The year 2020 saw a rise in uncertainties. Many have experienced anxiety, job loss, a strain on finances and family relationships due to the impact of the pandemic. By default, couples need to adjust to working from homes, with blurred boundaries between work and family, lesser personal space and challenges in new routines. They may not have readily communicated effectively about their roles, given the constant changes in adjusting to tightening and lifting measures. Coupled with the labour crunch, families may find it increasingly formidable or costly to hire a helper to care for children, who are required to stay home for home-based learning or the care of elderly parents who may be weak and frail. This may inevitably lead to unresolved conflicts between the couple due to the stress and demands of constant transition and change. In 2020, a survey for mums showed that 60% of the participants rated their stress level at a 7 out of 10. In addition, 3 out of 10 of the participants felt sad most of the time.
Children and young people are not spared from the raging wave of anxiety. According to a survey conducted by Focus on the Family, kids are more anxious about exams than Covid 19 (The Straits Times, 18 Sep 2020). However, in an international study of 72 countries (including Singapore), only 6% of teens share their problems with their families (Impact of the Pandemic on Family Life Across Cultures 2020, Namad Bin Kalifa University). No wonder the CEO of the Institute of Mental Health says that “Gen Z faces different forms of stress, maybe more anxious, depressed than others before them (Today, updated on 1 Mar 2021).” President Halimah also urged Singapore to step up efforts to protect children’s mental health early (The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2020).
Given the tremendous stress that kids and adults are facing, families are stretched very thinly. Therefore, they ought to rise above their concern of seeking a mental health facility to deal with their issues early, so that family members can get the professional help they need.
It is timely for the family to consider attending family therapy to address and deal with the mental well-being issues, be it stress or anxiety collectively.
You may have some questions about family therapy, and here are some FAQs that seek to answer your questions.
Why Family Therapy?
Having to deal with unhealthy family dynamics constantly puts a toll on one’s mental wellness.Family therapy focuses on improving family communication; it deals with family conflicts, seeks and creates better functioning and environment. It provides family members with an opportunity to talk about how they think and feel, being affected by the issue they face. It enhances skills to facilitate healing. Therefore marriage and family therapy are essential.
Family therapy shifts the focus from blame, diagnostical lens, linear causality, and looks at circular causality in an issue. For example, a teen who exhibits school refusal may be staying home because of his worry and caregiving role to his mum, who is in chronic health and has a strained marital relationship with her spouse. It helps the family understand the issue confronting them in the family context and the larger contexts, i.e. the pandemic.
Family Therapy is often used to help treat an individual’s problem that has dire effects on the entire family, i.e. depression, anxiety and behavioural issues. This type of psychotherapy is also helpful in addressing family-centric problems, i.e. conflicts between spouses, siblings, parents and children.
What is Family Therapy?
Family therapy is psychotherapy designed to identify family patterns that may have contributed to behavioural or mental well-being concerns. The idea is to help family members break those habits as the family therapist involves the family in discussion and problem-solving.
What can I expect when my family and I attend a Family Therapy session?
During family systems therapy, the family therapist works individually and collaboratively to resolve their issue, which directly affects one or more family members. Each family member has the space to say what they think and how they feel as the issue affects them. For example, when a teen has anxiety issues, a family member gets to talk about how this issue impacts them.
How long is each session and how long is the therapy period?
1.5 hours per session over a period of 4-8 sessions, subject to review with your family therapist. Family therapy is a specialised counselling process. No one is a miracle worker. It takes time and commitment for the family to work through their issues.
Are family therapists trained?
Yes, systemic family therapists are trained with a Masters in Family and Systemic Psychotherapy, a specialised skills competency in systemic couple and family work. It draws on systems thinking and views the family as a unit. It evaluates the parts of the system (individual) in relation to the whole (family) and examines how an issue of one or more members of the family affects the whole family. It suggests that a family member’s behaviour or issue may be embedded in the family dynamics and influenced by the family of origin issues.
Family Therapists would have undergone at least 560 hours of academic instruction and supervised clinical practice, accompanied by years of experience.
When should my family and I attend Family Therapy?
It is always helpful to seek family therapy early before the issue snowballs and becomes more difficult or complicated to manage at the later stage.
Who should attend Family Therapy?
Immediate Family members in a family nucleus should attend Family Therapy, i.e. couples, parents, children (includes teens and adult children) siblings.
Does my whole family need to attend? What happens if I am unable to get all my family members to attend Family Therapy?
It will be helpful if your family can attend therapy together. However, it is okay if not all family members can turn up for therapy. The family therapist will collaborate with the members who come for therapy sessions.
How do I prepare for Family Therapy?
Discuss with your family members about attending therapy together. Think and write down what you want to discuss before each session. Then, ask your family therapist how you want to improve the communication in the family.
Is there confidentiality?
