As she works on her latest research, Associate Professor of Psychology Christienne Dyslin sometimes finds herself having to take a step back when what she is reading hits a little too close to home.
At Governors State University (GSU), her research projects, Spiritual and Faith Development Among LGBTQ Persons and Political Targeting of Transgender Women, are driven, in part, by her own background as a transgender lesbian.
Dyslin is in the process of collecting essays from sexual and gender minorities describing their relationship with religion and spirituality and their own stories in this political climate. The project includes Dyslin’s own story of coming out, her crisis of faith, and her reactions to the political climate as it relates to the LGBT+ community.
“There’s a certain political element that portrays us as dangerous, mentally ill, unstable, and sinful,” said Dyslin, who joined Governors State’s faculty in 2006. “I hope to bring more of a human face to that and try to disabuse people of those sorts of ideas because they’re not grounded in reality.”
Dyslin wants to compile the essays and publish them in a book. She also will use the essays to conduct qualitative research to examine the writers’ experiences and the commonalities they share.
A licensed clinical psychologist, Dyslin teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses in the College of Education’s Division of Psychology and Counseling. Today, she serves as the program coordinator for GSU’s Masters of Arts Psychology Program and supervises clinical interns in that program. She has explored the role of religion and human behavior.
Her work has been published in Mental Health, Religion & Culture, the Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Individual Psychology, and Military Medicine. Her recent work is driven by not only her own personal experiences but the political climate and the issues facing the LGBT+ community. “Somehow ideas get so deeply held or protected that it’s hard for us to look at them,” she said. “So many of us are told ‘don’t talk about politics and religion,’ but I think, why not?”
GSU Newsroom: Can you discuss the LGBT+ affirmative counseling course you developed and teach?
Dyslin: We need people in the mental health professions who are not just tolerant. Just being ‘cool’ with us doesn’t mean that you understand what approach is needed to be most effective.
I try to introduce the concept of LGBT affirming therapy or counseling. In the last ten years, our accrediting bodies have all published guidelines for working with sexual and gender minorities, and I try to help students learn to apply those guidelines in practice.
Some of the concepts we talk about are the difficulties of living in society where anything other than being heterosexual and cisgender (not transgender) is viewed as abnormal, or worse.
One example is the realities of coming out as a lifelong process versus an event. We come out all the time and have to make decisions about whether it’s safe to do so. For example, when I go to get my car fixed and the cashier says ‘Your husband must be really tall,’ do I say, ‘Yeah, he’s huge,” and lie or do I say, ‘I don’t have a husband, I have a wife,’ and now I’m coming out to the clerk, and everyone else in line with me. These are things that heterosexuals don’t have to think about, but they’re everyday experiences for gay people. My hope is to train more people to be able to go out there and offer sensitive and affirmative mental health care to sexual and gender minorities.
GSU Newsroom: What key tool do you think your students need to be good therapists or counselors?
Dyslin: My passion is training really good therapists. What I tend to focus on a lot with students is self-understanding and self-awareness. A lack of self-understanding is what gets practitioners in trouble ... at best they do poor quality work; at worst, they make ethical blunders. With countertransference, a therapist can project something that’s their own unfinished business and react in a way that they don’t even realize if they lack self-awareness.
We’re never going to be perfect, but we need to understand what we bring as human beings to the therapeutic relationship.
GSU Newsroom: What got you interested in the field of psychology?
Dyslin: I’m just an absolute bleeding heart. I feel for people and I hate seeing people in pain and I want to do what I can to alleviate the suffering.
GSU Newsroom: What steps can people take for good mental health?
Dyslin: I think we have to wake up. You cannot have good mental health unless we are aware and awake. We need to be mindfully aware of the present moment and be aware of what we are doing and what’s going on around us. That presence, that being in the here and now, is a huge step toward being mentally healthy. But often we’re scattered all over the place. Being mindful is a discipline. It takes an effort to remind myself to be in the moment, whatever it is and to not beat myself up when I fall short.
GSU Newsroom: What is a motto you try to live by?
Dyslin: Be real. I try to be authentic and bring my whole self to my teaching endeavors and my research.