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Alumni Stories

Grads 2024: Dan McDougall

“I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t been impacted by mental health issues or the suicide of a family member or friend,” Barkindji man and University of Canberra Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) graduate Dan McDougall says.

“Mental health and suicide prevention are really big passions for me – I have always wanted to study psychology.”

Growing up, the signs were there for Dan – in high school, when he did career suitability assessments, psychology would often pop up. Even when he chose a different path after Year 12, he eventually found his way back to psychology.

At 18, Dan hit a crossroads in his life. Hard.

He had been part of an elite NRL team’s youth pathway for four years, but a stint in hospital gave him time to ponder where his life was headed.

Recruited to the Canberra Raiders from his hometown of Dubbo at the tender age of 14, Dan grew up quickly in Canberra, but always managed to find time for study alongside training.

At the end of his school years, lying in hospital after a corrective heart operation, he had a dream pathway into potential fame and fortune as a senior NRL player – but also a gnawing recognition that he yearned to explore other pathways.

“At the time when I made the decision to not play footy anymore, the idea had already been churning in my mind. I had just finished Year 12 and I had lost my love of the game,” Dan says.

“It was a hard transition, and I stepped away from the sport entirely.”

While Dan had always wanted to be a psychologist, he ended up working across government, community, and education sectors in different roles, before he returned to the idea of starting a degree when he was 23.

He completed his undergraduate psychology degree online and earned exceptional marks by thinking through how to study most successfully – trading the physical discipline of the NRL for the mental discipline required for study.

“I am older now, and I can look back at that time chasing a successful NRL career with fond memories . I went through with a lot of very famous NRL players who are doing well now, and I am just really happy for them that it worked out. I am in a good place, pursuing a career that is much more suited to my stature, physique and personality,” Dan says.

“I have always been interested in how people work. You notice a lot of individual differences between people and I wanted to understand that more.

“It was really good coming in as a mature age student and having a bit of life experience, thinking about the best way to study and learn – which is not the sort of thing you think of when you are 18!”

Dan McDougall on campus

Dan finished his online degree while working as a disability support worker, and then decided to complete his Honours at UC.

“I was working on a research project and I wanted to be on a campus where I could access my supervisor and while there were a few choices I could have gone with, I decided on UC because I felt really comfortable here,” Dan says.

During his Honours year, Dan explored roles in academia and the community-controlled sector before deciding that clinical work and research was where he wanted to be. His Honours thesis, which is being considered for publication, focused on analysing the effects of role overload and stress on mothers with young children.

“My research project involved a lot of hands-on work and I ended up with a really good Honours year. I performed quite well and really enjoyed learning, and the process of digging deep into something,” Dan says.

“My honours year solidified that for me and gave me a chance to get my arms around something substantial.”

Dan’s efforts resulted in him being awarded the prestigious Tom Calma Medal for 2024.

The Medal, named in honour of former UC Chancellor Professor Tom Calma AO, is awarded to a graduating Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander student who has achieved outstanding academic results and has made a valuable contribution to the University and/or the wider community.

The Medal is not awarded every year – it is only when an exceptional graduating student is identified, highlighting the culmination of Dan’s journey.

“It’s a validation of all the years of hard work that I put in,” Dan says.

“It’s not just the study, it’s also all the other things going on in my life and being able to put all that together and doing work that impacts the community, and then getting recognised with such a prestigious award – it's a tremendous honour.

“When I started this journey, I never studied for awards. I studied for what I was interested in and my wanting to help people in the psychology space – helping people deal with mental health issues, addiction, anxieties, suicidality.”

“Along the way, I’ve just really fallen in love with studying and academia, and really pursuing that high level of excellence.”

The man who could have been a household name for his feats in a green jersey could now be set to be a household name for his feats of the mind.

Dan has begun his PhD in Clinical Psychology at UC, examining the factors that impact the mental health of fathers and how to support them in the dynamic role fatherhood brings. A father himself, Dan believes that healthy, engaged fathers form an integral part of both families and society.

“Mental health is something that everyone needs to strengthen and protect, no matter where they come from. It doesn’t matter whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous, male or female, old or young – we all need to find ways to develop strong mental health,” Dan says.

For Dan, becoming a father was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to him, but he also recognised that it will be the most challenging thing he will ever do. Because of this, he decided to research better tools for fatherhood through his PhD.

“I started out looking at opportunities to develop research for Indigenous fathers, but didn’t want to restrict the project in the initial stages. So, I will be working with and for fathers from a wide range of backgrounds to begin with, and will niche down later.

“We are in a new world where more is expected of fathers than before  –  but we often aren’t raised with the tools we need for  that.

“I am going to develop a foundational understanding of what fathers need, so they can contribute more to raising their children and also look after themselves along the journey.

“Every father deserves the opportunity to be the best parent they can be for their child.”

As he embarks on the next chapter of his life with a PhD, Dan also keeps an eye on the future and his desire to continue doing something impactful, necessary and important for his community, and society as a whole.

“In the future, ideally I want to be able to be a combination of a clinical psychologist and a research psychologist,” Dan says.

“I want to work with people to make research practical in a clinical setting, and in particular, I want to work with the Indigenous population.

“Indigenous Australians are 2.5 times more likely to die of suicide than non-Indigenous Australians and closing that gap, and addressing the mental health crisis in the Indigenous community, are things I’m very passionate about.”

Words by Mike Verzosa and Tim Winkler. Photos by Tyler Cherry.

This March, the University of Canberra congratulates the graduating class of 2024.

We are so glad to celebrate this milestone with you. You have overcome challenges with grace and resilience, and grown in remarkable ways.

Many of you are already making an impact in your chosen fields, and others have embarked on their postgraduate study path – we look forward to seeing what you achieve in these next steps in your amazing journeys.

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