Sorting out the specialists

TWENTY years ago, few Malaysians would admit to having seen a psychologist willingly.

In the last decade or so, that has changed because psychological services are now being sought out by several athletes, human resource managers, industrial and educational fields as well.

The field has diversified so much today that there is a need for a law to regulate psychologists and those who offer such services.

“Legitimacy and control over the field of psychology is more pertinent now as it is becoming a crucial service to different spheres and communities,” says Dr Goh Chee Leong, dean of Psychology at HELP University.

“Before, the recognition for psychologists’ work was low and perhaps the work of the psychologists was confined to mental health.

“But now there is a growing need for psychology to service many different communities and the different industries or sectors such as industrial and organisational psychology, sports psychology, forensic psychology, health psychology and educational psychology.

“Psychologists’ work is to understand, help and empower people in different settings. Whether it’s mental issues or learning or development issues, psychologists can help.”

If the profession cannot grow, argues Dr Goh, it is not only the psychology community that suffers but also the country, as it will deprive the people of the valuable service it needs.

“There is so much the psychology community can do to help the country grow.

“We can help address critical issue at schools, workplaces, organisations. Psychology can help develop better work environments and a more effective workforce to help the country’s economy grow. Human resource is the most valuable wealth of Malaysia at this stage, and the psychologists’ job is to safeguard this resource,” he notes.

“If we want to achieve the next level of growth as a country, the focus needs to be on people - the health of the people, the competitiveness of the people, the mindset of the people. We need to act now.”

With the growing demand for psychologists, several cases of dubious psychology practitioners and those with questionable practices have come to light, notes Malaysian Psychological Association (Psima) president Prof Dr Hairul Nizam Ismail.

“The problem is we cannot take action against them as they are not breaking any law – because there is no law to regulate psychologists in the country,” says the educational psychologist who is also dean of the School of Educational Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

A specific piece of legislation can protect the profession and the public from unqualified practitioners and unethical practices, he asserts.

And that is why Psima is pushing for a Psychology Act.

A Psychology Act will provide a more formal and clearer guidelines for the sector.

Crucially, an Act will provide for a registry of psychologists, adds Dr Hairul. “Under such an Act, all psychology practitioners will have to be registered and meet the standards stipulated. This will protect the public from being deceived by organisations or individuals who claim to posses expertise in the field.”

With a public registry, people can check online to verify if a person is a qualified psychologist or a bogus one.The American Psychological Association defines psychology simply as the study of the human mind and behaviour that is grounded in science.

According to APA, psychologists are scientists, researchers, therapists and clinicians working in a diverse discipline with “nearly boundless applications in everyday life.”

Psychology is a field most often associated with mental health counselling and intervention, but what many may not know is that it is not a medical science. Unlike psychiatrists who are trained medical doctors, psychologists are required to have at least a psychology degree (to be a member of Psima you need at least a Masters in psychology).

In Malaysia, psychiatrists have to register with the Malaysian Medical Council under the Medical Act 1971. Since 2016, clinical psychologists – as they are not medical doctors – are required to register with the Health Ministry under the Allied Health Professions Act.

Regulation is especially pertinent for clinical psychology as it focuses on diagnosing and treating mental, emotional and behavioural problems of individuals and families, notes Dr Hairul.

Psychologists can help address many contemporary issues including interpersonal relationships, organisational effectiveness, professional sports, public health, crime and terrorism, education and the economy.

For example, all the social issues we are facing in school at the moment like gangsterism and bullying need to be dealt with by educational psychologists, says Dr Hairul.

“We have to admit that we have problems in society and this has led to some people offering ‘help’ but the help required is complex and needs the right expertise and knowledge.

“And without proper regulations or better awareness among the public, there is a high risk of misuse and abuse,” he stresses.

When the demand for psychologists’ expertise is so high that it becomes big business, people will be more prone to capitalise on the situation and take the opportunity to make money, he adds, pointing to the state of counselling before the Counsellor’s Act was enacted in 1998 as an example.

“There was a high demand for counsellors and it became a big industry. Many claimed to be counsellors and conducted workshops and gave talks even though they were not qualified.

“Their Act helped to regulate and prevent unqualified counsellors from practising. That is what we are hoping with the Psychology Act.”

Dr Goh agrees that a Psychology Act is necessary to help the public discern those who are qualified from those who are not.

“There is a need for greater transparency so that it will be easier for consumers to navigate the market.

“Now there are so many things and services that are being offered, how can people verify whether the professional is genuine?” asks the former Psima president.

Dr Goh describes psychology as an important service that should only be provided by people who are trained and qualified.

“Our case is similar to other professions deemed to be important to the country. Why do we have to regulate medical doctors? Why do we need to register dentists and pharmacists?”

Accountability is an important issue, he says. “People need to feel safe and be assured that the people in the profession are trained and qualified. Just like how we regulate engineers and architects. If we don’t, there will be buildings falling down, and who will be accountable then?” Dr Goh shares that the association has been tracking a few people who are allegedly using the term psychology and psychologist even though they are not qualified.

“But without a Psychology Act, our hands are tied – we cannot take action against them. It’s really frustrating.

“The Act will allow us to have a formal platform for registration and control, so that no quacks can simply call themselves a psychologist and charge lots of money for their services.”

Assoc Prof Dr Rozmi Ismail who heads Psima’s National Psychology Act bureau concurs.

“It is very difficult to be taken seriously when there is no formal recognition of our profession. The Act will not only strengthen the profession but also enable it to develop systematically.

He estimates there are up to 700 psychologists in Malaysia, not including clinical psychologists registered under the Allied Health Professions Act. Only some 400 have joined Psima.

“The number of psychologists in the country is rising, but there is no way for us to regulate or monitor them.”

Dr Rozmi concedes that the very breadth of the field – psychology cuts across disciplines – makes it difficult to find a ministry to support and enforce the Act even though Psima finished drafting it more than a year ago.

But he and Dr Goh concur that if the profession is not regulated it cannot truly grow or progress because its reputation will always be compromised.

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