So you are going to see a psychologist for the first time – now what should we expect? The thought of having to step into a psychologist’s room for the first time can be nerve-racking, and understandably so. Oftentimes, individuals may be apprehensive and would wonder if talking to a complete stranger is really going to help, or if opening up your innermost thoughts to a stranger was too much of a risk to take. However, rest be assured that these mental health professionals are well-versed in psychotherapy methods to help you manage your issues as best as possible, and will work closely with you at a comfortable pace. Just like in the treatment of physical illnesses by physicians, patient privacy and confidentiality are also primary obligations for psychologists. In this article, we hope to give you a clearer idea of what you can expect from your visit to a psychologist, especially if it is your first session.
First things first, it is important to understand that psychotherapy isn’t merely a one-off session. While the duration of treatment may vary from one person to another, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that “recent research indicates that on average 15 to 20 sessions are required for 50 percent of patients to recover as indicated by self-reported symptom measures.” The type and duration of treatment also heavily depend on the nature and severity of each client’s conditions, and it would simply be unfair to make an overgeneralised statement. Regardless, it would be beneficial to go in with an open mind, and to have an honest conversation with your psychologist. It really helps to trust that the process works, while acknowledging that it takes time.
Meeting the psychologist
At the beginning, the first few sessions would aim to help one identify the most pertinent issue that needs to be dealt with. The psychologist will talk through with you gathering some information on your life history, your family’s mental health history, the problems you are dealing with, and analyse those details – no matter how insignificant they may seem at first – that could have possibly led to emotional distress or coping difficulties. For the psychologist, being able to get a good grasp of the situation and seeing the big picture is vital for formulating the treatment plan and treatment process, as it will help to determine the type of psychotherapy that is best suited for you. The psychologist is trained to listen and analyse your conditions in order to help you with your recovery. As such, it is equally important that you don’t hold yourself back from being fully honest with your psychologist. To a large extent, the patient’s participation in the therapy is an important determinant of the success of the outcome.
While we fully understand that it can be unnerving, these mental health professionals are trained to help you work through the challenges you face, and the therapy room is very much a safe, non-judgemental space. Goal-setting is one of the key aspects of psychotherapy, and it is exceptionally important to set goals from the start that you can use to track your progress. You may start by identifying personally meaningful broad motives, hopes and dreams – having a clear direction in mind will better steer future sessions towards alleviating symptoms of distress and tackling the root cause of one’s concerns. Don’t worry if you feel the need to change your goals or take a different approach halfway through the treatment process. Psychotherapy is a dynamic process after all, and increased self-discovery along the way can certainly give you a better sense of what needs to be changed.
Different approaches to psychotherapy
There are several approaches to psychotherapy that can be implemented in the following sessions. Not strictly limited to one or the other, psychologists may make use of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies, cognitive-behavioural, interpersonal, and other types of talk therapy. They can help you focus on changing problematic behaviours, feelings, and thoughts to build on healthy habits, or teach you emotion-coping strategies to cope with your symptoms. Forms of treatment like cognitive-behavioural therapy also aim to help individuals recognise negative thought and behaviour patterns, thereby working towards a positive change. Each session is essentially a problem-solving session. By allowing yourself to talk to your psychologist about your most difficult moments, your feelings and the change you want to observe, the psychologist is then able to make use of his/her expertise to assist you. Many mental health professionals don’t limit their treatment to any one approach. Instead, they blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each patient’s needs.
To make the most of the treatment process, “homework” may sometimes be assigned as between-session tasks to clients as part of your treatment. A variety of homework assignments exist – sometimes in the form of practising new skills, habits, and other coping mechanisms, or someone who is dealing with complicated emotions could be asked to record your negative thoughts in nightly journal entries. When you return for your next session, the psychologist would then check in on your progress, and address any issues that may have arisen while you were completing your tasks. For some clients the benefits of therapy can be achieved in a few sessions, while for other clients they might need more to improve. Empirical evidence supports the benefits of homework in promoting positive symptom change and increasing patient functioning, that is, the quality of a client’s participation in therapy through active application of what they learn will lead to improvements in their conditions.
Was the psychologist right for you?
