Op/Com: Finding the right psychologist in Singapore

Edit 12/9/22: Included a new link and added two parentheses to encourage reading those.

A question that I often encounter from people is about finding the right therapist (click on the link to an article about knowing if you’ve got a good therapist). Now a psychotherapist is an umbrella term for people from a variety of backgrounds who deliver psychotherapy – from counsellors to social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, or even just individuals trained to deliver psychotherapy without any related academic or educational background. Due to my own experience with and in my professional training as a Clinical Psychologist, I will not be able to comment on professions beyond what I am familiar with (i.e. Clinical Psychology). As such, in today’s post I will be sharing my personal opinion regarding the issue of finding the right psychologist in Singapore. Despite having said that I cannot comment beyond my profession, some of the things that I’ll share are general principles and guidelines that may also be applicable if you’re looking to see someone who is not a psychologist.

Defining ‘Psychologist’

People often think of psychotherapy when they think of a psychologist. Strictly speaking, a ‘Psychologist’ is someone who works within the field or discipline of psychology. As psychology is a vast field, we could generally categorize psychologists into two distinct categories: Research and Applied Psychologists. Research psychologists are professionals whose main role involves conducting research. They are actively involved in, and are responsible for theorizing, finding, consolidating, and publishing new knowledge in the field of psychology. Applied psychologists are professionals whose main role involves applying knowledge identified in research into the practical aspects of our lives. Within the applied psychology branch, multiple subdisciplines exists, each with their own training curriculum to help psychologists perform and fulfil their roles in that setting. For example, while psychological assessments are common across many subdisciplines, the type of tests utilized, as well as the manner in which these tests are conducted may vary depending on which subdiscipline one is in (e.g. clinical vs forensic vs educational).

Now while the above classification sounds great in theory, the truth of the matter is that many psychologists do both research and applied work (i.e. Clinician-Scientist model). There are also significant overlaps between subdisciplines. For example, a clinical psychologist may do neuropsychological testing, or an educational psychologist may do psychotherapy for mental health challenges. That further complicates matter for individuals seeking to identify the “right” psychologist. As such, I hope that the pointers below could form a guiding framework for individuals seeking to navigate these complications.

Identifying your needs

Before attempting to identify the right psychologist, it would be important to first consider what your individual needs are. Are you looking to have your educational difficulties evaluated and possibly diagnosed? Are you looking to get recommendations for access arrangement? Are you looking for psychotherapy? Or are you perhaps hoping to have a psychological report prepared for court?

Depending on your individual needs, the ‘type’ (click on the link to find out more about the various types of psychologists) of psychologist you look for would differ.

Looking for the appropriate psychologist

After identifying your needs and the ‘type’ of psychologist that may meet your needs, the next step is a little more challenging.

In an ideal world, the psychology profession would be well-regulated, and individuals could be assured that they’re receiving high quality care and services. That is unfortunately not the case. In places like Singapore, Hong Kong, or in the United Kingdom, ‘Psychologist’ is not a protected title. As such, anyone could call themselves a ‘psychologist’ with no legal repercussions. In contrast, ‘Psychologist’ is a legally protected title in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. In the United States of America, individual states have their own regulations regarding the use of the title ‘Psychologist’, but they are generally kept to individuals with the appropriate post-graduate training (Master or Doctoral-level).

Unfortunately, the lack of regulation in Singapore meant that potential clients and consumers of the service would have to do their research and due diligence to maximize their chances of finding the right professional. In fact, a quick search on Google of private psychology clinics in Singapore yielded several hits where services were provided by potentially underqualified clinicians calling themselves ‘psychologists’. These could range from individuals who only have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, to those with irrelevant or inappropriate post-graduate degree (e.g. master degree in research), and those with post-graduate doctoral-level degrees from dubious institutions and degree mills. As such, I hope to share some tips that could help individuals be more discerning of the services that they are looking to receive.

Tip 1: Consider Public Healthcare/Services.

In Singapore, consider services that are related to state, governmental, or public institutions. Many of these institutions and services have rigorous hiring processes which would already evaluate candidates for suitability. Individuals with inappropriate or unsuitable qualifications would likely not be hired. As such, in the absence of legal or statutory guidelines to regulate the psychological profession, relying on the gatekeeping done by governmental institutions or public services might be a good alternative. Examples of public services include psychological care at our public hospitals, polyclinics, REACH (IMH, NUH, KKH), or even those provided by the Ministry of Education (for educational psychological services).

Additionally, as there are no legal regulatory body for psychologists in Singapore, public services allow individuals the opportunity to seek recourse should there be malpractice. For example, an individual could raise a compliant to the hospital or to the governmental agency should they be on the receiving end of malpractice. In contrast, there is limited recourse for malpractice in the private practice sector. There is no governing body to bring the matter up to for further investigations, and definitely no legal way to prevent the practitioner from continuing their practice.

