellors and psychologists might integrate this knowledge into practice.