When it comes to young children, any sniffle, cough or fever may have a parent race to a doctor’s visit. Doctors’ visits are widely accepted and a norm in this society. But this is not the same for seeking help from a mental health professional such as a psychologist or counsellor. For parents, it may be difficult to know when it is time to get professional help for a child or teenager who is having trouble at school, having social difficulties or is anxious, depressed or angry. A parent may be unsure whether this is just considered ‘normal’ behaviour and is just a part of growing up or if there is a bigger issue.
There may be many steps before seeing a psychologist. Parents might see a family doctor or paediatrician, enrol them in different classes or lessons so that they can improve on school performance, talk to their teachers, relatives, colleagues or other parents. But a parent would rarely initiate a visit to a psychologist or therapist for their child. There can be many reasons for this.
Psychology and psychological services are still relatively new and unchartered territories in Trinidad and Tobago for many people. There are still a lot of false beliefs regarding the role of a mental health professionals. This applies to adults seeking professional help, much less parents seeking professional help for their children. Some people just do not know the type of services that exist or are available to them and their children, such as educational evaluations, family therapy, art therapy or speech therapy or remedial math.
Though we are in 2018 and despite the exposure to foreign media about seeking professional mental help, there is still a stigma attached. This has a lot to do with the misunderstanding of what is involved. People still don’t know the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor specialising in mental health and can prescribe medication as a course of treatment. A psychologist does not prescribe medication, but focuses extensively on assessment for evaluating patients, psychotherapy and/or behavioural intervention for treating emotional and mental suffering in patients. Even so, when they hear the words psychiatrist or psychologist, they think you’re a telepath and you can read their mind. They also think that treatment can be intrusive and the psychologist is viewed as the enemy and not there to be helpful.
As previously mentioned, when it comes to physical ailments, the solution is simple, go to the general practitioner or family doctor. In illness, pain or injury, medication is provided and a parent can comfort their child as they get better or heal. It’s not as simple if your child is not doing well in school, is being bullied, getting into fights, has no friends, experienced divorce of parents or loss of a parent etc.
Good parents want what is best for their child. But there are a lot of issues parents themselves have to face. At first there may be denial. No parent wants to hear that their child may be ‘different’ or that they may not be ‘normal’. They may think that the child is going through a phase or may grow out of it.
Fear of The unknown. About 20 to 30 years ago, some diagnoses were unheard of in Trinidad. Many disorders regarding children such as learning disorders, ADHD and autism have only given the necessary recognition recently (late 1900s). These are slowly becoming more familiar in Trinidad.
Some parents and grandparents of today would not have been familiar with these labels and diagnoses. There is a generational gap. Parents and grandparents may not have had access to services when they were younger that are now available to their own children. Some parents may say, “I had similar problems and got through with school without any extra help and I turned out fine” but children nowadays have a lot more to deal with and may not be so lucky.
Shame/embarrassment. Society and what others would think? How would others view my child? Will they be treated equally or will they get picked on? How will a diagnosis or label affect me and my child?
Stigmas are still attached to diagnoses, but are slowly fading. For some diagnoses, people may think it is the end of the world, when in fact it could be quite liberating to put a name to the symptoms. It also helps to know that your child is not alone nor the only one affected. A diagnosis may help with understanding that your child has a different or unique learning style. It also helps with treatment or a better course of action to help the child.
Guilt. Parents may feel guilty- why me? What did I do wrong? Is it my fault? Did I contribute to this? How did this happen?
This is a difficult question to answer and sometimes a single cause is not easy to pinpoint. Genetics, family history, medical history, trauma all come into play here. At this moment, it is not helpful to point blame but rather focus on treatment or remediation.
What is needed?
So parents have decided that they want help. Where to start? Who to trust? This may also contribute to not seeking help. Deciding whether your child would benefit from a psychologist visit or therapy and finding the best treatment can be difficult because it is hard to know who to trust with your child and whether treatment will be beneficial. Parents can also start with getting a referral from a medical doctor, paediatrician, teacher, relative, friend or other parent. And most importantly, the child themselves! Listen to any complaints or issues your child may have.
And finally, funding. For some parents, the cost of these services can be daunting, especially if they seek private help. Psychological services in Trinidad are usually private. Many psychologists and mental health professionals may have a sliding scale or reduced fees for those that cannot afford services. It is always worthwhile to ask and helpful to get a referral.
Lastly, information and education are the key. A lot of valuable information is also available online.
Submitted by: Lena Jogie
Lena Jogie is a Clinical Psychologist in Trinidad and Tobago offering confidential services in psychoeducational assessments, mainly in children and young adults. Her interests are in promoting awareness and education, and sharing her experiences. This is the final of four articles she will be sharing through Social People.
Next Saturday you can have your Say.