'We need to unlock the door from the inside'

Dr Jolel Miah recently completed his PhD and is currently a Lecturer of Psychology at the University of Sunderland and a member of the British Psychological Society's Division of Health Psychology’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce. Here, he discusses his journey as a British Bangladeshi in the Psychology profession, with Associate Editor Chrissie Fitch.

What interests you about Psychology?

There are many things, but my main fascination with Psychology is what it can tell us about human thought and experience. Also, the application of science in Psychology fascinates me in how the discipline is evolving. I am excited to learn about Psychology and what it hasn't taught us because we haven't got the tools or are yet to develop them… this makes it an exciting time for Psychology. 

At the moment, I’m exploring what variables change after an intervention, so if something is status quo when we do an intervention, what changes? How do we measure this? I'm interested in the psycho-spiritual connection in health, well-being, and our views of the world. 

What inspired you to study the branches that you did/do?

After graduating with a degree in Psychology from the University of Hertfordshire, I was leaning towards Clinical Psychology like most students. Throughout undergrad, I gained experience via placements in educational, organisational, counselling, and forensic settings. I came across the Health Psychology discipline as a result of both accident and opportunity. In fact, in my third year of undergrad, I did go to some taster sessions for Health Psychology, but I found I did not enjoy it as it seemed too much hard work for someone like me, so I avoided it as an optional module. Instead, I chose to do the 'Psychology of Performance' module, where I learned about magic, music, dance, sport and topics like that. 

However, after graduating, I started to ask myself what setting I would want to be employed in, and I took up a position in an HIV charity as a support worker. The role was to help others by giving information and arranging training sessions on educating people around HIV. This experience made me realise that I actually enjoyed providing health education to people out in the community. I felt I was making a difference, and people asked me lots of questions about Psychology. I paid attention to how good it felt going home each day because I was doing something constructive and positive. 

So, I enquired at my local University, and spoke to someone who put me on the path I am on now. She was teaching a course on the 'Psychological Approaches to Health Management’. After a brief discussion, she signposted me to Health Psychology, where I spoke to someone who would later become my PhD supervisor. I'm very grateful because I had gained experience in the workplace, schools, colleges, and now in a charity; I needed this experience in various settings to help me decide that, after all, Health Psychology is for me. I wanted to do something positive and contribute. I felt my efforts would be best served in prevention. 

In our first Zoom call, you mentioned that you run a charity called Our Minds Matter

'Our Minds Matter' is a mental health charity providing education for faith communities. It initially started as a project in 2014 where I gave a talk to a group of people in the town at my former high school about mental health and mental illness. After this talk, I invited people to help with mental health crises we faced in the town. After many projects and educational engagement events, we registered with the UK Charities Commission. I co-founded the charity and continue to be the Chair of the organisation; all of us are volunteers, including me.  

We also provide consultancy to local mental health services to help people from faith communities, especially Black, Asian and ethnic minorities. There are two areas to our work 1) to deliver health education through a range of public engagement at events and workshops and 2) to provide solutions to local services about health service provision for underrepresented communities. 

My specific role is to listen and empower members to help tackle stigma and discrimination for people with mental illness. In addition, I am to provide a way forward from a psychological perspective by bringing in the discipline so that people can utilise this approach to help them with their well-being and achieve their full potential. I also mentor Psychology students by offering them volunteering experience in the charity, where they will learn about project management, behaviour change, public engagement and health education. 

I'm British-Sri Lankan myself and therefore identify and advocate for BAME communities. With your work in equality, diversity and inclusion and Black History Month approaching, how do you feel your charity, and the Psychology field as a whole, can best support this time? 

For me, it's about listening, and with the field of Psychology, we have got to get a lot of things right, and more importantly, I would use the word accurately. If we are to help people, it is essential to listen to people about their stories, histories, and challenges. 

We are human first, then human beings, so we must do things that help us all to move forward… but to do this, we need acknowledgement of people's pain and trauma; this is the goal of studying Psychology, helping people. 

Many BAME students that I taught in Psychology have approached me to discuss overcoming both internal and external barriers they’d face. They say ‘you got here, how did you did do it? And did you deal with those barriers?’ My first thought is that you don't want to reinforce those barriers, and you don't want to be dishonest, so I measure my response to give hope and provide ways forward. There is no point in being angry with their world; it frustrates our thinking and problem-solving skills. The other risk is that you will be targeted and discriminated against if you speak about such matters. This behaviour is not new, and that's why people get tarred as troublemakers - listening to experts and people with lived experience. Most people want a competent and compassionate professional in the field of Psychology. We are working with the most vulnerable in society, so we should be developing the personnel that is fit to do that. We have to create a community that has meaningful and shared values. 

