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One on one... Nothando Ngwenya

We dip into the Society member database and pick Nothando Ngwenya, who is a Research Scientist specialising in person-centred adolescent health interventions at the Wellcome Trust funded Africa Health Research Institute in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

05 March 2020

One thing psychologists could do better
Be more assertive in breaking the mould that society has created for us, in order to show the different facets of our role. People are easily misled by media due to the lack of knowledge on what psychology really is and how it can help. Most people are stuck with the notion that a psychologist is a ‘shrink’ and that people who go to seek help are mentally unstable. This leads to so many missed opportunities for a lot of people who can benefit from this help.

So we must embrace ‘pop psychology’ with the intention of teaching society around theories and correcting the misconceptions. Psychology can become a more approachable profession, but also a more useful one in challenging economical and social difficulties that are rife with varying political ideologies.

One nugget of advice
Psychology should be more than just a job, it’s a way of life. Weave your own interests and strengths into your work and let it guide you to the branch of psychology that you would be most helpful in and where you will grow through the challenges.

One alternative career path
Social worker. Even as I work within health, I realise that the fundamental cause of disease is usually within the social realm and yet it is often overlooked or ignored in the quest for scientific or medical remedies. Health disparities persist, contributing to the ongoing cycle of some major epidemics, including HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are a few empirical applications of the fundamental cause theory (developed by Jo C. Phelan and Bruce G. Link in 1995) and yet I find that it is highly influential in health. Together with research into cures and vaccines, we need research approaches that incorporate a contextual understanding of social factors. My move back to South Africa gave me a better awareness of how those that are disadvantaged will always fare worse in health, experiencing higher mortality rates from preventable diseases and even faster spread of epidemics (HIV, Ebola, Coronavirus…). 

One motto
A motto can be a reminder of one’s values and goal, giving direction and focus in life especially when too many things are competing for our attention and time. Mine is ‘Keep your eyes on the prize’ – but it’s important to know what the ‘prize’ is.

One psychological superpower
Stop Caring What People Think About You! A lot of the time we seek to develop what Carl Jung describes as a ‘persona’ archetype. We want to conform and present a ‘public face’ to people around us, sometimes at the cost of who we really are. This can hold us back from achieving a state of ‘selfhood’, which is similar to Maslow’s idea of self-actualisation: transcending the lower level basic needs and becoming more invested in a life that has no ego but instead is focused on helping others. If we, as a race could achieve this – would it not be amazing and solve a lot of conflict?

One challenging thing about my job
I work in a rural impoverished community, and I notice how advantaged I am. A lot of the interventions that we propose for these communities in low- and middle-income countries are stripped of context and lack understanding of their experiences, their challenges, and their way of life.

In a community, you must think on your feet in order to adapt things to the context and situation. The fact that I also live in the community makes it challenging as I always have to wear the ‘professional’ hat…there’s no ‘clocking off’. This can be quite exhausting and can quickly lead to burnout due to the continual dressing of the ‘persona’ archetype.