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Seeking mental health support in Hong Kong can be confusing and overwhelming. This is evidenced by the sheer number of those living with mental health conditions vs. those who seek help. Let’s start by understanding what different mental health professionals do and how they can help you.
General Practitioners (GP)
General practitioners, also known as family doctors, are medical doctors specialising in general medicine and those you may see when you are feeling physically unwell. It is not uncommon to seek the support of your trusted GP when you are struggling with mental health. In addition to practicing physical medicine, they are also trained to assess, diagnose and treat mild to moderate mental health conditions. GPs can prescribe medications and provide preventative care and health education. They can also refer or direct you to the appropriate specific mental health professionals you may need to see. Visiting your GP may be the best first step to getting help.
A counsellor often has a Master’s degree in psychology, counselling or a related field. A counsellor is trained to talk to people experiencing distress and mental health concerns. They can help process upsetting feelings and experiences. Currently, there is no official regulation in Hong Kong for counsellors. Different local organisations provide professional memberships with strict qualification criteria to ensure the validity of counsellors. Counsellors can be found at schools, hospitals, community health centres, and in private practice.
A clinical psychologist has a Master’s or a Doctorate degree in clinical psychology with specialised training in the treatment of mental health problems. A clinical psychologist is trained to make mental health diagnoses, provide individual and group therapy and may draw on several different therapeutic models to treat mental health difficulties. They can also make diagnostic impressions for appropriate referrals for assessment and diagnosis.
They seek to understand factors that may have contributed to people developing mental health difficulties and to address these through therapy. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists cannot prescribe medication. All registered Clinical Psychologists of the Hong Kong Psychology Society meet strict requirements.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with specialised training in the treatment, diagnosis and management of mental health difficulties. A psychiatrist can make mental health diagnoses, prescribe medications, and assess a person’s safety when they are unwell. While psychiatrists have psychological understanding of mental health difficulties and often provide counselling, not all conduct formal psychotherapies or “talk therapy”.
A psychiatric nurse is a registered nurse with specialised training in mental health. A psychiatric nurse assesses, supports and advocates for care. They typically assist and work with psychiatrists in the public health care system.
A registered social worker can be found in hospitals, schools, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or charities, and community centres. They are dedicated to helping people navigate and solve issues in their lives which may be caused by relationship problems, adjustment issues, traumatic events, or disabilities, etc. Similar to counsellors, they can also diagnostic impressions for referral to other professionals that do assessment and diagnosis.
Through case management, they redirect clients to access a variety of resources that best support them. They also receive basic counselling training and may be able to provide counselling services for individuals in distress.
Public Vs. Private System
When seeking help for mental health issues, it can be intimidating if we don’t understand how the system works. Here are the differences between public and private healthcare systems for mental health issues.
Public clinics and hospitals have primarily local clinicians who have completed their education and training in HK.
Public services tend to employ more short-term therapists.
Seeking Mental Health Support: Procedure
Based on information from the Hospital Authority, below is the general routine to find the right mental health professional help:
1.Register an appointment to visit a general practitioner (GP).
2.GP will refer you to a specialist as needed; assessments will be used to determine the urgency of your case.
It is very affordable to get the help you need through the public sector as the government does subsidise heavily. However, it is compromised with long wait times. See the next section for waiting time.
From a cultural perspective, private care is more aligned with western practices and culture. Private clinics and hospitals are more likely to have clinicians who have completed their education and training abroad.
Procedure: You may get a referral from your GP or you could also find a therapist on your own and schedule a consultation. If you decide to find your own therapist, you will need to do some research to find a qualified therapist.
Cost: Private is significantly more expensive, a reason why the majority of the population cannot seek help as they believe it is unaffordable. A 1-hour session can range from $1,000 and up.
Also known as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), many employers offer services through a company-funded program which provides free, confidential, professional counselling services for both work and non-work-related issues. These services can help those experiencing emotional and psychological stress, divorce or separation, work pressure, financial hurdles or any other form of issue causing stress.
What to Expect Before Your First Session?
Before you head to your first session, remember this initial visit to a professional is no different than a first appointment with a new GP. It may be uncomfortable to talk about some of your concerns and experiences, but it is an important first step to getting better.
How Does Talking With a Professional Help My Condition?
There are many types of psychotherapy, therapy or clinical interventions available depending on the mental health issues you are struggling with. One of the most commonly used one is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns, while improving emotional regulation and developing helpful coping strategies.