Often during the conversation with the psychotherapist, or after the session, you may feel a sense of relief, elation, or anxiety and exhaustion. However you feel, it is important to take note of those feelings. Did the psychologist put you at ease? Did he/she listen to you carefully and demonstrate compassion? Did he/she develop a plan to guide you with your goals and show expertise and confidence in working with issues that you have? For the treatment to be effective, you need to be able to ‘click’ with the psychologist, that is you are able to build trust and a strong connection with your psychologist.
To end off, the first session with a psychologist is understandably a bit intimidating and overwhelming, but the first step in the journey to recovery is a critical step to regain your mental wellbeing.
Depression! It’s a common term for many things. “I feel depressed!”, “This is so depressing.” The medical definition of depression, however, takes a more definitive approach than just the typical expression of exasperation. If you display five or more of the above symptoms over a period of two weeks or if the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment to normal functioning, there is a chance that you may be diagnosed with depression.
Is it that serious?
A study was done by IMH in partnership with MOH and NTU to find out about Singapore’s mental health. In Singapore, one in 16 people may have depression at some point in their lives. That is just one of the most common mental disorders in Singapore! The percentage of lifetime prevalence of depression has seen a steady increase from 12% in 2010 to 13.9% in 2016. What’s scary is that 3 out of 4 (78.4%) people with mental disorders are not seeking help!
To find out more about depression you can read our recent article: What Is Depression & How to seek help? So, what is CBT, and how does that help with depression? Glad you asked! Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, otherwise known as CBT, is considered the “gold standard” treatment for depression. It is a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy that targets our limiting or unhelpful thoughts and behaviors which most of the time can be untrue to reality.
Normally the therapy takes 8-12 sessions where the patient and therapist work together to identify problem thoughts and behaviors. With that as a reference, the therapist will equip the patient with tools and techniques to change the way they think, feel or behave in the situation. The basis of this model is the assumption that a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are deeply connected. Thus, by actively taking part in changing the way we think or behave (which is honestly easier than changing our emotions), we can affect how we perceive certain situations that might have given us a hard time. Also, “homework” between these therapy sessions is useful to help practice the skills acquired during therapy.
That sounds complex and great but the big question is, does this work well for depression?
Well, over the last few decades there have been a plethora of studies to assess just how efficient CBT is. These studies have shown that CBT is not only effective but also produces solid results as a treatment not only for depression but also other mental illnesses! One study that has shown just how effective CBT would be is a study done by Hollon et al (2005). The study found that patients who underwent and withdrew from CBT were less likely to relapse than those who underwent and withdrew from medications. In another six studies, CBT combined with medications added a 61 lower relapse/ recurrence rate (Vittengl et al, 2009, in Otto, 2013).
To conclude, CBT is efficient and definitely better than not doing anything about our mental health. If you do want to seek help or learn more about CBT therapy, feel free to contact us.
There is often much confusion between the terms psychiatrist and psychologist. People may use these terms interchangeably, but this is not to be the case. While both psychiatrists and psychologists treat people suffering from mental health issues and behaviour disorders, they are not the same. When should I see a psychiatrist? Is psychiatry and psychology even the same thing? Who should I see first? Such thoughts may run through your mind when mental health treatment is brought up. In this article, we hope to clear the doubts and achieve greater clarity on who they really are and how they differ.
Before we begin, if you’re reading this article to find important insights on seeking help from a mental health professional, we would like to commend you for taking the necessary steps to help yourself or your loved one. Making such a decision can be very daunting, and your mind might be in a disarray with constant worries of familial, societal and cultural stigma. However, it is ever so important to remember that there is no shame or embarrassment in wanting to help yourself or your loved one get better. Mental health is equally as important as physical health and seeking help is a sign of strength rather than weakness.
What’s the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?
Fundamentally, the biggest difference between the two is in the approach they take towards treating mental disorders, and the capacity to prescribe medications. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists are trained medical doctors at their core. Amongst the network of mental healthcare professionals, psychiatrists are certified to provide neuropharmacological support that is deemed essential in stabilising certain mental conditions, such as where chemical imbalances in the brain are involved.
As medical doctors, psychiatrists play a crucial role in the diagnostic process, as well as the prevention and treatment of emotional, mental, behavioral, and developmental issues. While conducting assessments, they may also involve relevant physical examinations, blood tests, or pharmacogenomic testing to narrow down the scope of diagnosis. While psychiatrists specialise in the mental phenomena, such physical examinations cannot be omitted entirely especially if they provide important clues to help them rule out other possible physical conditions.