Yes, the session is confidential under the Singapore Data Protection Act 2012 (“Act”).
So you are going to see a psychologist for the first time – now what should we expect? The thought of having to step into a psychologist’s room for the first time can be nerve-racking, and understandably so. Oftentimes, individuals may be apprehensive and would wonder if talking to a complete stranger is really going to help, or if opening up your innermost thoughts to a stranger was too much of a risk to take. However, rest be assured that these mental health professionals are well-versed in psychotherapy methods to help you manage your issues as best as possible, and will work closely with you at a comfortable pace. Just like in the treatment of physical illnesses by physicians, patient privacy and confidentiality are also primary obligations for psychologists. In this article, we hope to give you a clearer idea of what you can expect from your visit to a psychologist, especially if it is your first session.
First things first, it is important to understand that psychotherapy isn’t merely a one-off session. While the duration of treatment may vary from one person to another, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that “recent research indicates that on average 15 to 20 sessions are required for 50 percent of patients to recover as indicated by self-reported symptom measures.” The type and duration of treatment also heavily depend on the nature and severity of each client’s conditions, and it would simply be unfair to make an overgeneralised statement. Regardless, it would be beneficial to go in with an open mind, and to have an honest conversation with your psychologist. It really helps to trust that the process works, while acknowledging that it takes time.
Meeting the psychologist
At the beginning, the first few sessions would aim to help one identify the most pertinent issue that needs to be dealt with. The psychologist will talk through with you gathering some information on your life history, your family’s mental health history, the problems you are dealing with, and analyse those details – no matter how insignificant they may seem at first – that could have possibly led to emotional distress or coping difficulties. For the psychologist, being able to get a good grasp of the situation and seeing the big picture is vital for formulating the treatment plan and treatment process, as it will help to determine the type of psychotherapy that is best suited for you. The psychologist is trained to listen and analyse your conditions in order to help you with your recovery. As such, it is equally important that you don’t hold yourself back from being fully honest with your psychologist. To a large extent, the patient’s participation in the therapy is an important determinant of the success of the outcome.
While we fully understand that it can be unnerving, these mental health professionals are trained to help you work through the challenges you face, and the therapy room is very much a safe, non-judgemental space. Goal-setting is one of the key aspects of psychotherapy, and it is exceptionally important to set goals from the start that you can use to track your progress. You may start by identifying personally meaningful broad motives, hopes and dreams – having a clear direction in mind will better steer future sessions towards alleviating symptoms of distress and tackling the root cause of one’s concerns. Don’t worry if you feel the need to change your goals or take a different approach halfway through the treatment process. Psychotherapy is a dynamic process after all, and increased self-discovery along the way can certainly give you a better sense of what needs to be changed.
Different approaches to psychotherapy
There are several approaches to psychotherapy that can be implemented in the following sessions. Not strictly limited to one or the other, psychologists may make use of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies, cognitive-behavioural, interpersonal, and other types of talk therapy. They can help you focus on changing problematic behaviours, feelings, and thoughts to build on healthy habits, or teach you emotion-coping strategies to cope with your symptoms. Forms of treatment like cognitive-behavioural therapy also aim to help individuals recognise negative thought and behaviour patterns, thereby working towards a positive change. Each session is essentially a problem-solving session. By allowing yourself to talk to your psychologist about your most difficult moments, your feelings and the change you want to observe, the psychologist is then able to make use of his/her expertise to assist you. Many mental health professionals don’t limit their treatment to any one approach. Instead, they blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each patient’s needs.
To make the most of the treatment process, “homework” may sometimes be assigned as between-session tasks to clients as part of your treatment. A variety of homework assignments exist – sometimes in the form of practising new skills, habits, and other coping mechanisms, or someone who is dealing with complicated emotions could be asked to record your negative thoughts in nightly journal entries. When you return for your next session, the psychologist would then check in on your progress, and address any issues that may have arisen while you were completing your tasks. For some clients the benefits of therapy can be achieved in a few sessions, while for other clients they might need more to improve. Empirical evidence supports the benefits of homework in promoting positive symptom change and increasing patient functioning, that is, the quality of a client’s participation in therapy through active application of what they learn will lead to improvements in their conditions.
Was the psychologist right for you?
Often during the conversation with the psychotherapist, or after the session, you may feel a sense of relief, elation, or anxiety and exhaustion. However you feel, it is important to take note of those feelings. Did the psychologist put you at ease? Did he/she listen to you carefully and demonstrate compassion? Did he/she develop a plan to guide you with your goals and show expertise and confidence in working with issues that you have? For the treatment to be effective, you need to be able to ‘click’ with the psychologist, that is you are able to build trust and a strong connection with your psychologist.
To end off, the first session with a psychologist is understandably a bit intimidating and overwhelming, but the first step in the journey to recovery is a critical step to regain your mental wellbeing.