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”).
Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a widely used evidence-based technique to encourage behaviour change. According to clinical psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick, “MI is a collaborative, goal-oriented style of communication with particular attention to the language of change. It is designed to strengthen personal motivation for and commitment to a specific goal by eliciting and exploring the person’s own reasons for change within an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion.” In the clinical setting, it has been proven effective in tackling certain issues such as smoking, substance abuse, or other compulsive behaviour disorders including problem gambling, hypersexuality, or compulsive spending. In a way, MI serves as a decision aid and to guide clients towards making the necessary lifestyle changes. It assists clients in weighing the pros and cons of their respective situations, and encourages them to assess the benefits they can reap if they were to change their behaviour.
MI works best for individuals who fall within any one of these categories below. Of course, this is not to suggest that MI doesn’t work for conversations and discussions outside of these categories.
High ambivalence: These people are still experiencing mixed feelings about their situation. They sit on the fence, contemplating if they should make any changes.
Low confidence: These individuals are doubtful of their abilities to make the necessary lifestyle changes in order to overcome difficulties.
Low desire: These people are uncertain as to whether they really want to make a change.
Low importance: The line between the costs of the current situation and benefits of change is blurred, leaving the situation unclear.
In general, there are 4 fundamental processes to MI:
As with all other therapeutic methods, establishing a solid and productive therapist-client relationship is extremely important. This involves asking open-ended questions, affirming clients’ strengths, reflecting to clients what they may wish to express but have not yet spoken aloud and summarizing what has occurred in the therapeutic interaction. Having respect for the client’s autonomy is also a key aspect.
At the beginning, not all clients will have a clear goal in mind, and may lack direction and insight. This process gives the interviewer and the client the opportunity to narrow down on a shared goal or purpose that they can work towards. With that, the clinician is better able to steer the client into a directional conversation about change.
Essentially, the interviewer needs to be able to pick up on hints or cues which may suggest the client’s willingness to change. Oftentimes, clients may express their desire to change and their fear of the potential consequences if they do not. Interviewers will then employ more open-ended questions to guide the client, giving him a chance to elaborate on his attitudes, thoughts and motivations. Normalising ambivalence and ensuring that sensitive information is explored without judgement is also important.
Planning should come from the clients themselves based on their insights, self-knowledge, values and motivation. Typically, interviewers do not attempt to take full control and to force a commitment plan onto the client. Doing so will not only disempower the client, but also strips the client of his autonomy. However, they can step in when clients are stuck or unsure as to what they can do to make the necessary changes, as long as their advice is wanted.
In a MI, a decisional matrix is often used. This involves an open discussion of the situation at hand, allowing the client to assess the costs and benefits involved. What are the benefits of staying the same, versus the benefits that come with change? What costs are involved if they chose to stay where they are, than if they made changes? MI isn’t about having psychologists force their views on the client and having them follow their orders. By having an open discussion in a safe, non-judgemental space, clients are able to reflect on their behaviour and come to a decision based on a “fair” hearing. By getting clients to think about the costs of staying the same, this also allows for greater cognitive dissonance, making changes more likely.
Another common aspect of MI involves the Columbo approach, which can be characterised as deploying discrepancies. This technique was inspired by 1970s television series Columbo, in which TV detective Columbo would apply it to rationalise discrepancies and to seek additional supporting information. When contradictory information surfaces, the interviewer will then present a question in a way that makes the client reflect on their mindset. For example, a question could be phrased as, “How does your (risky behaviour) fit in with your goals?”
Motivational interviewing is sometimes used on its own or may be combined with other treatment approaches. In short, MI is a method of communication rather than an intervention, and it serves to help you attain greater confidence in self-improvement and to make crucial behavioural changes for the better. MI doesn’t force you to commit to a plan, nor involve scare tactics to pressure you into making decisions that you feel uncomfortable with. It does, however, motivate you and aims to help you achieve greater clarity on the importance of making a change. If you or a loved one needs to seek professional mental health support, do reach out to our team!
Fear resulting from psychological trauma can be extremely deep-seated. The distress, feelings of helplessness and constant flashback of traumatic events can turn one’s world upside down, causing major problems with daily activities and quality of life. It may be easy for someone to say, “Well, why can’t you just get over it?” But in reality, we need to recognise that it is much easier said than done. In order to help people move past their traumatic experiences, researchers and psychologists have worked tirelessly, creating various therapeutic methods and tweaking them to achieve the optimal recovery outcome. In regards to the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may be familiar with an approach known as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. In this article, we’ll be introducing you to an alternative psychotherapy technique, also known as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987, EMDR therapy is an empirically validated treatment for trauma and other negative life experiences. While it is also increasingly applied for the treatment of other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or panic attacks, researchers have not found EMDR to be as effective as with trauma-related conditions. As its name suggests, EMDR isn’t all about talk therapy or medications. In a different vein from cognitive behavioural therapy, EMDR doesn’t focus on altering a client’s thought patterns or behaviours. Instead, it relies on one’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements, allowing the brain to process memories and resume its natural healing process.
