MCW clinical psychology intern overcomes many obstacles to reach her goals
Medical College of Wisconsin health psychology resident Yanique Levy, MS, knows firsthand the need for mental preparation, focus and clarity in overcoming life’s obstacles. Levy is a nationally renowned long-jump athlete in her native Jamaica whose career has led her to compete in events worldwide, including the Central American and Caribbean Games, Pan American Games and the London 2012 Olympic trials. But in 2013, Levy shifted her focus toward another challenge: She left professional sports and her six-hour-per-day training schedule to move to Florida and pursue a doctorate in psychology (PsyD).
“Pursuing my degree meant refocusing on other goals I had outside professional sports,” Levy says. “It’s something athletes must do quite often if they decide to stop competing. While being a professional athlete was a huge part of my identity and was something I had to mourn losing, I found the more I was trained in sports, the more I thought about how I could combine my love of sports with my love of psychology. Psychology was something I felt sure I wanted to pursue.”
Levy discovered her interest in psychology when she was still a student in her hometown of Kingston, Jamaica. While she grew up in a supportive household surrounded by loving parents, grandparents, aunts and brother, she observed a cultural stigma and lack of support surrounding people she knew struggling with mental health issues.
“In Jamaica, psychology is still a developing field; there is a stigma around mental health,” Levy reflects. “Consequently, people struggling often do not reach out for the help they need. I had a close friend who had mental health challenges, and I felt powerless to help. This pushed me to learn more about mental health disorders and how to assist people in that area. And as I have progressed through my training, I have seen that psychologists have a role to advocate for our field and make the importance and value of psychology better understood.”
Naturally, Levy’s background has steered her toward a particular interest in working with athletes.
“My goals in psychology have always had the edge over sports for me, but I always knew I wanted to have sports be a part of that process,” she says. “My way of staying connected to sports is to use psychology to help athletes through the challenges they face.”
While she was earning her master’s degree, Levy completed a practicum with high school track students in Jamaica. She focused on helping the athletes work through barriers preventing them from competing at their highest level.
“I realized through that experience that in addition to facing challenges unique to athletes, student athletes are also faced with mental health challenges anyone can face, like depression or anxiety, so those clinically-based issues needed to be worked through as well,” she notes. Levy also has worked with athletes on a prominent Jamaican soccer team.
“The soccer team was very interesting to work with, and many of them were from low-income backgrounds,” she says. “I had to work to educate them about the idea of psychology because when they heard the word ‘psychologist,’ they automatically thought, ‘She thinks we are crazy.’ Instead, I explained how psychology could enhance their skills by doing exercises like progressive muscle relaxation, disputing irrational beliefs and applying past strengths to current and future goals. I saw that even getting them to close their eyes during exercises was difficult because of their cultural experiences and them having a difficult time trusting others. I learned cultural background is very important to take into account when working with patients.”
Levy hopes she will be able to blend the skills she has learned to help athletes.
“I love working in health psychology, specifically rehab psychology and sports psychology, and want to find a way to have both aspects complement each other,” she says. “Rehab psychology focuses on taking a strength-based approach and equipping people to deal with any disabilities as a result of injury or illness along with any problems that might make living a ‘normal life’ a bit difficult, while sports psychology focuses a lot on performance enhancement. My aim is to combine the two.”
When she thinks back to her early days as an athlete, Levy says she wishes she had someone with expertise in psychology to help her work through barriers she faced. In 1998 when she was a competitive high school runner, Levy was a hurdler and had made it to the finals. In the last race, she took a serious fall over a hurdle, severely scraping the left side of her body. This event caused Levy to switch from hurdling to long jump permanently.
“Although I recovered from my physical injuries, ultimately, I wasn’t able to mentally recover from my fall to be a successful hurdler,” she reflects. “It was very traumatic for me, and I wasn’t able to push through it to be successful at hurdles. That experience makes me even more motivated to help other athletes by equipping them with more tools that can help them achieve their goals and live up to their potential.”
Over the course of her training in psychology, Levy has learned to push through and overcome even higher hurdles and obstacles, including financial difficulties as an international student and the rigors of earning a psychology degree. As an international student, she was not eligible for loans for her studies. To pay for school, she worked as a teaching assistant, resident assistant and then as a graduate assistant, applied for and earned scholarships, and received help from her friends, family and community in Jamaica.
“I had friends and family who all helped,” Levy says. “In 2014, we went on the radio in Jamaica and started a fund for my studies. So many people identified with my struggle to pay for school and sent prayers, financial gifts and words of encouragement. A few fellow athletes were also very supportive. I never could have done all of this on my own or without God guiding my steps.”
Levy also points out that the self-discipline, time management and resilience she learned from her years competing as an athlete have helped her persevere and strive for excellence on her journey to her doctorate degree. Striving for excellence is what led her to attend MCW for her internship.
“Attending MCW is an amazing opportunity for me to get feedback and have the resources and training I need to help me improve and perform the best I can as a psychologist,” Levy says. “When I was looking at programs, MCW was a perfect fit. At my interview, everyone was encouraging, accommodating, extremely smart and nice. The cold weather is a bit out of my comfort zone, but I couldn’t imagine a better fit to help me reach my goals. It’s a very rigorous program, but I have all the support I need.”
Once she completes her year at MCW, Levy will go on to complete postdoctoral work. She hopes to either return to Jamaica to do advocacy and education work in psychology to help athletes or continue working in the U.S. Either way, she says her unique journey to become a psychologist has given her insights into how to best help her future patients.
“I really love what I do, and I honestly can’t see myself doing anything else,” Levy concludes. “I’m going full steam ahead and giving 100 percent. I have found something that helps me not only help others but also grow and evolve. I love being that change. I have grown so much through the challenges I faced as an athlete and an international psychology student because I have had to do constant reflection. It has uniquely equipped me to help my patients do the same.”