It's all in the mind

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 January, 2007, 12:00am

People have become more aware of mental health problems, so psychologists are in demand

WHILE DEMAND FOR clinical and educational psychologists is increasing in Hong Kong, most of these positions are offered or subsidised by the government.

This means that the number of positions offered depends on the government funding available and because of funding constraints, the number of positions do not meet the demand in society, according to Fanny Cheung Mui-ching, professor of psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Samuel Ho Mun-yin, associate professor at the department of psychology at the University of Hong Kong, agreed.

'People are more aware of mental health problems and of mental health in general, which leads to a greater demand for clinical psychologists. But because of the economic situation, there is little increase in the number of clinical psychologist positions,' Mr Ho said.

When Helios Lau Kar-cho joined the social welfare department in 1982, the department only had four clinical psychologists on its payroll. Now it is one of the largest employers of psychologists in the government, with 55 in service.

'In the beginning, the supply [of psychologists] was limited,' said Mr Lau, chief clinical psychologist at the social welfare department, which was the first government department to hire clinical psychologists in the 1970s.

Mr Lau, who did his training at the University of Hong Kong, recalled that in the early days, HKU was the only university in Hong Kong that trained psychologists. With a bi-annual intake of four to 10 students in the early 1980s, added to the few who qualified abroad, growth in the profession was slow.

When the Chinese University of Hong Kong started offering psychology training at the master's and doctoral levels several years later, the industry got a boost with more practitioners released into the market every year.

Last November, the City University of Hong Kong linked with the California School of Professional Psychology at United States-based Alliant University to offer a US-style doctorate in clinical psychology, the PsyD.

Mr Lau said there were now about 200 to 300 clinical psychologists in Hong Kong, with a smaller number of educational and industrial/organisational psychologists.

People in Hong Kong are not recognised as psychologists until they have completed at least a master's degree in psychology. Besides the social welfare department, other big employers of clinical psychologists include the Hospital Authority, the department of health, the correctional services department and the police force.

The education department is a big employer of educational psychologists.

Mr Lau said that while expansion in the civil service had slowed in the past couple of years, his department hired two to three psychologists per year.

Hong Kong is at the lower end of the scale when its clinical psychologist to general population ratio is compared with that of other countries.

'But in terms of service provision in the department, there is no waiting list. Every person with a need for service can be provided the service in a reasonable time. The demand will continue to grow,' Mr Lau said, adding that more clinical psychologists were starting to move into private practice. 'Now there are more people who are willing to pay for such services. People are starting to think that these services are important.'

He estimated that there were about 12 private clinical psychology practitioners with their own clinics in Hong Kong. He equated this to American psychologist Abraham Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs', which states that when people's basic needs are met they move up the hierarchy in search of the satisfaction of higher level needs, in this case mental health.

Most clinical psychologists work for the government or public organisations in social services or they teach in universities, but some are hired by the private sector.

Professor Cheung said: 'Employers find them helpful in providing insights into employee behaviour.' Such psychologists work in areas of performance enhancement, staff motivation, market research, organisational planning and personnel.