How to find the 'right' therapist to help with your mental health issues


  • Mind
  • Wednesday, 08 Jun 2022

According to media reports, there is a long wait to see a mental health clinician, either online or face-to-face. — TNS

Janet (not her real name) lost her job earlier this year and was recovering from the whole Covid-19 pandemic situation.

She lived the trauma of losing a close family friend who succumbed to the virus.

Janet was unable to grieve all her losses as sadly, her family was once again hit by another natural disaster – the floods.

It was getting too much for Janet and she slowly yet surely slipped into depression.

Not knowing where to turn to for support, she desperately started seeking for clinical expertise from anyone she could find online.

Turning to one of the search engines, Janet ended up with “clinicians” whom she felt were just “bumping” her around without being equipped with the right professional skills.

Her condition got worse; family members could only support her emotionally, with lots of love and care.

Friends, relatives and neighbours were giving all kinds of advice but nothing much changed clinically for Janet.

She was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Like Janet, there are so many individuals out there with similar experiences.

The recent pandemic followed by the flooding disaster and now the endemic, has alerted us all to the fact that life is not merely about paying bills and chasing dreams.

President of the Malaysian Mental Health Association, Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj, commented: “We need to be prepared for the next wave of mental health issues, which could arise as soon as people start to settle down.”

Appreciating the ability to live life on life’s terms is today a real concern and a responsibility for not only the clinicians and policymakers but also the general society as well.

We are all trying hard to lend a hand to those suffering from their losses, giving what we can, with some even becoming “quacks”, possibly in desperation to render any kind of humanitarian support.

Malaysians are known for their helpful nature and our culture has taught us the importance of being good neighbours.

What we really need to do next is to learn to do this professionally and walk the talk to ensure sustainable recovery is maintained.

Seek a qualified professional

Clinicians, be it doctors, psychologists, counsellors or therapists are professionals and go through years of rigorous training, qualifying with both academic and professional skills before being able to practise.

Our data shows that there are roughly 400 psychiatrists in Malaysia, which is only a tenth of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation of one psychiatrist per 10,000 people.

Media reports state that there is a waiting period of almost eight months to a year before professional help can be rendered to students facing mental health-related issues.

When a crisis happens, family members can only provide love and emotional support, not professional therapy. — AFPWhen a crisis happens, family members can only provide love and emotional support, not professional therapy. — AFP

There is today a dire need for clinicians in the mental health field; we are already witnessing an increase in interest among students taking up similar courses in our local institutes of higher learning.

This may soon encourage people to look for quick routes to qualify and practise and sadly, we may not be equipped yet to ensure this group of young professionals receives the right clinical supervision or are monitored closely enough to ensure they are able to offer the best form of support.

Furthermore, this desperation will influence the lucrativeness of monetising education, as we have seen happen in the past with other professions.

Unlike medical professionals who can prescribe medications, psychologists and therapists employ mainly talk therapy to work with their clients.

People seeking treatment can be desperate and are generally looking for solutions, placing their trust in the hands of these clinicians.

Without proper constant clinical supervision, skills upgrading and seeking therapy for themselves, clinicians will not be able to function at their best when serving clients in need.

There is a huge responsibility for this group of mental health experts to not only ensure they are academically equipped but also to ensure they are mentally well enough to be able to support clients seeking treatment.

Industrial experts, hospitals, counselling and psychology centres now hold the responsibility to ensure interns and students receive the right and best form of internship experience as we will soon start to churn out an abundance of mental health graduates to meet the demands of the existing and upcoming wave of mental health-related issues in the country.

The American Psychiatric Association states that stigma towards mental illnesses is universal and in some Asian cultures, seeking treatment can seem counter to cultural values of strong family, emotional restraint and avoiding shame.

Once there is acceptance of the need for professional help, the next hurdle to cross is to source the right and best fit therapist.

Who’s the right fit?

Some important information to look out for when looking for help are:

> Speak with someone who is an authority for a referral

It is safest to consult a professional with whom you are familiar. A family doctor or a colleague who has gone through a similar experience may also be able to offer help.

> Ensure the database you are using to search is reliable

There are many databases claiming to have a pool of professionals registered with them, offering various clinical services.

We need to remember that these databases are only marketing the companies and renting out online spaces.

> Online therapy

If you are comfortable with online therapy, ensure that the clinician who is offering it is trained to do exactly this.

Online therapy requires specific skills but generally, most universities have been training their student clinicians using mainly face-to-face or group therapy.

> Confirm if the clinician specialises in what you need

If you have an addiction-related issue, for example, ensure the clinic specialises in this field or at least has clinicians who are accredited and trained to help you best.

> Qualifications and training

Do a thorough background search on not only the organisation but also the clinicians as well.

It is important to identify who is running the organisation, their credentials and the clinicians’ qualifications.

Sadly, some of these places may seem to be successful because of the marketing and branding efforts but may not be able to help you with the nature of your problem.

Societal acceptance

Crisis brings people together more than ever and this is true as we have witnessed over the last two years.

From the white flag drive initiated during the pandemic to help from various religious and non-governmental organisations, and youth groups risking their own lives by jumping into boats to deliver food to flood victims – these clearly reflect the helping nature of our society.

Last year’s flooding incident in Shah Alam, Selangor, is proof that in times of need, we set aside all differences to offer a helping hand. — FilepicLast year’s flooding incident in Shah Alam, Selangor, is proof that in times of need, we set aside all differences to offer a helping hand. — Filepic

Besides appreciating the need to be proactive and better prepared, we have learnt not to depend on external help when it comes to natural disasters and have developed instant empathic skills, setting aside all our differences to offer a helping hand.

This has instilled and possibly renewed some of the core human values among many of us – the need for mankind to take care of each other.

The next critical phase now is to ensure these values are further developed and passed on to future generations.

Mental wellness is a critical part of public health, more so during times of crisis, but we should not wait for catastrophes or natural disasters to strike to be caring towards one another.

We also have to remind ourselves not to be ignorant of our surroundings.

Addictions, for example, are real life situations we have been living with; it has taken us too long to accept in Malaysia that the problem is treatable, though it is recognised as a disease globally.

Substance misuse has always been harshly punished in Malaysia until 2019, when the then Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad announced new policies looking into decriminalisation (removing criminal penalties for possessing and using a small quantity) of the offence.

Another example would be the battle to decriminalise suicide attempts in Malaysia, which has been an ongoing challenge for decades until recently, possibly as a result of and in response to the spike in suicides, with a total of 638 cases recorded in the first seven months of 2021.

Comparatively, there were 631 suicide cases in 2020, an increase from the 609 recorded in 2019.

There is limited or no evidence at all on the benefits of punishing people with mental illnesses such as addictions or suicide attempts, yet we have been ignorantly doing this for a very long time, despite efforts by various organisations.

The next demanding situation now is drawing out a timeline to repeal these archaic laws, amending the Penal Codes and ensuring unwell individuals are treated for their illnesses and not punished.

Recovery is best explained as a process of continuous change where people improve health and wellness, live self-directed lives while learning to reach their full potential.

It is good that we are waking up, though not proactively and in response to the recent crises. It is crucial that we walk the talk and not just be responsive.

There needs to be continuous awareness not only by the professionals and organisations fighting a cause, but also the policy makers, along with community engagement.

Regular meet-ups and discussions to remind each other of the devastation of the pandemic and floods is a critical part of the process of recovery.

In doing this, we are able to be better prepared not only to battle similar situations in the future but to also ensure the core values of humanhood continue to be embedded in us all.

Dr Prem Kumar Shanmugam is a psychologist specialising in substance abuse. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and should not be considered as medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this article. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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