Psychiatrists also have the capacity to assess your medical history. Physical and mental wellness go hand-in-hand – psychiatrists will need to grasp the full picture before finalising on a diagnosis. On the Huffington Post, Carol W. Berman, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Medical Center in New York City, writes, “Because we learned how the body interacts with the mind, we can rule out physical disorders as a cause of mental illness. This is important, since a person may have a hyperactive thyroid, for example, which can trigger panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, or anorexia. We can look at thyroid blood tests or have a patient consult an endocrinologist if we suspect the problem stems from thyroid disease.”
In contrast, psychologists are not trained medical doctors, and thus cannot conduct any physical examinations nor prescribe medications. Clinical psychologists however, possess an accredited Master’s in Applied Psychology at the very minimum, and can make a diagnosis for the patient if he thinks he has a mental health condition.
Psychologists typically make use of various methods of psychometric testing, personality tests, observations and interviews to come to a conclusion. But that’s not all – psychologists also engage in psychotherapy treatment, with common forms including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Psychotherapy aims to help clients identify their key issues and concerns, before moving on to create a treatment plan to achieve the desired outcomes. Often conducted over several sessions, psychotherapy equips the individual with problem-solving and emotion-coping strategies to overcome the problem. For example, if a client comes in hopes of seeking help for social anxiety, psychotherapy (such as CBT) would be greatly beneficial in tackling maladaptive, limiting thoughts and behaviours that fuel negative emotions.
While there are differences in qualifications and the methods of treatments applied by psychiatrists and psychologists, it is key to note that they still work closely together. For the optimal treatment of certain mental health conditions, psychiatrists may refer you to psychologists for concurrent psychotherapy. Likewise, if a clinical psychologist determines your condition to be better managed with medications, a referral to a psychiatrist can be expected. Often once a proper diagnosis is done, the psychiatrist and psychologist may work together to build a treatment plan for the patient, focusing on managing symptoms through the use of medications and psychotherapy.
Who Should I See First?
Where physical symptoms may be severe, or where it may be hard to take basic care of yourself, turning to a psychiatrist would be a good option. After all, psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who can also work with your primary care doctor (if any) to provide optimal treatment. It is also suitable for individuals who are unsure as to whether their physical symptoms are linked to other underlying medical conditions. In such cases, psychiatrists will be able to detect a medical mimic. To put it simply, take for example a presenting complaint linked to the shortness of breath. While it may seem like a panic attack, it is crucial to eliminate any other clinical suspicions of lung diseases such as pulmonary embolism.
On the other hand, you may choose to make a trip to see a psychologist if you think you have a less severe mental condition. For individuals seeking to overcome phobias or resolve difficult issues in life, it may be more effective to undertake psychotherapy. A Psychologist can help you work through your problems, deal with emotional challenges or cope with particularly traumatic life events so as to make positive changes in your life.
We can all play a part in alleviating our own or our loved one’s suffering by increasing our understanding of mental health disorders. If you’re still struggling with making a decision after much thought, making the first step to contact a professional would help. You can be assured that the team at Promises will serve with your best interests at heart, and will work closely with you to provide optimal treatment.
The anonymous author of this article is a person in the recovery of Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. The views of the author are not those of Promises.
I have struggled with Self-Harm since I was a kid. Most of us are aware of the tantrum’s kids put up when they are upset. They hit others, drop to the floor, scream, and cry. When I felt overwhelmed by certain emotions, in particular anger or sadness, I would use my hands to hit my head. I had trouble identifying and regulating my emotions. My primary school counsellor told me that I have anger management challenges when I shared with her how I find myself unable to control my anger and would hit myself or the well. Little did I know that these behaviours were early signs and symptoms to what would become a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder given to me in my 20s.
When the word ‘Self-Harm’ is mentioned, most people think about ‘cutting’. A very common and increasingly concerning the mode of coping for persons in distress, more so for young people, even children. Fortunately, I never turned to ‘cutting’ until I was 23. I was actively suicidal from the stress of battling my illness while also trying to excel in my degree. I began with a penknife and one cut. Soon, that one cut led to many and I found myself with a new problem.
I struggle with Self-Harm till this very day; however, I have come a long way with the help of medications and therapy to reduce the frequency of Self-Harm. I have been trying to replace Self-Harm with healthier coping methods such as exercise.
