Working with a Clinical Psychologist in Hong Kong

  • What is a clinical psychologist? What does a clinical psychologist do?
  • Under what circumstances do people seek to work with a clinical psychologist?
  • How does seeing a clinical psychologist help?
  • What is the difference between a clinical psychologist and other mental health professionals: e.g., a psychiatrist, counsellor, psychotherapist/therapist?
  • What is the difference between psychotherapy/therapy, counseling, and coaching?

What is a clinical psychologist? 

Psychology is the study of the soul: psyche means “soul” and logus means “study” in Greek. So psychologists are those who study the human psyche in different contexts (e.g., education, social, sport, industrial-organization, etc).

*Scroll below to see the differences between clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals.

Clinical psychologists's area of specialization are psychological difficulties that affect a person’s life, work, relationships and their relationship to self (sense of self). Psychological problems that are commonly seen in a clinical psychologist’s office can be broadly understood as emotional, behavioral, cognitive and interpersonal maladjustments. These maladjustments can show up as depression, anxiety, excessive anger, emotional dysregulation, addictions, self-harm, learning disabilities such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder and ADHD, eating disorders, personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder and borderline disorder, schizophrenia, etc. Many of these conditions and their diagnostic symptoms are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but it will be a mistake to look at a clinical psychologist’s work as strictly a response to conditions that can be labeled as a DSM mental health diagnosis

Self-esteem, family and relationship issues—meaning roughly our relationship with self and others—tend to be the center-piece of any psychological treatment or therapy. After years of practicing as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, I have evolved to look at the work I do as helping people deal with problems of living. These problems of living tend to be the result of some complex interactions between larger social issues (e.g. discrimination), environmental challenges (e.g. poverty or immigration), family of origin limitations (abuse or neglect), past trauma (e.g., bullying at school), one’s dispositions (e.g., sensitivity level), and one’s learned responses to these challenges. In other words, it’s not a person’s fault that they have depression or anxiety. These conditions arise out of a complex socio-psychological context within the matrix of chronic or acute stressors. 

What does a clinical psychologist do?

Clinical psychologists can conduct research, provide assessments (e.g., IQ test) and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy/therapy is a form of psychological treatment also known as the talking cure.

Read more about psychological testing and assessment.

Under what circumstances do people seek to work with a clinical psychologist?

With adults, some like to use self-administered screeners as a reference to gauge whether the difficulties they face warrant a consultation with a clinical psychologist. Some people are referred by other professionals such as family doctors, while some are referred by family or spouses, who are concerned and find it important that they see a mental health professional. Some people are self-referred, wanting some help with their negative feelings and unhelpful responses to life stressors (e.g., excessive drinking or anger, feeling depressed or anxious, etc).

With children, typically some learning or behavioral issues catch the attention of teachers or parents, and these children receive therapy to help them overcome challenges. Some children have special needs, and psychological treatment is a great resource to help children develop and to support parents who are often exhausted and worried. Some older children, on the other hand, do ask for therapy themselves when they find it difficult to cope. My general advice is, the sooner your children receive therapy, the sooner they can feel better. Better feelings meaning better learning and better behavior. 

With couples, they often feel defeated and exhausted by the ongoing fighting. Conflicts aren’t resolved but they are having the same arguments over and over again. Some couples are hurt by the distance and coldness and want a closer connection. Some couples are faced with the decision to divorce but unsure how to go about it, or if that’s the right decision. All these situations are common among people who seek couples therapy. 

How does seeing a clinical psychologist help?

As mentioned before, clinical psychologists provide psychotherapy, a form of talk therapy, in a professional and confidential setting. There are many different forms of psychotherapy, but the general idea is that through talking about their feelings and experiences, people not only gain relief from expression, and in the process of talking they gain a level of understanding that help them change and cope.

Visit About Me to see a brief description of the forms of therapy I provide.   

Does psychotherapy work?

What is the difference between a clinical psychologist and other mental health professionals: e.g., a psychiatrist, counsellor, psychotherapist/therapist?

A major difference between different kinds of mental health professionals is the kind and level of education and training.  

Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D.) and can prescribe medication. Some psychiatrists also provide counseling or therapy as part of the psychiatric treatment they offer. A psychologist, however, is not an M.D. and cannot prescribe medication. (An exception is that some states in the United States have granted psychologists prescriptive authority). In HK, however, psychologists don’t have prescriptive authority.

Clinical Psychologist, Counselor, Therapist

In many countries, clinical psychologists are required to go through doctoral-level training (Ph.D or Psy.D), which is a 4-year minimum advanced-degree program. Counsellors tend to be master-level practitioners, having gone through a 2-year education program. A therapist is a practitioner who provides therapy, and they can be a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or someone who has gained a certificate in the type of therapy they provide (e.g., play therapy, EMDR therapy, etc).

Thanks to the depth and breath of their education and training, the most obvious advantage of a clinical psychologist lies in their understanding of human psychology. Because their educational program is more comprehensive than others, clinical psychologists are equipped to deal with a wider range and more complex psychological issues, in virtue of their advanced learning (theoretically speaking). However, what each individual mental health professional can offer is also a function of their personality, post-degree training, and experience. For example, Ester Perel, Ellyn Bader, and Richard Schwartz are all world-renowned therapists (all do couples therapy); the first has a master degree in couple and family therapy, the second has a Ph.D in clinical psychology, the third has a Ph.D. in family therapy. They all call themselves “therapist,” and they all help people enormously, despite their differences in training and background.

What makes the picture even more complicated is that research has shown over and over again that one’s relationship with one’s therapist is the best predictor of therapeutic success. In other words, whether your therapist and you are the right fit is the best predictor of positive treatment outcomes–whether they are a psychologist, counselor, or therapist. 

What is the difference between psychotherapy/therapy, counseling, and coaching?

Psychology Today has this explanation: “Counseling tends to be shorter term, goal-oriented, and it addresses concrete, specific life challenges. By contrast, therapy tends to be longer term, more exploratory and holistic, and it treats mental illness.”

However, the reality is that nowadays, people use these terms interchangeably. What it is called matters less than whether it is the right fit for you. The psychological treatment style and personality of your therapist/counselor, how well you feel they understand and can empathize with your experience, how comfortable you are talking about difficult matters in their presence are factors to consider in choosing your treatment provider.

Coaching is used more or less the same way in other areas. A football coach teaches you how to play football, with specific techniques and strategies, a life coach does the same. The focus is more on what to do about a specific issue (create a to-do list, write a gratitude journal, send out at least 10 resumes a day, exercise for 20 mins a day, etc). But a coach might also choose to incorporate some counseling/therapy techniques, and so again, there will be overlapping areas between therapy, counseling and coaching.