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Senator Tells Students Not to Major in Psychology in Bizarre Graduation Speech

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On Saturday, Nebraska’s Republican Senator, Ben Sasse, gave a commencement speech to the graduates of Fremont High School. Aside from being a highly bizarre speech, it was also offensive at times — especially to college psychology majors and the psychology profession in general. During his eight-minute speech, Senator Sasse told the new grads they weren’t missing much (referring to the fact that their graduation ceremony was canceled due to COVID-19), and that most people try to forget high school.

“There are a whole bunch of people who make a whole bunch of money by just trying to help other people forget high school. They’re called psychologists,” Sasse said, adding:

In fact, 95% of all gainfully employed psychologists – and I’m serious, there are dozens of them that are gainfully employed – their job is really just to help people forget high school. And the other 5%, they just research hamsters who got lost in mazes, which, come to think of it, is a lot like high school and that’s why we want to forget it. Those hamsters also need their own psychologist now. Here’s what I’m trying to say: There will always be money to be made in psychology. No, that’s a joke. Do not. If you’re headed to college, do not, do not major in psychology. That part’s not a joke.

You can watch the full speech below.

As a dual major in psychology and human services myself, I found Sasse’s comments to be incredibly disrespectful — as did the American Psychological Association (APA). In a press release, the APA stated:

Senator Sasse’s remarks about psychologists were disrespectful and harmful. Psychologists have been on the front lines helping medical professionals and patients as they struggle with mental health issues triggered by the stress of battling the novel coronavirus. The expertise of these psychologists is needed now and will be needed in the coming months as those affected by the pandemic suffer from a variety of mental health and cognitive related issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

That said, my career goal is not to be a licensed psychologist, so my perspective is a bit different. While I agree that Senator Sasse’s comments were harmful and unfair to psychologists, they were harmful and unfair to other Psychology majors as well.

Firstly, I do not know a single psychology major whose main goal was to enter the field for money. Generally speaking, most psychology majors hope to help people, and they find a Bachelor’s degree in psychology to be the appropriate first step in doing so. Students who major in psychology learn a great deal of information about mental health, cognitive functioning, neuroscience, cultural and social influences and more. I honestly couldn’t tell you a single thing about hamsters, but I could explain Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to you in detail, walk you through Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development, or describe Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning without a moment’s hesitation.

With the information I am learning as a psychology major, I have a variety of meaningful options available to me. Some of us will go on to find jobs as case managers, life coaches or peer support specialists. Others, like myself, will go to grad school and pursue licensure in an area such as social work, school counseling, marriage and family therapy or mental health counseling. Each of these options are meaningful and will play a significant role in empowering individuals to move on in the aftermath of this pandemic — but they were already meaningful prior to the pandemic as well.

I understand that perhaps Sasse believed he was being funny or just making jokes, but it’s not OK to insult an entire professional field for the sake of a cheap laugh, especially when the jokes are being made towards high school graduates who will soon be deciding what they want to do for the rest of their lives. In an entire public high school class of graduates, I have no doubt that at least one of them has considered studying psychology, and I certainly hope Sasse’s comments do not dissuade them from doing so. I am saddened to think of how it must have dampened their excitement over what is to come as they watched their senator insult their dreams for the future.

Additionally, Sasse failed to even mention the very real mental health concerns for which people often seek care from a psychologist or therapist. Disrespecting the field in this way contributes to harmful and inaccurate perceptions of what mental health professionals do, which then perpetuates the stigma that prevents individuals from seeking help when they need it. While some of Sasse’s other comments (particularly where he repeatedly directed a sarcastic ‘thanks’ to China for troubles that have occurred as a result of coronavirus), made it clear that he finds this type of discrimination to be harmless. But there are very real people on the receiving end of his comments, and preventing individuals from seeking help means leaving them in a state of distress without the care they need.

Overall, individuals who study psychology do so much more than helping people forget high school (I don’t believe that’s actually something that any of us do) or study hamsters in mazes, and the comments Sasse made were far from appropriate or acceptable, particularly when addressing a class of high school graduates, and especially in the midst of a pandemic that will certainly have a significant impact on people’s mental health.

And to the future Psychology majors from the 2020 class at Fremont High School: keep following your heart. This is a wonderful field and we are so excited to have you join us.

Header screenshot via Fremont High School YouTube channel

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