Public services are generally also cheaper than that of private services. For individuals seeking help at our public hospitals, a referral could be obtained from the polyclinic for subsidised rates. Those with financial difficulties might also be eligible for further financial assistance.

Now the public system isn’t perfect (as many of you would already know). The downside to this would be the strong demand and longer wait time for these services compared to if one were to seek private services. For those considering private services, consider the following tips.

Tip 2: Look for Registered, Licensed, or Chartered Psychologists.

Many psychologists are registered members of professional bodies. These could include the Singapore Psychological Society, the Australian Psychological Society, the American Psychological Association, the British Psychological Society. Psychologists registered with these professional bodies may include “strings of letters” behind their name or title to indicate these associations. For example, MSPS for ‘Member of the Singapore Psychological Society’, MAPS for ‘Member of the Australian Psychological Society’. However, memberships into professional bodies are usually voluntary, and are separate from licenses to practice issued by governments or regulatory bodies, or registers of psychologists.

The more important feature to consider would be if these psychologists meet the requirements needed to be registered, licensed, or chartered by their respective regulatory bodies.

For starters, let us take a look at some differences between the membership criteria and the criteria to register for the Singapore Psychological Society (SPS):

As shown in the table above, the requirements to be a member of the SPS and to be on their register of psychologist is significantly different. The following are some examples of individuals who could be full members of SPS but not qualify for registration:

  • Someone with only a bachelor’s degree with some relevant experience
  • Someone with a research masters (not applied)
  • Someone with an applied masters but do not have sufficient practical hours (i.e. insufficient supervised experience)
  • Someone with only a bachelor’s degree but is a member of an overseas psychological society (which also doesn’t require practical hours)

In contrast, someone who is on the SPS register of psychologist would not only fulfil membership criteria, but would also have a master’s or doctoral level qualification, and either have a license to practice abroad, or would at minimal have clocked 1000 hours of supervised practical experience.

Now let us take a look at the differences between the graduate membership and chartered membership of the British Psychological Society (BPS):

Similarly, the entry requirements for the BPS graduate membership and to be a chartered psychologist is significantly different. A lower 2nd class honours (2:2) and an empirical (research) project is all that is required to be registered as a graduate member, but most people would agree that it would be grossly insufficient to practice as a psychologist.

For the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Australian Psychological Society (APS), full membership is analogous to meeting the rigorous requirements to practice compared to their associate member tier. For the latter however, a better gauge would be whether the psychologist is registered with the Psychology Board of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), which is the official governing and licensing body of Australia.

As best practices go, psychologists ought to be upfront about their training, credentials, and registration. However, not all psychologists are registered despite being properly trained and qualified. For some, the costs of maintaining registration and membership (which could cost up to almost a thousand dollars per year) puts them off doing so – especially since they could continue working or practicing without any form of registration. As such, do consider Tips 3 and 4 when looking for a psychologist who isn’t registered, licensed, or chartered.

Tip 3: Consider if the psychologist was trained at an accredited school, or has sufficient supervised practical experience.

I hate to say this but not all degree qualifications are created equal. Not all bachelor’s degree qualifications are the same in terms of rigour and training. Likewise, not all post-graduate qualifications have the same level of rigour and training as well. Unfortunately, merely relying on the type of qualifications (e.g. master, or doctoral-level degree) is not a good proxy for adequacy of training or professionalism.

For example, in the UK, PhD (or DPhil) qualifications in psychology are reserved for teaching, research, or academic track psychologists. They do not have practicum components, and graduates are not trained to practice in an applied setting. An example of this could be found at the University of Manchester’s page for the PhD in Clinical Psychology programme, and the ClinPsyD Doctorate in Clinical Psychology programme. The former is a 3-4-year research-based programme, while the latter is a 3-year programme which will allow you to be licensed to practice in the UK. In contrast, both legitimate PhD and DPsy programmes (see Tip 4 below) in the US allow graduates to practice in applied settings after the completion of their 5-6 years training due to the different training curriculum as their UK counterparts.

In Australia, 3-year PsyD programmes are being phased out in favour of a 2+2 (2-year masters and +2 years for a PhD) programme. While some schools still offer a 4-year PsyD programme, they are gradually pivoting away. Nonetheless, the above programmes (2+2 PhD, or 3/4-year PsyD programmes) generally have the required training curriculum which would allow an individual to practice, provided they are accredited by the Australian Board. To determine if a clinician may have graduated from an accredited programme, you could either refer to their registration with AHPRA (see Tip 2), or search for their qualifications using this tool.

Master’s programmes are another category of post-graduate qualifications which shouldn’t automatically be associated with competency to practice. That is because these programmes could either be by coursework (i.e. applied psychology), research, or a conversion programme (e.g. to help someone transition from an unrelated degree to a psychology degree). The latter two would not have the right curriculum and training to allow their graduates to practice.