What is the Basis of EMDR Therapy?
EMDR is fundamentally based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model. A key tenet of this model is that the symptoms of PTSD are manifested due to memories that are dysfunctionally stored or not fully processed. Memories of disturbing experiences often string along negative emotions, thoughts, beliefs and even physical sensations that were associated with them at the time of occurrence. This can bring about a multitude of unpleasant symptoms that can be exceptionally detrimental to one’s mental health.
When one is exposed to stress or trauma, the body’s automatic response would be to activate its Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). As an adaptive system, it controls our natural fight, flight or freeze instincts, which is critical in ensuring our survival. When the SNS is activated, the individual will undergo physical alterations such as increased heart and breathing rates, decreased blood flow to the digestive system and constricted blood vessels. In addition, hormone levels including those of adrenaline and cortisol will increase dramatically, causing hypervigilance. However, for someone who is under constant stress from traumatic flashbacks, the over-stimulation of the SNS will be greatly damaging to this person’s physical health. As such, EMDR therapy aims to process memories such that the experience is remembered, but the fight, flight or freeze response is eased.
At this juncture, you may be wondering how clinician-directed eye movements could possibly alleviate trauma-induced stress. EMDR therapy involves guiding the client towards reliving triggering experiences in short phases while the clinician directs his eye movements. During the process, the client will be tasked to focus on trauma-related imagery and the relevant sensations. The clinician will then simultaneously move their finger across the client’s field of view, with each phase lasting approximately 20 to 30 seconds. This will then be repeated a couple of times. At some point, other forms of rhythmic left-right stimulation (for example, listening to tones that go back and forth between the left and right sides of your head) will also be incorporated into the therapeutic process. As distressing as it sounds, the process in fact allows for the vividness and emotional triggers of the memory to be reduced over time. When the client’s attention is diverted as they recall the traumatic event, this makes the exposure to negative thoughts and memories less upsetting, hence limiting a strong psychological response. After attending several EMDR therapy sessions (depending on the individual), the impact of the traumatic event is believed to be significantly reduced.
How is EMDR Structured?
Generally speaking, EMDR takes on an eight-phase approach.
Stage 1: History Taking and Treatment Planning
For a start, the clinician will work hand-in-hand with the client to identify the traumatic experiences which require attention. Should the client have a problematic childhood, the initial stage of EMDR may focus on resolving childhood traumas before moving on to resolve adult onset stressors. Identifying targets for EMDR treatment is also crucial – this means looking further into the client’s past memories, their current emotional triggers, as well as what they hope to achieve by the end of the treatment phase.
Stage 2: Preparation
In this phase, the clinician introduces the client to a few emotion-coping strategies to ensure that the client is well able to manage their emotional distress whenever a trigger is brought up. It is important that the client is able to deal with overwhelming emotions even between EMDR sessions in daily life. The clinician may also familiarise the client with the eye movements or bilateral stimulations.
Stage 3: Assessment
The clinician will then identify and assess the specific traumatic memories that need to be tackled. This also involves analysing the associated emotions and sensations triggered by the memories.
Stages 4 to 7: Treatment Process
These intermediate stages focus on the process of desensitisation, installation, a body scan, and seeking closure. The client is asked to concentrate on the trauma-related imagery and memory while engaged in the directed eye movements or other bilateral stimulation. After each set of stimulation, the client will be asked to clear their mind and report what they feel, think, and the sensations they experience. Depending on the individual, the clinician may have the client refocus on the same memory, or move on to another. This process is repeated until the client reports no distress.
Installation is where the clinician works with the client to increase the strength of positive cognition. This means focusing on the preferred positive beliefs, rather than negative ones. For example, an individual dealing with trauma arising from childhood domestic abuse may start off with a negative belief of “I am weak and powerless”. Installation aims to change that belief into one of “I am now in control.” Of course, EMDR does not force one to believe in something that is inappropriate or unsuitable for the situation. In the example brought up, allowing the client to realise that positive belief could mean encouraging them to take on self-defence training, or other skills that can provide them with a greater sense of security and control.
A body scan is used in order to check for any residual somatic response that is linked to event-related tension or stress. Should any undesirable bodily sensations be present, the clinician will then target them specifically in subsequent sets.
Stage 8: Evaluation
The next EMDR session begins with this phase. This stage is mainly for the re-evaluation of the client’s plight. More importantly, this step is to ensure that the necessary progress is made and to review the client’s psychological state. Further review will be carried out, and the relevant changes will be made to provide the optimal treatment effect.
Although EMDR may be a relatively new technique as compared to other forms of therapy, it is nonetheless an extensively researched method proven to alleviate the stress symptoms of trauma survivors and other individuals who have had distressing life experiences. If you think that EMDR therapy is right for you, do seek help from a mental health professional.
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.
Caregivers with a family member affected by addiction problems are often exhausted, drained dry of their empathy and compassionate capacities.
They recount countless cycles of suspended hope followed by just as many broken promises as they watch the affected person return time and again to their compulsive addiction despite a seemingly obvious trail of destruction behind them.
