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Feminist Approaches to Clinical Psychology

July 20, 2023

By Valeriia Kirillova

Photograph by Elena Dressler

Street Artist unknown

The following reflexive text narrates my learning experience during the course "Exploring Feminist Research Methodologies in the Social Science," which took place from April 24th to July 10th, 2023. The goal of the course was to familiarize myself with the theoretical framework of feminist research and methodologies, as well as their practical application. Participating in this course, I aimed to gain a deeper understanding of diverse feminist methodologies and explore their potential application in my own research within the field of clinical psychology.


The initial part of our seminar primarily focused on theoretical approaches such as postmodernism and poststructuralism. I found these concepts highly relevant to my existing knowledge because stigma and discrimination significantly impact research in clinical psychology. Historically, data concerning mental illnesses primarily reflected male symptoms, and the field was not inclusive for a considerable period. Even now we lack a deeper understanding of female symptoms, because they are not researched enough. Early studies often described symptoms based on male experiences, and adjusted to include a more diverse understanding of symptoms in response to feminist critique of the discipline. 


Changes in the field started with the group of women who suggested a feminist approach to research and therapy. The pioneers of feminist therapy aimed to establish a therapeutic approach that would provide an environment free from prevalent issues such as sexism, misogyny, and stereotyping that had long been pervasive in the mental health profession. These early adherents of feminist therapy recognized the need for a transformative change to address the specific needs and experiences of women in psychotherapy. The feminist perspective on what constitutes effective psychotherapy practice, such as the utilization of written informed consent that clearly outlines the rights of the client (Hare-Mustin, Marecek, Kaplan, & Liss-Levinson, 1979), is no longer considered radical in challenging therapist authority. Neither is a new ethic codex that forbade the sexual relationships between client and psychotherapist. Instead, these feminist constructs are now regarded as foundational to ethical practice for all psychotherapists. Many of the innovative ideas introduced by feminist therapy have been integrated into mainstream models of client rights and the responsibilities of psychotherapists (Ballou, Hill, & West, 2008). However, it is often taken for granted today, and the influential role of feminist therapy in bringing about these changes may go unnoticed, much like the radical origins of signed consent to psychotherapy have become invisible over time. 


One of the main authorities in the field of psychology is the American Psychological Association (APA). They note that they lack diversity among students in the field, and that research problems are connected to a lack of inclusivity in clinical psychology. They state that inclusivity must be reached not only in research samples, but also among students. According to information provided by the APA, approximately 20% of individuals who obtained doctoral degrees in clinical psychology in 2003 belonged to ethnic minority groups (J. Kohout, personal communication, March 2005). Over the years, there has been a consistent increase in the proportion of ethnic minority students receiving PhD degrees in psychology across various disciplines, rising from 13% in 1989 to 22% in 2003. One of the challenges identified by these sources is the sense of isolation, as highlighted in a 2018 survey conducted by the APAGS (Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers) among 147 graduate students.


A notable illustration of the current imbalance in the diagnosis of mental disorders is the significant difference in late diagnosis rates between men and women with ADHD. In childhood, the ratio of boys to girls diagnosed with ADHD is approximately 3:1, whereas in adulthood, the ratio becomes closer to 1:1. This suggests that girls and women are often under diagnosed during childhood (Da Silva et al., 2020). ADHD is among the most prevalent psychiatric disorders during childhood and can lead to cognitive challenges and functional limitations (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). Receiving a diagnosis of ADHD can have a profound impact on a woman's self-esteem and sense of identity (Waite, 2010). For many women, the diagnosis serves as a pivotal moment of clarity, offering an external explanation for their struggles and enabling them to embrace themselves more fully (Stenner et al., 2019).


To further research and highlight discrimination in the field one might apply new methods that will allow access to more social layers. As the course progressed, we delved into classic research methods such as meta-analysis and content/media analysis, which was entirely new to me. I recognized its usefulness in qualitative research aimed at analyzing phenomena prevalent in media platforms such as the internet and television. Personally, I would apply this method to analyze media representations of mental illnesses, including the experiences of individuals who face mental health challenges, to evaluate the extent of internal discrimination.


Participating in discussions not only exposed me to more inclusive ways of approaching methodologies, but it also allowed me to challenge my own criticisms. One key idea in poststructuralism is that the way we speak about things shapes our understanding and perception of them. Therefore, employing person-first language, which distinguishes the person from their mental illness symptoms, is emphasized. Working within a group setting, I had the opportunity to refine my thoughts and express them in a neutral manner, leaving room for constructive debates and discussions.


In conclusion, the course "Exploring Feminist Research Methodologies in the Social Sciences" provided a valuable learning experience. I gained knowledge about diverse feminist methodologies and their applications, expanding my understanding of research in clinical psychology. The theoretical frameworks, such as postmodernism and poststructuralism, resonated with the challenges faced in this field, particularly regarding stigma and discrimination. Additionally, learning about research methods, for example, meta-analysis broadened my perspective on analyzing phenomena within media platforms. Lastly, engaging in discussions within the course allowed me to challenge my own criticisms and develop the ability to express my thoughts neutrally, fostering constructive dialogue. Overall, this course has equipped me with valuable tools and insights that will undoubtedly influence my future research endeavors in the field of clinical psychology and gave me a great motivation to research the challenges that modern psychology faces. 

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