When I do not wear long sleeves, I end up exposing the scars on my wrists to the world. Generally, I tend to feel ashamed of my scars and it took me some time to embrace them. However, responses from others who have noticed my scars have caused discouragement to me and led me to feel ashamed once again. Ironically, this does not deter me from ‘cutting’; instead, it increases the urge because I develop self-hatred and feel like I deserve to be punished and scarred for my behaviour.
Through this sharing of my experience, I hope to send a message of love to peers who are challenged with Self-Harm, whatever form it might take on. I also want to raise awareness among members of the public on what were some unhelpful words and behaviours people have made towards me, more so out of a lack of awareness rather than a lack of concern. I have learnt to forgive them, and at times have also made the effort to voice my discomfort over their words and actions. Here are five things people have said or done to me that were completely unhelpful, and very likely also to be unhelpful to anyone else challenged with Self-Harm.
1. Touching me without permission I get it, you notice the scars and you get worried. Without thinking, you grab my arm and go “what is this? Did you cut yourself?”. Leaving the question for later, the very act of grabbing my arm to look at my scars without permission is a big ‘NO’. I am hypersensitive to my scars and it takes much courage for me, even till today, to deliberately lift my arm to show my scars. What may surprise you is that, often, this act comes largely from my own parents and also the professionals I see for help. It is good practice to always ask someone for permission if you wish to touch them, even if it means to give a hug. Because some of us who have challenges with trauma and dissociation are hypersensitive to touch. Hence, do be mindful of those around you and remember: If you do not like people grabbing you to see something (on you), it’s the same and perhaps even more, for those of us learning to accept our scars.
2. “Doesn’t it hurt?” No, it doesn’t. This answer may come as a surprise to many, but when I am under extreme stress and emotional distress, the act of physically inflicting hurt on myself gives me relief. The greater the physical “pain” the greater the relief. For me, this goes for any act of self-harm be it ‘cutting’, punching the wall, or knocking my head against the wall until it starts bleeding. I can only compare this to someone who meets with an accident. The body goes into shock to the point the person may have a broken leg; however, he or she is not feeling any pain. I do not have a formal education in psychology or biology, but I believe my brain “shuts down” the part that feels pain which aids me to self-harm without feeling the actual pain.
3. “The scars are so ugly! Why do you enjoy this? Can’t you stop?” This is a three-part question, but it often comes to me in one line of questioning. First, I want to say that I do not enjoy this. Not at all. I would love to have clear and beautiful skin too. Every time I look down at my arm to see the scars, I feel hatred towards myself. “How could I do this to myself? I am a horrible person”. And yet, I find that I cannot stop. A coping method I have turned to, since childhood, to cope with the traumatic experiences and intense emotions is self-harm. It has become the default and almost automatic ‘subconscious’ act whenever I am in distress.
4. “It doesn’t look too bad” I know that this statement is in direct contrast to the one above. But I have had this said to me by peers and sadly, professionals. There is not much need for me to elaborate on this statement as it is obvious that it is unhelpful. This statement makes me feel like a failure and makes me want to hurt myself even more. The ‘Depression voice’ is always on standby, ready to jump in with a “See, you are useless at even trying to hurt yourself? You call that a cut?! You are a coward. Go and do it again”.
5. Taking away or hide the sharp items that I could use to hurt myself This is probably most relatable to parents and caregivers supporting someone who is challenged with self-harm. It is very natural to become protective and do what it takes to stop your loved one from hurting themselves. “If I take away their means to hurt themselves, then they have no choice but to stop, right?” Unless you tag along with your loved one 24/7, it is very easy to drop by the nearest bookstore to buy a new penknife. More importantly, in doing so, you are taking away the one thing that I have which keeps me from jumping out of my window or overdosing on my pills. Until I learn to safely stop self-harming in therapy, to take it away from me by force, will throw me into an emotional turmoil that will only make me feel worse.
So please, next time you notice someone with scars that look like they might be from the act of cutting one-self, please be gentle and kind to the person. Be extremely mindful of what you say. Perhaps, a guiding thought could be: If you cannot entertain the idea of causing pain to yourself, imagine how much pain the person must be in to be able to cause harm to themselves. When I self-harm, it is a desperate means for me to stay alive. It is a cry for help: for attention, for love, care and non-judgemental support.
If you know a loved one who self harms please do gently prod him/her towards seeking help from a trained professional.
