Professional Practice out of the Urban Context: Defining Canadian Rural Psychology

Article excerpt

There is an often unacknowledged difference between urban and rural practice in psychology which lacks clarity, in part, because of the lack of a common definition of rurality. Rural psychology in Canada presents complex and nuanced aspects of professional practice. The professional and social milieus of rural communities position the practising psychologist within a context that may differ vastly from urban settings. The rural context highlights the need to define this specific practice setting. This paper proposes a tentative definition of rural Canadian professional practice in psychology. This is meant to elucidate the distinct practice, training, and ethical considerations that may be the realities of the psychologists who are in professional practice in rural Canada. Rural professional practice is unique and Canadian training programs are urban-based. Training of future psychologists needs to acknowledge the unique features of rural practice to meet our obligations to students specifically and to rural Canadians generally. This is enhanced with a shared definition of rural professional practice in psychology.

Keywords: professional practice, rurality, professional ethics, Canadian psychology

Communities and peoples differ across contexts and small communities are a vibrant part of the fabric of Canadian society. Small communities can be defined by culture, professional experience, geographical separation, and of course, rurality. In most small communities, providers of psychological services will experience overlapping relationships and difficulties in separating formal and informal community participation (Schank & Skovholt, 2006). Psychology in Canada tends to reflect urban-centricpolicies typical in North America which may not be responsive to the rural context (Jameson & Blank, 2007; Misener et al., 2008). This has implications for the availability of rural-specific formal training, research, and literature. Psychologists need to acknowledge the unique features of rural practice to meet our obligations in training psychologists and for psychology to contribute to rural Canadians generally. This is enhanced with a shared definition of rural professional practice in psychology.

There is a need to define rural practice in its complexity. The literature does not coalesce around a standard definition of rural practice in psychology. Definitions that do exist focus on population and distance. In empirical studies operational definitions ranged from communities of 2500 to under 20000 people or by distance such as 50 kilometres from an urban centre (Bazana, 1999; du Plessis, Beshiri, Bollman, & Clemenson, 2001; Ministry of Rural Affairs, 2000). The defining characteristics of rurality became an issue in a study of medical students in the United Kingdom. In that study, "What is rural?" became an unintended theme of the research (Deaville et al., 2009). Indeed, the authors concluded that degree of rurality, or what is rural, "will mean different things to different people, depending on their background" (Deaville et al., 2009, p. 1165).

A better articulated definition of rural professional practice in psychology is needed but will be difficult to achieve. My collaborations with rural psychologists from across the country have highlighted the variability in rural cultures and communities. How can we compare such diverse rural communities and come up with a suitable definition of rural practice? Can there really be engaged discussion on professional ethics in such a poorly defined context? Although the issues identified for small communities are not exclusive to rural communities, this paper will focus on the needs, practice considerations, and sensitivities specific to rural Canadian communities as these impact professional practice. This is particularly prudent as about 20% of the Canadian population is rural (Barbopoulos & Clark, 2003; Harowski, Turner, LeVine, Schank, & Leichter, 2006). …