When psychologist Carla Bradley, PhD, decided to take a first job in rural Wyoming, she was in for some acclimation. It was a community far different from what she was used to--she had grown up near Indianapolis and had started her professional life as a social worker in Houston.
One of the biggest differences Bradley says she encountered in Crook County, Wyo., was the insular nature of frontier communities. She was also surprised by the lack of separation between her personal life and her professional life; everyone in the community knew her as "the psychologist," a distinction that gave her the high profile of a public servant. There was an apparent expectation that she put being personable ahead of being professional. Bradley found that tricky at first, but she's since learned to blend the two.
Bradley says her four years as Crook County's only psychologist shaped her professional outlook by forcing her to consider herself a generalist and showing her she could be self-sufficient in attending to community needs without easy access to colleagues for consultation.
"My early identity as a psychologist was forged on my own, in response to the needs of the community," she says. "That's a very unique way to start a career."
Much of the culture shock emerged from having her clients pop up in her regular, daily life in the tiny community. But the more difficult aspect was working with other professionals who followed their discipline's ethics code as it had been shaped by practice on the frontier--not exactly as she had learned APA's Ethics Code in an urban academic setting. "Many of the professionals within my county were home-grown or were from other frontier or rural states like Montana and the Dakotas," she says. "I walked into a number of tough situations by not examining my assumptions about professionalism more carefully, and by not clearly recognizing how much things would be different in such a very different cultural milieu."
For example, local professionals were sometimes frustrated when Bradley would not informally reveal confidential information about clients, and, while in their professional roles, school counselors would sometimes question Bradley's judgment in the presence of her clients with whom they happened to be friendly. She quickly learned that one of the keys to overcoming such misunderstandings without stepping over any ethical lines herself was simple friendliness--a skill she says any frontier psychologist should take seriously.
"If you're going to work out there on the frontier, you need to make sure you have a significant ability to be friendly," she says. "More distant professional stances can be very off-putting. People on the frontier can be very afraid if they're not approached in a comforting way."
Because of all the new ground Bradley had to break professionally--in particular, working with children and older adults for the first time in her career--Bradley says it took a year to feel that she was functioning well in her job.
"It was probably two years before I began to feel like I wasn't so much of an outsider and was understanding what I was doing from an internal perspective," she says.
Despite the challenges, Bradley feels her role as the lone clinical psychologist was important for the county. One year into a position as a staff psychologist and trainer at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Bradley looks back at her Wyoming experience fondly.
"After a long struggle to feel effective and accepted, I believe the community started taking me into their hearts," she says. "Once that happens there's a tremendous loyalty that develops between the provider and the community. I felt like I provided a valuable service that wouldn't have existed without my presence as a frontier psychologist."