[Pharmacy + Me] with Fai Yousaf: from Pharmacy to Psychotherapy
A pharmacy degree is not just any old degree. Throughout the four years of the undergraduate Masters, you learn a range of topics from the science of pharmacology to how to counsel patients about their medications. Not many people realise the breadth and depth of the pharmacy degree, and you probably won’t realise just how many skills you actually graduate with.
Once you start in the real world of work, life is different. You have to keep up with the demands of the profession, not just in an academic sense but in a ‘this-is-actually-affecting-people’s-lives’ sense. The weight of your actions feels heavier on your shoulders. You may wake up in the middle of the night wondering if you dispensed the correct medication for that patient. Screening prescriptions is no longer a task you do with the supervision of tutors and lecturers, but something you must take full responsibility for.
Sometimes, it’s not a bad idea to take a breather and see what else life has to offer. You don’t need to be stuck in one career path if it’s not bringing you any positivity, or quite simply if you’re no longer enjoying it. Make no mistake, however, that qualifying as a pharmacist gives you the skills to pursue many areas of work. It just requires a little bit of imagination and connecting with yourself to know what you want to do.
Our next interviewee is Fai Yousaf, a pharmacist-turned-psychotherapist. I’m really excited to share Fai’s thoughts as a lot of her sentiments resonate with my own thoughts on the world of pharmacy.
Tell us about yourself!
I’ve been a qualified pharmacist for over fifteen years, working predominantly in community pharmacy where I’ve had a few long term management roles in both large corporates and smaller village pharmacies run by independents (which I far more enjoyed!).
I enjoy writing, having written on a blog myself with an aim to create conversations considered taboo in the culture I come from. I recently retrained and qualified after a three-year journey to become a counsellor and psychotherapist. I now have my own private practice where I work with clients who come with a range of difficulties from trauma, grief, low mood and anxiety to name but a few.
How has pharmacy impacted your career aspirations and goals?
I became disillusioned with pharmacy many years ago. I worked for a big corporate in my early years and could see that patient care wasn’t at the forefront but rather everything was guided by money, such as pressure put on staff to ensure targets were met.
I left jaded and joined a small independent pharmacy where I stayed for around ten years as a manager. I took two sabbaticals in my time here where I pursued work abroad, which included some grassroots aid work and some teaching work.
This led to some soul searching as to what was keeping me in my current role as it was clear to me that I didn’t enjoy the pharmacy aspect. What it boiled down to was that I enjoyed the relational aspect that this particular pharmacy role had allowed me; creating amazing relationships with the community I worked in but also the relationships I had with my staff members.
What motivated you to pursue a counseling as a career?
In my role with the independent pharmacy, I felt complicit in a real problem I was seeing: over-prescribing. I had the luxury of time to spend with my patients and it was clear that many who were prescribed medications for anxiety or low moods had a root cause to their difficulties.
I felt medication was simply sticking a plaster over a much deeper issue. I felt uncomfortable with prescribing budgets dictating how patient health was dealt with particularly when it came to their mental health. This along with the fact that I had struggled to find an Asian counsellor when I needed therapy prompted me to retrain.
How do you combine your pharmacy expertise/skills with practising as a counsellor?
In all honesty, there’s not much overlap. I would say the main way would be through the fact that I am not anti-medication and due to my background in pharmacy, I know the real value medication can have for people, such as those who have crippling depression. I have more of an understanding for why people opt for medication if they do.
What aspects of counseling are not present in pharmacy?
Empathy. The profession to me centres so largely around money that it’s become uncomfortable and in all honesty, I feel it can be quite a greed-driven profession. There isn’t that relationship with patients because staffing is cut so low that it’s almost impossible to be able to create closeness with people.
Do you view a ‘career change’ as a positive or negative (or neutral), and why?
Massively positive. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it really brought home to me how little pharmacists are thought of and what a thankless profession it can be.
Retraining in another field has given me options to start reducing the amount of work I do in a field that I’m struggling more and more to stay in.
What advice would you give a pharmacy/pre-reg student who’s thinking about changing careers?
Do it. It might take a couple of years of hard work but the payoff will be worth it. I would probably suggest trying your hand at different things, even if it’s not what you end up in as it might provide insight into what you enjoy.
Some final advice from Fai:
I appreciate that my answer may have been quite negative towards pharmacy and I suppose I’d like to clarify that I do know there are many passionate people out there in the pharmacy world who deeply care about their patients.
Unfortunately, I think difficulties caused by those in power such as contractors and even the regulatory bodies who don’t seem to have pharmacist interests at heart have made it impossible for it to be a profession I see myself in any longer. Whilst I was 37 when I made the jump to another career, it was the right time for me and I have no regrets about not doing it earlier. My life experience makes me the counsellor that I am.