Gunnedah psychologist Heather Vernon has officially closed her practice after 30 years of commitment to the local community.
The experienced mental health professional, who originally wanted to be a geography teacher, but would later become Gunnedah’s first locally-based psychologist, described the final weeks as both exciting and overwhelming at the same time.
The hardest part of the retirement transition has been “letting go” of people and families, some who she has known for generations.
“I’ve had some very deep connections with people in the district and there is almost a grief in letting go of that,” Heather told the Gunnedah Times.
She said packing up the practice made the experience all the more real.
“I’d pick up a file, there would be a photo of a little child who I worked with who probably has children of their own now, and I’d remember the person and reminisce … that is the moment I thought ‘this is really happening’.”
After seeing the last clients of her career, Heather said the work had taken a heavy emotional toll.
“I’m very tired and the reason I’m doing this is because I’m so exhausted and I always promised I’d stop before I could no longer give 100 per cent,” she said.
“I’m looking forward to more time with family and friends and doing more community work that I haven’t had time to do.”
Heather recalled how she literally stumbled into her career during the second year of a teaching scholarship at Newcastle University.
“One day I went to the wrong lecture room. It was a psychology lecture about the cognition of learning and I was captivated,” she said.
“Anything about how the human mind works and the incredible brain we have, that’s what gets me going and that is where it all began.”
Heather recalled an “amazing teacher” in geography who sparked her early passion of learning and the human mind.
“Geography is about how humans fit into the human environment and there was something she ignited at that point to do geography teaching which speared off into the human behaviour part of that,” she said.
After meeting her husband at university, the couple married in 1977 as Heather continued further study while working and gaining psychotherapy experience as well as neuroscience and volunteer roles with organisations for people with disability.
“I had good advice from a lecturer at university who said, ‘I think you’re the person who needs to get on and do; you will be a learner by doing it’ and I remember I always wanted that,” she said.
These early roles were all about gaining clinical skills experience in how to be a psychologist not just learning about psychology.
Children followed soon after and the family moved from Sydney to a farm in Gunnedah in 1987. It was here that her career really started to take shape in the early 1990s.
“I started in Community Health at Gunnedah and was the first psychologist they put on in Gunnedah,” she said.
“I was sharing the on-call sexual assault service with the Social Worker and back then we had quite a significant role in town where we were on call 24/7.”
Heather said although a social worker position still exists today in Gunnedah’s public health network, the absence of a psychologist is a concern given the increasing workload on the social worker.
“That to me is a loss because it is an area of trauma and of great need,” she said.
“Stress and anxiety today are through the roof – my referral rate for anxiety would be 10 times what it used to be.
“It used to be an occasional disorder but it’s now 90 per cent of my work.”
During her career, Heather worked in generalist child and family, aged care, brain injury, paediatrics but later developed a special interest supporting children with developmental and psychiatric disorders as well as those of all ages who have experienced trauma. The specialist area proved to be one of her biggest challenges but also greatest rewards.
“Coping and dealing with the emotional fallout of that is incredibly hard because you can’t save them all,” she said.
“If you can be with someone to help them through their worst times, that’s a big privilege.”
She also found dealing with “acrimonious parents” in failed relationships as particularly challenging.
“Sometimes it evolves that way and you need to be as objective as you can,” she said.
Heather’s private practice started in 2003 and included mental health, workplace injuries, victims of crime, firearm assessments, work with children in Out of Home Care, forensic assessments, learning and developmental assessments, NDIS and CTP “… there’s never been a dull moment” she said.
Heather also employed a business manager and secretary to help run the practice.
She said it was a privilege to share the small moments of great joy in people’s lives.
“Anytime you see someone in their worst time, and then in their best time and you might get a message, a note or just a smile – they are the moments that I know that’s why I’m here and they are treasured moments,” she said.
“I did forensic work along the way and seeing people who have been incarcerated, get released, accept responsibility for what they have done and turn their life around … sitting with them through that, it’s magic.
“We all make mistakes and at some point, you need to forgive yourself to move forward.”
Despite the challenges ahead for those working in mental health professions, she had great faith in the capability of her colleagues.
“We are strong believers that psychologists and social workers can do amazing work and if we work together in a small community like this to support each other to stay here and keep doing what we do, our community is all the better for it,” Heather said.
“There are some amazing people doing great work in this town alongside our wonderfully dedicated GPs and I really honour them.”
She also paid tribute to her family and friends who laid the foundation for a successful career many decades in the making.
“I had beautiful parents who raised us with a lot of freedom, creativity and imagination but with clear limits, boundaries and consequences,” Heather said.
“I’m grateful to them and my husband who has helped raise our children and grandchildren.
“They have allowed me to be in this role and without them I couldn’t have done it.
“There are plenty of times I’ve got home from work and been a blubbering mess or couldn’t make simple decisions because I had nothing left.
“My family and friends; they have made all the difference.”
She also called on today’s parents in the Gunnedah community to set clear boundaries for their own children.
“Love them unconditionally, model kindness and compassion for others but put serious, grounded limits around them so they learn that life doesn’t just give you what you want. Let them know sometimes ‘no’ is there for a good reason and stick to it,” she said.
Looking ahead, Heather described her career as “amazing, extraordinary and incredibly privileged work” but with retirement now beckoning, she was looking forward to spending more quality time engaged in the community and with those who she holds dearest.
“I’m looking to be a more involved community member rather than an observer because I’ve been sitting here,” she said.
“It will also mean more time with family and friends who have been a little bit neglected at times. I can’t wait to forge a local difference in combatting climate change and our housing crisis.
“I haven’t had much left over in the past but they can have the ‘all of me’ now.”
She leaves with some sadness, pride but massive gratitude to the many thousands of people who’ve shaped who she has become.To order photos from this page click here