Psychology students face study barrier

Those wanting to help the mentally ill by becoming psychologists face barriers to study. Universities need to make more postgraduate places available to them, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 9:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 12:39pm

A young accounting professional, Anna Ng (not her real name), decided to quit her job at a top accounting firm two years ago to pursue a postgraduate certificate in psychology at the University of Hong Kong. She was driven by an interest in the helping profession.

As practitioners in the field are required to have at least a master's degree, Ng's hope was dashed when her application for the master's in clinical psychology course at HKU was rejected. The course's enrolment quota of 19 places means the bulk of the more than 300 applicants could not further their studies at the university.

But Ng is not giving up just yet. Instead of returning to accounting, she plans to apply again, after spending the months ahead doing volunteer or research work.

There are absolutely not enough clinical psychologists around
winnie mak, chinese university 

"Last term we joined a training lab in which we were assigned to talk to some psychiatric patients in a public hospital. We found that these people and their families need a lot of help. Even helping them a bit gave us a lot of satisfaction," she says.

A classmate of Ng, who does not want to be identified, echoes her view: "I talked to a patient with mild depression for 2½ hours. If you are skilful and show care, the patient feels accepted and will share his problems with you. The talking itself is therapeutic."

Many others share the same interest in helping people with mental diseases. But the chances of entering the profession are slim. A reason is the limited postgraduate places at the two key providers - HKU and Chinese University.

Each has only 19 places for their master's in clinical psychology course, the required training for entering the field in Hong Kong. Separate graduate programmes cater to those aspiring to be educational psychologists or industrial psychologists working mainly in schools or companies.

HKU only recruits for the master's programme every other year. Increasingly in North America and Britain, the field expects a higher entry qualification, at doctoral level.

The small admissions quota here has to do with limited placement opportunities in public hospitals, says director of the master's in clinical psychology programme at HKU, Dr Esther Lau Yuet-ling. "The supply of these opportunities is very tight. If there were to be more graduates, they might not all be able to find work. There are not that many jobs around."

But ironically, the need for psychological services in Hong Kong is vast, judging from the spate of suicides and family tragedies involving the mentally ill in recent years. Lau agrees with the prevalence of mental health issues here.

"There is a very clear need, but the waiting time for such services at public hospitals is very long," she says.

HKU can recruit every year instead of every other year, if additional resources are available and, not least of all, if more job positions are available in the Hospital Authority and NGOs, she says.

Hong Kong lags behind the US in the ratio of psychologists to population. In the US, it is one to 3,417, well below the one to 18,047 ratio in this city; there are only about 400 practising clinical psychologists here.

Pledging the people's well-being as one of its policy goals, the British government in 2011 kicked off a drive to make mental health more accessible.

It has invested about £400 million (HK$5.2 billion) over four years to make psychological therapies available, and expand provision for the general population as well as people with long-term physical health problems, and those with severe mental illnesses.

Kent Tsang, a board member of the Hong Kong Association of Doctors in Clinical Psychology, urges universities to seriously consider adjusting their admissions quotas.

"Why keep the master's programme so elitist and turn away so much potential talent?" he asks. "The current provision is not proportionate to the number of psychology majors at universities."

Indeed, seven of the eight government-funded institutions offer psychology as a major for undergraduates.

Working for a non-governmental organisation helping people with substance abuse, Tsang warns of big mental heath issues in our society. Chinese people are resistant to seeking treatment for psychological, mental diseases. People suffering from insomnia tend to see a medical doctor instead," Tsang says.

He adds many are also put off by the high fees charged by private practitioners, which range from HK$1,500 to HK$3,000 or more per hour.

Nurturing talent can broaden the pool of psychologists, drive down prices and consequently encourage more patients to seek treatment from them. This helps reduce government medical expenses in the long run.

Dr Sammy Cheng Kin-wing, chairman of the Hong Kong Psychological Society’s Clinical Psychology Division, cites research evidence that shows that one out of two people with mild depression and anxiety disorder can be cured through talk-based, cognitive behaviour therapy, rather than medication.

"Medication can be a long-term process and have side-effects. And it may not have good efficacy."

There are about 250 clinical psychologists working for the Hospital Authority and government subvented NGOs, he says.

"There is absolutely a need to increase the number of graduate places. The government should take on the responsibility for subsidising such places, or people might enrol in dubious programmes that fail to qualify them to practice,"Cheng says.

"Students must be given placement in a hospital setting under the supervision of a qualified clinical psychologist."

This summer will see the largest number of graduates, after Chinese University expanded its annual intake from 12 to 19 two years ago.

Winnie Mak, director of Chinese University's graduate studies in clinical psychology, described as satisfactory her students' job search thus far.

"Some have already got offers. There are absolutely not enough clinical psychologists around especially in the public sector. There is also a need for a statutory registration system to let the public know who the qualified psychologists are," Mak says.

"Often people don't know where to get help when they have emotional problems."