Caregivers learn to cope with the endless demands on their energies by blending the words uttered by the affected persons as a cocktail of lies, manipulation and attention-seeking antics to get what they want.In time, the cries for help from the affected person turn into cries for help by the boy who cried wolf and eventually fading into indistinguishable white noise.
Professor Lisa Firestone of the Glendon Association observes that there is a natural tendency for caregivers to minimise any suicide expressions in general.Responses such as, “Well, his past attempts weren’t serious.” or “He is just manipulating to get something.” are commonly observed.There is also a general tendency to not want the expressions to be true.In the case of addicts, words such as “I want to die” or “I am going to end my life” no longer convey the same meaning or gravity of their sense of desperation.
Why should we want to pay attention to an addict’s cry for help?
In Singapore, we lose 1.1 lives every day to suicide.It is still the leading cause of death for youths aged 10 to 29.While direct correlation evidence is still being researched on, studies in America have shown that more than 90% of people who kill themselves suffer from depression have a substance abuse disorder or both. Suicidality and addiction share a high concordance relationship.
When we overlay the statistics with a physiological lens, we note that both groups of persons have been observed in studies to have a dysfunctional hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which essentially controls our body’s response to stress.
In a person with a normal functioning HPA axis, on the reception of a stressor, the hypothalamus in our brain instructs the secretion of the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and vasopressin to stimulate our pituitary glands to produce the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).The ACTH, in turn, stimulates glucocorticoid synthesis and release (commonly referred to as cortisol) from the adrenal glands.This chain reaction provides a person the increased energy to handle the stress event and to do so without suffering from the pain and fatigue.When the stress event is gone, the body produces a negative feedback loop which then brings the body system back to homeostasis.
In a person exposed to a persistent or extreme level of stress, or in a person who frequently activates the HPA axis through substance use, the body starts to blunt the sensitivity of the HPA axis and blunt cell receptivity to cortisol in its efforts to return to and maintain homeostasis.This alteration to the sensitivity of the HPA axis affects our ability to tolerate physical and mental stresses and creates a need for a much bigger stimulus to activate the HPA axis (which may mean higher dosage of substance use); and when the HPA axis does react, produces a much bigger and exaggerated response (which may translate to more aggressive behaviours).
What Does This Mean In Practical Terms?
Many suicidal persons described having a voice in their head which is constantly there; telling them how much they need to seek fulfilment and comfort by reaching for the desired stimulus, whether it be a substance or a behaviour, of which one is killing themselves.Their mind starts to command them to constantly plan, to seek out and to take actions to soothe the unbearable lack that they are feeling.Eventually, the voice in the head goes from coaxing and persuading to being more intensive and aggressive towards the self to take immediate drastic actions.
The relief of death, a final refuge, becomes alluring and pleasurable and the fear of dying eventually transforms into the fear of not dying and becoming the loser, disappointment, and burden that they already believe themselves to be to their caregivers.This dual push towards drastic action and the need for an ever-increasing amount of substance in addicts leads to an increase in the risk level of suicidality.
What Can We Look Out For?
How then does the caregiver separate the wheat from the chaff amid the chaos that addiction has already wrought onto the family system to detect the risks of suicidality?
Below are some, though not exclusive, common markers to look out for. It is particularly useful to note changes in the content of the affected person’s expressions and any escalation or sudden extinction of intensity.
Intense Emotional Outbursts
Extreme Isolation or Withdrawal
The feeling of Being a Misfit in Every Way
Researching or Procuring Means of Suicide.
Self-Harm, Including Risky Substance Use or Behaviours.
Planning of Affairs.
Presence of Trigger Events
Loss of Primary Relationship.
Physical or Mental Health Conditions That Debilitate.
Abuse or Trauma Events.
What Can Caregivers Do On Observing The Signs?
Ask the Suicide Questions:
In the past few weeks, have you ever wished that you were dead?
In the past few weeks, have you felt that you or your family would be better off if you were dead?
In the past week, have you made plans about killing yourself?
Have you tried to kill yourself?
If the answers are yes to any or to all the questions, caregivers are encouraged to take the following first steps:
Be empathetic towards the suicidal wish.
The objective is not to agree with the act of suicide but to understand what has happened to lead the affected person to the conclusion that suicide is the only solution.
Find a genuine connection with the affected person.
However difficult that person might have been in your life, express what this person means to you personally and how the loss of this person would affect you.
Make a safety plan.
Ask the affected person to agree to not take or delay any action to harm themselves until they get to or you get them to professional help.
Professor Lisa Firestone observes that suicidal persons are generally ambivalent: a part of them wants to die but a part of them wants to live as well.There is often a process of the dividing up of the self within the person, between an aspect which is life affirming and engaging with the outer world; and the anti-self, which is self-critical, self-hating and ultimately suicidal.The key to recovery is to connect with and help strengthen that part of them that wants to keep on living.
6 Dazzi, T., Gribble, R., Wessely, S., & Fear, N. (2014). Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine, 44(16), 3361-3363. doi:10.1017/S0033291714001299