In Australia, if the psychologist has a master’s degree by coursework (applied psychology) from an accredited programme of study, they will likely have the skills necessary to be able to practice as AHPRA/Psychology Board of Australia would have ensured the rigour of the programme.

In Singapore, things are a tad trickier as we do not have accreditation. There are master’s by research programmes offered by our universities. Graduates from these research programmes are likely not equipped with the necessary skills to practice. For our applied psychology (coursework) programmes, we currently have one Clinical Psychology programme from the National University of Singapore (NUS), one Clinical Psychology programme from James Cook University (JCU), and one Applied Psychology programme from the National Institute of Education (NIE) which allows students to specialize either in Educational Psychology or in Counselling Psychology. For the latter however, the programme structure only ensures that students receive 600 out of the 1000 hours necessary to be registered with SPS. As such, while graduates from the programme are able to practice (as we don’t have any restrictions or regulations), the amount of practical experience that they have until they meet the requirements for registration may be a factor to consider.

Screengrab from the NIE website

In the UK, master’s degrees could be conversion programmes or bridging programmes (allowing students to gain research and academic experience in preparation for a DPhil or PsyD). They often do not allow graduates to practice unless otherwise stated. For example, this Master’s in Applied Clinical Psychology (sounds fancy doesn’t it?) is a 1-year programme that introduces the basics and foundational concepts of clinical psychology. It doesn’t have the relevant practical components and supervised training to allow graduates to practice in an applied setting (despite the title). In fact, the website clearly stated that, “This course is not professionally accredited and will not provide you with a licence to practise.

Screengrab from the University of Bath website

In all, due to the diversity of training programmes across educational titles (e.g. Master’s, Doctoral), we should consider beyond whether someone has a master’s or doctoral level qualification when looking for a psychologist.

Tip 4: If the credential sounds dubious, look it up.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of unethical practices going about and psychology is not spared. Trying to discern between legitimate and illegitimate credentials is a tiring process, but it would do you more good than harm in the longer term. After all, untrained or poorly delivered therapeutic practices can be harmful. The advent of the Internet and the global proliferation of degree mills have spoilt the process of ‘qualifications as competence’ for us all. As such, looking up the schools and programmes that the psychologist graduated from might be helpful in differentiating between legitimate and less legitimate schools. This is especially important as many of these schools have names which sound familiar or similar to their legitimate counterpart, fooling people into assuming legitimacy.

There is another category of psychology programmes that while not quite the same as degree mills, tend to not have the necessary components needed to prepare their graduates for practice. They may not have physical campuses and offer their programmes purely online. Some of them offer “clinical psychology doctoral degrees” that have zero practical components, or have them as optional. Imagine seeing a doctoral-level psychologist in the clinic and being their first patient ever (because they’ve never had practical experience due to their degree being entirely online).

Based on the image above, all it takes is paying $545 x 66 credits = $35,970 and attending 2 years worth of online classes with no practical experience to graduate with a Doctor of Psychology qualification from this school.

Many of these programmes are not accredited by the national psychology board (e.g. American Psychological Association), but instead rely on smaller level state boards or private institutional boards for “accreditation”.

Some have also ended up in legal tussles with the state board. For example, the Ryokan College, with whom some practitioners might have obtained their post-graduate degree from, have had their share of challenges. Others have stopped offering academic programmes.

As consumers and individuals who are looking for a psychologist, perhaps it might be prudent to err on the side of caution and to do some homework (look up the schools if they sound unfamiliar) before committing to a psychologist.

Caveat

At this juncture, I think it is important to mention that the tips provided above are but general guidelines to help us have the best odds at finding a competent psychologist. It isn’t an absolute formula, and a be-all-end-all. In fact, it would also do us good to acknowledge that terrible or unethical psychologists can often come from the best schools or have the most amazing credentials. Likewise, those with less than stellar credentials can be perfectly competent and amazing psychologists in their own right. However, in the absence of knowing whom to choose from and having limited resources (time and money), the guiding tips above might be useful in helping us make ever so slightly better choices.

Closing Thoughts

In an ideal world, help-seeking would be easy. In an ideal world, boundaries would be clear and processes would be transparent. But alas, that is not the case. The lack of regulation of psychologists (as a whole) in Singapore and in several other places (e.g. HK, UK) have only further complicated things for those most in need. Through this opinion post however, I hope that I have shared some tips on how one could find a psychologist with some degree of discernment. Having said that, it is normal to change psychologists until you have found one with whom you can connect and have a strong therapeutic alliance with. It is also important to be aware that amazing people (and psychologists) can come from the most unlikely of backgrounds. Nonetheless, the tips shared above could increase our odds of finding the right one by starting with the right pool of candidates.

Eugene

Published by Blue. Psychological Services

Blue. is a non-commercial, non-profit initiative offering anonymous pro bono psychological consultation.

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