The good news is we don't have to look far for the answers; in my view, the solutions are here, right under noises in the field of Psychology. We need to be brave enough to ask hard questions and explore as our discipline has always done. If we ignore this area, it will go under the surface and come back as something else and probably more complex. 

Tell me a little more about your podcast. 

'Psychology Cast' is where I host interviews and talk to a range of unique individuals in my spare time. The idea came about after a friend suggested that I host a podcast because he found our conversations quite interesting. I didn't exactly agree with him, but I believed his judgement, and I thank him because he encouraged me to do this podcast, and I have learnt so much from people. The main goal of the podcast is to know more about myself and my journey, and I do this by learning from others. 

In the future, I intend to continue to interview people about their journey about what they do, their purpose and their work because it will hopefully provide some inspiration to me and others around me. I notice that people are looking up to me, and I want to signpost them to other people because I think information and experiences should be shared and not be hoarded. I don't have all the answers, and I am still searching for some, and the podcast helps me do that. The guests on the podcast have been remarkable, and I am grateful for their time, thoughts, experiences and insights. It has shown me the level of resilience humans have to endure to survive. 

Mention one proud moment of your Psychology journey.

I tend not to use the word 'proud', but this one is an emotional one for me since leaving high school with only 3C's; I was a young carer and spent the most time looking after people instead of focusing on my education. I didn't tell anyone about it because I thought that's life and it’s normal. I remember walking home alone silently. I didn't say a word and was just numb. So, I would say that after a 15-year journey, to achieve a BSc, MSc, and a PhD in Psychology has been the happiest moment. 

Via Twitter, I am aware that you won 'I'm a Scientist Get Me Out of Here'. Do you feel that period impacted your journey in any way? 

I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here was a fantastic experience. I saw it come up, and they were looking for the next round of people to share what they do in the field of Psychology. I applied, filled in my bio, and the team was super helpful. They were so happy for you to participate; I got the chance to participate through secure online chat forums where people from secondary school and college asked me questions about what it was like as a PhD student and a psychologist in training. Why did I choose this route, and is it hard doing a PhD? What is it like working in Prison and having mental health problems? They also had personal questions such as how I coped as a young carer and stayed motivated. The questions were fascinating, and some of them wanted to become psychologists in the future. I was pleasantly surprised when they nominated me as their winner. I was just happy to take part because it makes a difference at that age; when someone comes in from that profession and shares real-life practice, they want to see Psychology in Action, and this initiative did that. 

As a British born Bangladeshi, having been awarded your PhD, where do you hope Psychology will be in five years?

I would like to see more opportunities for undergrad students from Black Asian and Ethnic minorities. I would like to see them in research and academic positions. I would also like to see them in leadership roles and at the board level. Representation matters, as we know from Social Psychology and identity theory. If we are to progress within the Psychology profession, we have to bring all minds to the table and empower them. We need to unlock the door from the inside and let people make a difference and contribute to the society we live in. I also hope for Psychology as a discipline to be more mainstream and relate to the public more. 

What would you advise aspiring psychologists of ethnic minorities?

We need you, and we need your help. The discipline of Psychology has to be away from being one dimensional. Don't be clones, and don't take on personalities from other people. Ask yourself what difference you would like to make and also the contribution you think you can make. Be true to yourself, your values, principles and morals, bring your whole self to the discipline of Psychology and don't abandon who you are. This is what makes the field of Psychology fascinating. This is what people relate to; the unique differences in human beings. Connect with others who have similar interests and share your thoughts, ideas and experience with them. Help people around you; if you are studying Psychology, you would already have some knowledge and insights to help educate others. Use what you have and be passionate about what you do. 

People don't buy into people but buy into the message they're sending out to them. If it's caring and compassionate, then start to practise these behaviours. Don't lose hope and think you can't make a difference because the discipline of Psychology needs your intelligence and your experience to help society. We can't do this alone, and therefore we need you. Please remember this if you are thinking of giving up on this discipline. I know it's complex and challenging, but you must keep going, and it's okay if you want to take a break. Most importantly, be happy and be at peace with yourself; nothing else matters, whatever direction you are going in or the choices you will make.

- You can tweet Dr Jolel Miah via @DrJolel or email him on [email protected]

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