Career Path

The science of human behaviour

by Melinda Earsdon

Clinical psychology
Sarina Lam
Clinical psychologist
The Correctional Services Department

In a town that kowtows to the almighty buck, it is unusual to come across a profession that is at once rewarding and of service to the community. Indeed, even when people think of clinical psychologists, they mostly picture private practitioners helping rich socialites overcome a drug or alcohol problem.

This could not be further removed from what Sarina Lam does for a living. A clinical psychologist with the Correctional Services Department, she works at the Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre, a maximum-security institution that provides psychiatric treatment for sex offenders and the criminally insane and serves as a remand centre.

Despite the somewhat depressing setting, Ms Lam is surprisingly upbeat about her job. "It is extremely rewarding," she says. "I meet with people whose lives differ greatly from the norm; individuals whom most people only meet on the news. I talk to them first hand and use my knowledge to help them change. The work is very challenging but meaningful."

To the uninitiated, the difference between the roles of psychiatrist and clinical psychologist can easily be confused. Both aim to change human thought processes, behaviour and reactions but use different methods. While psychiatrists are medically trained and rely mostly on drugs, psychologists use counselling and psychotherapy to effect change, as is seen at Siu Lam.

"I never give up, Even when I feel I'm fighting a losing battle with a patient, I keep on trying"

Essentially, Ms Lam's job is split into three areas. Part of her time is spent completing psychological and forensic assessments of remand prisoners in order to prepare court reports. "Sometimes a judge sees a defendant who is acting strangely. I am called in to see if he or she is displaying signs of a psychological disorder." She continues, "I also complete assessments to see how likely it is that the defendant will re-offend."

Ms Lam also helps patients on an individual basis and in group therapy sessions. "Many suffer from serious illnesses, including personality disorders, severe depression and schizophrenia," she nods sadly. "Many don't even realise they are ill, so we need to convince them to seek help."

In addition, she spends part of her day working with sex offenders. "We provide a systematic programme for treating these people and obviously have to assess how likely they are to re-offend. We see our role as preventing sex crimes."

Ms Lam became interested in clinical psychology while studying to become a social worker. "I learned that human behaviour could be studied in a systematic and scientific way and it fascinated me." A degree in psychology is essential so, after university, she began working with the YMCA's outreaching social work team and completed her postgraduate diploma in her spare time. She then completed a two-year master's degree in clinical psychology before starting at Siu Lam.

A career in correctional services is only for those with a keen interest in understanding people and a high tolerance of stress. However, public sector positions are available in many other areas, including the Social Welfare Department and non-governmental organisations. Clinical psychologists also specialise in working with families, helping abused children, dealing with juvenile delinquents or helping families cope with personal tragedy. Other possible avenues include dealing with hospitals and helping patients accept chronic illness.

The profession is not affected by economic turmoil in the same way as other industries. If anything, the workload is increasing as people are put under growing stress. "At the end of the day, people will always need help. For psychotherapy to be effective, you have to convey personal care and empathy. It might be labour-intensive and expensive, but it can't be replaced by automation."

How does she stay so positive? "I never give up," she says emphatically. "Even when I feel I'm fighting a losing battle with a patient, I keep on trying."

China Opportunities

Dr Freedom Leung, associate professor, Department of Psychology, at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, notes that public sector postings in mainland China are not currently open to Hong Kong clinical psychologists, adding that mainland salaries are considerably lower than those in the SAR.

However, Dr Leung comments that, thanks to city dwellers' increasing wealth, westernisation and demands for better mental health, great potential appears to exist in the private sector in larger cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. As in Hong Kong, personal growth workshops for business executives are also rising in popularity. In addition, it is thought that, due to the one-child policy, mainland Chinese families will invest in cultivating their children's potential. "There is a huge potential for demand, but only limited qualified personnel are available," he explains. "Therefore, some of the private practitioners in Hong Kong do go to China to conduct such kinds of workshop."


Taken from Career Times 03 May 2003, p. 29
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