University of Melbourne Magazine

Podcast transcript – The Fertility Counsellor

Val McFarlane: Welcome to the 3010 podcast, where we meet University of Melbourne alumni on interesting or unusual career paths. I’m Val McFarlane.

If you’re trying to get pregnant through assisted reproductive treatment – that’s IVF and the like – making sure you’re in good physical health is really important.

But what about your mental health?

That’s where Suellen Peak comes in. She’s a counsellor who supports people who need a little bit of help from science to conceive.

She works with those just starting out, who are trying to get their heads around the fact that they can’t do what seems so easy for others.

And she helps those who’ve been trying for a while, to manage the inevitable stress on themselves and those around them, as well as the possibility that they might not ever have the child they so desperately want.

Suellen Peak: In the state of Victoria we actually have mandatory counselling. So anyone who’s about to start assisted reproduction actually has to do it under the legislation. But probably what we find is people need it more when they’re going through various stages and cycles of the treatment, because the more that they do it, again the more it tends to affect their overall wellbeing.

Val McFarlane: Suellen’s approach to her work draws on positive psychology, a relatively new branch of psychology that was first championed by Martin Seligman in the late 1990s.

Suellen Peak: Ultimately I guess psychology has really focused for many years on deficits or weaknesses. Positive psychology started to say, well what would happen if we started to look at what is right with people, and there’s a lot of people who are out there flourishing, and doing well, and being well. And if we could start to capture those elements in those people, could we actually teach that to other people?

Val McFarlane: In the context of fertility treatment, positive psychology helps patients focus on the bigger picture – not just the end goal of conceiving a child.

Suellen Peak: It’s really looking at how do we create a whole life, and a full life and what are the elements or the pillars that make that up. And so looking at things such as positive emotions and not just being happy and grinning and bearing it, but actually how do we cultivate moments of awe, and interest, and curiosity because they give us an upward lift when we feel them. Other elements as well within wellbeing science would tell us about how do we create meaning and purpose in our lives. And that comes to other therapeutic tools such as using our values and saying to ourselves what do I want the legacy of my life to be, with or without children. So thinking around, you know I want to cultivate great relationships, and I want to be a great partner, a great daughter, a great son, a great aunt, a great contributor, a great leader, and really looking at other ways that life can be complete and meaningful with the things that are already around them.

Val McFarlane: Suellen always wanted to work in psychology. For her first degree, she studied Arts, and hoped to go onto study psychology at Honours level, but just missed out on getting in to the course.

Suellen Peak: At that moment in my life I actually thought that I was a complete failure. I just really wanted to leave, and leave everything behind.

Val McFarlane: So she did. She packed up, and went off to work at Camp USA with people with physical disabilities.

Suellen Peak: And that was actually life changing. It was such a joy to go and work with people, from all walks of life, from adults to young people, who had visual impairments, physical impairments, wheelchair bound. We did anything we could to make them have a summer camp experience. So I remember a man on a respirator, I think he’d been in his wheelchair most of his life, and we put him in a canoe and sent him up the river with the nurse. And I remember thinking that if you can do that, you can do anything.

Val McFarlane: On her return she studied to become a social worker, and that led to a successful career working with all sorts of people, from high-risk adolescents to people with mental health issues, and those with HIV.

It was hugely rewarding, but also incredibly challenging, and she started to think about what else she could do.

At one point she even got her real estate licence and sold houses on the weekend while working at a hospital during the week.

Then she saw a TV program about positive psychology.

Suellen Peak: It was a real ‘aha’ moment for me. I really felt that after so many years of doing the work, that I was really lacking, I guess, some other tools in my tool kit. I had done a whole range of other professional development type training. But nothing kind of hit the core like that did. And then it took a couple of years to start to think about what I was going to study, and I just kept coming back to this idea of Positive Psychology, or wellbeing science. And then, lo and behold, Melbourne University offered the first program here in Australia, and I was just so lucky and fortunate to get into that program.

Val McFarlane: Since completing her Masters in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, Suellen has helped hundreds of clients through difficult times.

Suellen Peak: I often say to people in our sessions, you know you actually have been up until this point, even though it feels really hard, you’re surviving 100 percent of your terrible days, and that’s a really great track record.

And even when you talk about that with people, you get this little lightness in them, and it’s a reminder that they’re doing their best. And that we can keep building on their best, because they do have the resources to do it.

Probably from my perspective, I’m having far more fun, if that’s the right word, it’s an interesting word to use as a therapist I guess. But I’m having more fun in the sessions, and there’s a lighter experience in the sessions. And I think people are far more likely to be a bit more playful in sessions, and we can laugh and we can kind of look at the hard stuff as well as the lighter stuff. And that’s a beautiful way to do the work together.

It’s a real privilege to be a very small part of somebody’s journey. And my job is to make sure I’m not part of their journey for very long.

If you’d like to hear some tips from Suellen on how positive psychology can help you while you go through assisted reproduction, listen to the special bonus episode of the 3010 podcast that’s up right after this one.

And for more stories like this, subscribe to 3010 on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or visit

This episode was produced by me, Val McFarlane.

Chris Hatzis was our audio engineer and our theme music is by Rory Clark.

Copyright 2018 the University of Melbourne.