By Veronica Augustin
“Oh dear Sam is talking to himself again!” thinks a mother to herself. “Maybe it’s time to admit him to the mental hospital in Tanjong Rambutan!”
“Your daughter is very disruptive in class,” says a teacher to a parent. “She must have ADHD. You better send her to see a psychiatrist.”
The scenarios above are common and most people who are bombarded with extensive information from the Internet will easily jump to the conclusion that their child, spouse or friend is experiencing some sort of mental illness and needs to see a psychiatrist.
This misunderstanding is further enhanced by pseudo-mental health practitioners who are purely interested in business and money. These unethical practitioners will go out of their way to support your false conclusions in addition to recommending some form of medication or supplement to solve the problem.
Do you need professional help?
So, how do you know if you actually need a psychiatrist? The truth is, people tend to get very confused these days as there is the tendency to believe everything that’s published on the Internet. Some try to be even ‘smarter’ by taking ‘online tests’ that interpret your score and conclude that you have some kind of mental disorder; never stopping to think if the results are correct.
So, amidst all this confusion, let’s set the record straight. Firstly, the scenarios at the start of this article depict problems, which may not be caused by any kind of mental disorder.
Examining the details
In the first example, talking to yourself does not necessarily mean that you are grappling with a mental disorder. You’ve probably talked out loud to yourself when no one is around. You might even have cursed loudly! In some scenarios, talking aloud to yourself might prove to be a good thing like when you’re memorising a long list of facts. Does this mean you’re suffering from a mental disorder? Certainly, not!
In the second scenario, has the ‘pseudo-mental health expert’ teacher ever considered that she may be the problem due to her lack of classroom management and boring instruction technique? As a professional she should be aware that an average teenager can only concentrate for approximately thirty minutes without breaks.
The third example is a common scenario among adolescents who experience puppy love. If this is a disorder, it would mean that the majority of us who have had a similar experience are in need of a psychiatrist and strong medication!
Opt for less intrusive methods
There is a fine line between a mental disorder and a normal problem experienced by a healthy human being. All of the cases above need further investigation and less intrusive approaches prior to attempting psychiatric drugs. Any ethical medical practitioner will tell you that long-term use of any form of medication will always have side effects. This is the unavoidable nature of synthetic, chemical-based drugs.
For instance we take antibiotics for fevers and infections however, continuing the antibiotics way after you are healthy not only serves no purpose but is also going to result in major side effects in your body.
So then what should the people in the scenarios above do? Should they see a medical doctor? The answer is no. The people ‘diagnosing’ each problem — namely the teacher, the parent and the teenager — are not specialists in the field of mental health. There are other options such as counselors, psychologists and some certified para-professionals i.e. social workers. The idea is to use less intrusive approaches with fewer side effects.
You might believe that a psychiatrist is the one and only professional who is authorised to deal with mental health issues but that’s not true. Counselors and psychologists are equally competent when it comes to handling mental health problems. The difference, therefore, is the focus and treatment method.
Mental health practitioners can be divided into a specific hierarchy based on the severity of the problem. For a general social or emotional problem related to relationships, work or studies, a certified para-professional is sufficiently competent. When the problem is more serious, one may need the services of a trained professional i.e. counselor or psychologist. There is still no need to consult a psychiatrist.
However, what if the problem has resulted in abnormal behavioral, emotional or mental episodes? Do you then need to see a psychiatrist? The answer is still a resounding negative. Your next option is to consult a clinical psychologist. Both clinical psychologists and psychiatrists are equally competent in treating mental disorders. The difference is solely in their approach to treatment.
Clinical psychologists employ psychotherapy while psychiatrists employ pharmacotherapy. Stripping away the jargon, this simply means that psychiatrists are trained to use pharmaceutical drugs while psychologists talk to the patient to treat the same problem.
Now that you know this, the next question is this: is it ever necessary to see a psychiatrist? Unfortunately yes, especially when the key factor behind the problem is neurological or biological — for instance when a woman is experiencing postpartum depression.
The fact is not every emotional, social or behavioral problem is a serious mental disorder. Sometimes just talking to a trusted, wise confidante is just as good.
Veronica Augustin is a Psychology lecturer at UCSI International University, Kuala Lumpur. She holds a Masters degree in Human Sciences (Psychology). Veronica has been teaching for more than 10 years.