With salaries varying widely in private practice and low in the public sector, the benefits lie in helping others to lead happier lives VIVIEN CHAN HAD been working for an IT firm for eight years when one of her colleagues was killed in an accident. This gave Ms Chan pause for some serious thinking about her own life, and her conclusion was that there was no reason to continue doing something she did not enjoy. Against the advice of her family, she left her high-paying, secure job and set out in a new direction. Her goal was to work as a therapist and the first step was to go back to school to get a master's degree in clinical psychology. Since doing that, Ms Chan has never been happier. She has found that there are many rewards in being in a caring profession such as psychology or social work. One of the biggest is the chance to better oneself while helping others. Specialist social workers are required to assist in all segments of the community, from the young to the elderly, and vacancies for this kind of work keep cropping up. One persistent problem facing the profession, however, is that of short-term contracts and low salaries, which means there may be a lack of experienced practitioners in the future. Joseph Wong, business director for the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, said: 'Most new graduates can still get jobs as social workers, but now they are project- and contract-based.' In the past, the authorities gave social welfare agencies funding for extended periods. The present practice is to allocate money for projects that are evaluated every two or three years, and to extend funding if a project is considered successful. This lack of certainty has led Cheung Kwok-chee, president of the Hong Kong Social Workers' General Union, to view the future with caution. 'I think the job prospects are not so good since they depend so much on the future development of the profession,' he said. Mr Cheung said it could take at least five years to learn the intervention and interpersonal skills necessary to become an expert in one branch of social work. Those who join the field should be dedicated, motivated and focused on something other than monetary rewards. Success cannot be quantified in financial terms and, even though starting salaries may be around $10,000 a month, a junior social worker may not receive a pay rise for the first three years. Those with an interest in counselling may also consider clinical psychology, although vacancies in this area are limited. Kindy Lam, public relations officer for the Hong Kong Psychological Society, said employers were mostly the government and government-related bodies, but they had frozen recruitment in recent years. 'There is very limited expansion, so graduates should look to the private sector,' Ms Lam said. She said the outlook was good for applied psychologists in private practice in Hong Kong. 'People living in a diverse, advanced and competitive society encounter various kinds of crisis or difficulty and need professional help,' she said. Salaries for clinical psychologists working as private practitioners vary, depending on the area of specialisation and the clients. She said there was growing demand for educational psychologists to assess and assist with specific learning needs. Secondary schools were recruiting educational psychologists to work alongside school social workers. Ms Chan, who completed her master's degree and now works at the FOCUS Psychological Enrichment Centre, agreed. 'It seems the overall demand for educational psychologists is much greater than for clinical psychologists,' she said. The future of all forms of counselling in Hong Kong depends on the willingness of individuals to discuss personal issues. The hope is that, as awareness and acceptance of mental problems grow, certain disorders will be understood better and people will become more open about them. Ng Ho-yee, associate professor at the department of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, said: 'Given his popularity, actor Leslie Cheung's death created a sensation. But the more important message was that a family member said his suicide was a result of depression, which should be seen as a mental illness.' Universities were also helping to raise awareness of mental illness through their specialised centres. 'Raising public awareness of mental problems is one way for professionals to respond to what they see as urgent business,' Dr Ng said. talk it through Social workers face short-term contracts and low wages. There is a need for experienced social work professionals in Hong Kong. The job outlook for applied psychologists in private practice is good. Educational psychologists are in demand in Hong Kong. Leslie Cheung's suicide raised the profile of people with mental illnesses.