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Psychiatry doctor continues family's PhD tradition; focuses on break-ups among emerging adults
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing/Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 26/03/2024

​Coming from a bloodline of academic intellectuals, it was only a matter of time before Alberta (Berte) van der Watt of Paul Roux in the Eastern Free State would scale the heights of academic success. She obtained her doctorate in Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University's (SU) March graduation on Tuesday (26 March 2024).

What makes her achievement special is that it brings the Van der Watt family's crop of doctorates to four – not something one encounters every day. Both her parents, Gideon and Ronél, and her sister, Lize-Marié, have PhDs – Gideon in Theology, Ronél in Psychology and Lize-Marié in History. They are also all Matie alumni. Gideon and Ronél obtained their master's degree at SU and their doctorates at the University of the Free State.

“I feel very proud to be able to hold my family's name high. I also realise how incredibly blessed and privileged I was (and still am) to have been able to study," says Van der Watt, who is currently based at SU's Department of Psychiatry.

“I always jokingly referred to the 'Van der Watt PhD disease' and said I wasn't going to contract it, but well, here we are."

Van der Watt's parents say they are very proud of their daughter's achievement, especially her hard work and perseverance. They also greatly appreciate her supervisors and the Department of Psychiatry for the opportunities they created for her.AlbertavdWatt_7.jpg

According to Van der Watt, she was never under any pressure to also obtain a doctorate like the rest of her family.

“I've been blessed with wonderful parents who allowed me to find my own path, do my own thing. They were always very supportive. My family has been incredibly supportive of me, giving me advice on how to break the back of the work, how to deal with the politics of academia, and how to keep praying."

Van der Watt says her path to academia wasn't exactly straight forward.

“I actually wanted to be a Haute Couture designer and first did a three-year diploma (and one year internship) in fashion design, as well as short courses and diplomas in event and conference management, among others. Things didn't work out the way I had planned so I decided to go to university.

“After obtaining my master's degree in psychology, I left academia and ventured into project and construction management. But the academic bug bit again and I became the research assistant to Prof Soraya Seedat at our Department of Psychiatry, and the rest is history."

PhD research

In her research, Van der Watt looked at the emotional effects (specifically post-traumatic stress disorder) of crumbling love relationships on emerging adults. Emerging adults are 18–25 years old.

She says research shows that these break-ups can be quite traumatic, causing symptoms similar to those seen after physical or sexual assault. The characteristics of these break-ups (for example, specific reasons why the relationship ended) can put emerging adults at greater risk of experiencing trauma.

“Recognising the traumatic nature of the associated experiences can help individuals to seek support and improve their mental wellbeing. The findings suggest that the use of trauma-focused treatments should be explored as potentially useful therapy to address the post-traumatic stress symptoms associated with crumbling romantic relationships among emerging adults."

Van der Watt says she had to process broken love relationships herself and the comments she received often made her feel as if her pain was not valid and her feelings were meaningless.

“As a result, the hurt, the break in confidence, the feeling of not being good enough was never truly dealt with. The emotional wound was only soothed, which makes people develop a distrust and an unhealthy attachment that has other negative consequences and can hinder future relationships. I realised there are so many other emerging adults who are going through exactly the same thing."

According to Van der Watt, her findings can help emerging adults avoid unhealthy attachment, stop the negative circle of bad relationships, and show more respect for their feelings.

“They are already under so much stress to find their way, find a career, find a life partner – if things don't work out, they need help and recognition of their feelings."

Future plans

Although she has already reached the pinnacle of academic success, Van der Watt wants to do another master's degree in clinical psychology and also combine clinical work and research.

“I desperately want to develop a trauma-attachment-oriented intervention for emerging adults struggling to cope with a break-up.

“I'm thinking specifically of a combination of long-term exposure therapy and rupture repair. For this, I need further education, especially in therapy."

Van der Watt describes herself as an open book. “My face has never been able to hide anything either." She says people are sometimes surprised when they hear she likes the German heavy metal band Rammstein.

Apart from her involvement in research projects in the Department of Psychiatry, Van der Watt is also a freelance editor.

When she has time for a break, Van der Watt goes to the gym, plays tennis or visits wine farms. She also enjoys board games, reading and watching television series.

  • Main photo: Dr Alberta (Berte) van der Watt at the graduation ceremony. Photo 1: Dr Alberta (Berte) van der Watt with her parents at the graduation ceremony. Photographer: Stefan Els