Terese Emelle is a consultant psychiatrist and an EMDR therapist with Nigerian heritage. In her interview, she discusses what drew her to psychiatry, the training process, finding a job after relocating to the UK, and the highlights of her career. Terese also shares the advice she has for the black British community.
Early life & Family
My cultural background is Nigerian, West African, my parents were immigrants in the sixties, but incidentally, my dad actually came into the UK in the ’50s to study medicine. He was one of the first West Africans who came in here and studied medicine at the University of Liverpool. He finished in 1959 and he went back to the country. Got married. Had two children, my older brother, my oldest sister. And then at some point he came back, I think it wasn't perhaps around 1964 to the UK to do his specialist training. So around about that time, I then got born in 1966. So he was working in the NHS and interestingly, we lived in England. I was born in England in London, but we moved to Scotland. So my primary school, I started primary school in Glasgow because he was working at the Glasgow Royal infirmary at the time. So we, we, you know, we did primary school.
Motivation to work in healthcare
I went to the University of Nigeria. I studied Medicine when I finished my medical training, my study, at another university, University of Lagos. I did an MsC in Clinical Psychology because at that time I was formulating my intention to work as a psychiatrist. And I was mindful of the fact that there was a lot of stigma around psychiatry, the stigma here in the UK, but there's even more stigma back home in western Africa. So, a lot of people were surprised that I wanted to be a psychiatrist.
But somewhere along the line, in medical school, psychiatric patients seemed to be drawn to me. So whenever I would go, if I went to the ward to do the rounds, the psychiatric patients, they were drawn to me. If I was there with a group of other medical students they would come to me, they were seeking me out. They were treating me - I was just a medical student - but they were treating me like I was a doctor. They were saying “help me, can you help me?”. They were asking for help, just coming to me. The doctors were there, the other students were there, but they would seek me out. Even if I stood at the back. I would have a patient pointing at me and saying “you, you can help me! You! Only you”. So that happened many times on different wards. And I started wondering “why are they picking on me in that sort of manner? What makes them think I can help them? I’m just a student. I’m not even qualified. Even at that, there’s other students there, but they’re always coming to me”. So my other classmates started saying maybe you’re meant to do psychiatry, maybe there’s something about you that these patients, they like you. There’s something about you”.
Racism & Discrimination
Well, to be honest with you, I haven’t experienced a lot of discrimination personally myself, but I think that was off the charts, the most significant one. I think mostly, it’s been observing it, having it being reported to me by other professionals for the most part. But for me that was a critical one, and the reason it was a critical one, and the reason it was very critical was because predominantly, my unit which was a top performing unit, we predominantly had 98% Black and ethnic staff. So it was staffed by predominantly Black and ethnic staff, our service users were predominantly 99% caucasian. The staff were predominantly Black and ethnic, and we were the highest performing and had the best feedback and not being recognised. So I thought it wasn’t just because of me, it might have been because we were a black team. So I don’t think they wanted the team, if we had been photographed, if they had taken pictures we would have all been Black, fully Black. So I think they really didn’t want that. So I think we just had one member of staff who was actually white. At that time, I don;t know what it’s like now, but at that time. [This was] 2014, maybe 2016, so fairly recently.
Well my highlights as a health professional really, are my successes. Because my successes are predominantly, for the most part, just seeing people recover, seeing people get better, seeing people get their lives back. Seeing people come to me, or sometimes they don’t come to me - they go to the nurses, they go to the managers and say “I’m so grateful for the help I’ve got from Dr Emelle, I’m so grateful for what she’s done, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her”, I’ve had a lot of people say “I would have been dead” “I would have committed suicide” “I saw no hope for the future, I was completely helpless but now I feel like I’ve got my life back, I can get on with my life”. So hearing that over and over again, that is the biggest reward, and the biggest success. Because for some people, you can help one individual and you’ve actually helped a generation of individuals not just that one person.
Don't settle. Don't just assume that because you're from this background or that background in life is going to be difficult or the opportunities are not open to you. Because again, as Bob Marley said in his song, one of his lyrics, he said, ‘Emancipate yourself, a mental slavery numbered ourselves can free our minds’. And that's a lyric in one of his songs. And I do listen to his songs because he is a fellow. He was a philosopher. And that is true. I feel that to be true that black people frequently, yes. There's issues in the society that can hold you down, but black people often hold themselves down. So you have a double. Tragedy that the society is holding you down and you're holding yourself down as well. And I think people need to have the knowledge and the wisdom as to how do you stop yourself from holding yourself down? Because it's a mental attitude. It's a mindset that some people have, not everybody has it.