Alexander Penney has spent the last year working as an assistant professor with MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alta.
There, he and a team of university students are involved in groundbreaking research that may one day change the way mental health disorders are treated by medical professionals.
It’s been a great adventure for the 29-year-old, who has been immersed in the field since the start of his undergraduate studies at MUN in 2004.
“I started off wanting to do psychology because I always thought about coming back here and opening my own clinic in Clarenville,” said Penney.
“That was my original idea. Then when I got into it during my undergrad, I realized there was a big research component. At first, I thought that was going to be terrible, but then I ended up loving it.”
Penney completed his masters in clinical psychology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., in 2010.
Two years into this doctorate, however, he realized the more interpersonal aspect of this discipline just wasn’t for him.
“At grad school I realized that even though I liked the therapy side, I wasn’t a big fan of it,” he laughed. “I wanted to focus more on the research.
“Once I was done, I was really lucky to get a job right away.”
Penney earned his PhD in psychological science in August 2014, one month after starting his teaching role at MacEwan.
The shift in direction ignited Penney’s fascination and fed his natural desire for learning.
“It’s being able to research the unknown, that’s what really makes me so interested in it,” he says. “What I primarily research is worry.”
There are five different models as to why people worry too much, but the tendency is for therapists to be trained in one, Penney explained.
“You only get trained in one model, then you only work in that model. And you only do research on that model to further it,” he said.
“So then people don’t test Theory A against Theory B and that’s what I like to do.
“Instead of being a theory developer, I like being a theory tester.”
Penney’s work in this area has been recognized internationally. Earlier this year, a study by Penney and an undergraduate student linking worry with verbal intelligence was the subject of Huffington Post and BBC Future articles.
“What we found was that people who had more verbal intelligence — those able to explain things better and know better terminology, tend to have higher levels of worry and higher levels of rumination ... rumination is the depression side of worry,” says Penney.
As the head of the Worry and Anxiety Health Lab at MacEwan, the professor and his students are now researching therapies that could aid people struggling with anxiety and other mental health disorders.
It is work that can be both stressful and rewarding at different times.
“It can be really fun. It can also be really stressful,” Penney says. “Most of our therapies work for about 60-80 per cent of people, which is much better than medications. But there are still a lot people who you will help to get better and then six months later they are back again. Especially when it comes to things like addictions, or even depression. …So it can be really taxing to work with these people. You think everything is going great and suddenly they’re back to square one. And it’s no fault of their own.”
But the rewarding side is seeing people make changes, notes Penney.
“I had one client who thought about attempting suicide and did actually attempt it, all because his social anxiety was so bad,” he recalls.
“He was terrified that people were judging him, that people thought he was a loser and an idiot. When I met with him in the hospital and talked to him about what his symptoms were and how, yes, we knew what it was, and yes, it could be treated, he looked at me and said, ‘Wait, so I don’t need to buy a house in the woods and completely disconnect from everyone.’
“We had treatment and he was elated. He had no idea that this was something we could treat and be dealt with. ... So just by informing people and letting them know they’re not alone, you see a huge relief come on people’s faces.”