For individuals that are taking the first step to seek help from mental health professionals, it is natural that they may be concerned with the possibility of a misdiagnosis, or perhaps an overdiagnosis. With the pre-existing stigmatisation of mental health disorders, clients would have needed to pluck up their courage to seek treatment in the first place. A misdiagnosis could not only hinder them from receiving the appropriate treatment for their affliction, but also allows for their distress to grow unchecked as their hope for recovery diminishes. In other words, accuracy in evidence-based mental health diagnosis is crucial, and this article aims to help you better understand how the diagnostic process works.
As the term “Evidence-Based Diagnosis” implies, psychiatrists or clinical psychologists take extra care to ensure that any diagnosis made is accurate, objective, and not subject to any form of personal bias. In some sense, this also means allowing for a safe, non-judgemental and compassionate environment. Primarily, clinicians would have to understand the client’s suffering and situation, before thinking about how that might relate to a possible mental disorder. Perhaps you may be unaware of this – clinicians do not simply jump straight into tying the client down with a specific diagnosis of a mental disorder. Before all else, clinicians have to consider if the client’s symptoms meet the definitions of a mental disorder in the first place. As per the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the definition of a mental disorder considers these five factors:
A behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual
Reflects an underlying psychobiological dysfunction
The consequences of which are clinically significant distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning)
Must not be merely an expected response to common stressors and losses (i.e.. the loss of a loved one) or a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (i.e. trance states in religious rituals)
Primarily a result of social deviance or conflicts with society
With reference to the definition of a mental disorder, it is particularly important to note that the consequences of a mental disorder is clinically significant, and causes a weighty amount of disruption to one’s lifestyle and day-to-day activities. For example, it is completely natural for one to feel upset over certain situations, and this does not necessarily mean that you have a case of depression. However, you might need to get it checked out if you find yourself unable to cope with prolonged feelings of sadness which start to interfere with your daily activities, or are causing you to have suicidal thoughts.
Of course, clinicians then assess the syndrome one displays. By “syndrome”, we mean a collection of signs or observable aspects of the client’s suffering (i.e outward expression or behaviour). The main point of this is to identify if the syndrome is clustered in an identifiable pattern that is noted to be severe or pervasive. During the assessment phase, clinicians also try to understand the internal experiences of the client. Besides their outward display of distress, their thoughts and feelings are also important information which counts towards the diagnosis of certain disorders. Upon identifying that the client is indeed suffering from a mental condition, clinicians then try “assigning” the client to a particular category. You can think of it as, “can the syndrome be broadly identified?” There are certain broad categories of disorders, such as anxiety disorders, or psychotic disorders. Needless to say, clinicians have to consider which category the client best fits in.
The last step of the diagnosis process concerns the further narrowing and identification of the specific disorder – branching out from the broader, generalised category and into the specific details. For example, a client could be diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a form of an anxiety disorder. Ideally, a specific disorder is identified during the diagnosis process for various reasons – for the sake of the clients themselves, but also for clearer communication with other mental health professionals (in the case of continuity of care), and even for legal or court matters. Under rare circumstances, some clinicians are able to identify the broad category of the mental disorder, yet are unable to specify the exact condition that the client is suffering from. In cases like these, their disorders will be labelled as “unspecified”, as per the 10th version of the International Classification of Diseases.
As mentioned, evidence-based mental disorder diagnosis is all about diagnosing clients accurately and objectively. To enhance objectivity, some clinicians go the extra mile, stopping to consider if the diagnosis given was biased, or influenced by his or her own culture and history. “Is the syndrome maladaptive?”, “Did I take cultural variables into account?” An objective diagnosis will certainly go a long way in ensuring that the client receives the most appropriate treatment, which will in turn enhance his or her recovery journey.
Overall, it is safe to say that it takes two hands to clap in every treatment process. Clients and clinicians should try as much as possible to work together, be it in the assessment or treatment phase. For an effective treatment, clinicians will do their best to assess the severity and pervasiveness of any syndrome using understandable language such that clients are well aware of their condition. However, clients also need to understand that transparency on their side is pivotal and that it will drastically impact the treatment process, for better or for worse, depending on their cooperativity and how much they choose to reveal.
Dr Robert Shwartz, Ph.D., PCC-S, Evidence-Based Mental Disorder Diagnosis: How to Increase Accountability, Efficiency and Objectivity, video recording, Mental Health Academy