Helping children overcome trauma

Helping children overcome trauma

When Dr Seetha Subbiah was 14, she heard someone blurt out the term "child psychology". From then on, there was no stopping her.

In the early 1980s, her mother looked for books on child psychology and bought one at a garage sale for 50 cents. After reading the book, Dr Subbiah decided that it was what she wanted to pursue in life.

She said: "Even before I was 14, psychology was a common discussion topic between my mother and I. I was curious why different people deal with the same set of problems differently, whether it is because of culture or race, or the way our brains are structured."

As part of her master's and doctoral degree at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, she worked in a mental health centre where she saw adults, children and couples. But the experience confirmed to her that children was the group she was most interested in.

"I realise there's a lot of frustration between adults and children. If a child is able to put everything on a platter and present it to adults, they won't be frustrated. But a child cannot communicate as clearly and it may come across as misbehaviour. So it is good to be able to be the translator and help the two groups communicate better," said Dr Subbiah, 44.

Child psychology is known to be challenging, hence there is a shortage of child psychologists in the world, she explained. She shared that in the US, hospitals are constantly closing down child clinics because they can't find child psychologists.

Explained Dr Subbiah: "As a psychologist, you are accountable not only to the child but also their parents, school teachers, social workers, paediatricians, probation officers and lawyers, depending on the situation. You have to be able to work with different age ranges all at once. So it may seem daunting and it is time-consuming."

She added that psychologists in Western countries tend to diagnose children who only hear voices (auditory hallucination) as suffering from schizophrenia.

Why she wrote a book

However, the child psychologist said that hallucinations, whether visual, auditory or sensory "is only one of several symptoms of schizophrenia and for one to qualify for the diagnosis, one should fulfil the entire criteria for the diagnosis".

She added: "If a child doesn't qualify for other symptoms of schizophrenia, he or she shouldn't be diagnosed as schizophrenic. Furthermore, the sole symptom of hearing voices can occur in trauma-related conditions, depression and, sexual, physical, emotional and substance abuse, among others."

Said Dr Subbiah: "This has not been researched very much and I couldn't find any material that a child could be only hearing voices (and not be schizophrenic) so I wrote a book. If I can prevent a child from being unnecessarily medicated, then why not?"

For the first time, she will be giving a talk on bibliotherapy, the use of books as therapy in the treatment of psychological problems, at the Asian Festival of Children's Content 2015 on May 30 at the National Library Building.

The talk, on her upcoming book, Did You Hear That? Help For Children Who Hear Voices, discusses how different techniques in the book can play a role in therapy for children who struggle with auditory and visual hallucination.

The book is being used in clinics in the US.

Dr Subbiah has received feedback that children undergoing treatment for other psychological conditions there have read the book and confided in their therapists saying, "This happens to me and I thought I was crazy so I didn't tell anyone." These reactions have surprised child psychologists.

Hence, she hopes that the book she developed based on 18 years of clinical experience in schools, hospitals and private practice in Singapore and countries such as India and Nigeria, among others, will raise awareness on hearing voices and help parents, paediatricians, teachers and occupational therapists understand children's behaviour.

Dr Subbiah also used to run a private clinic but due to personal circumstances, she stopped clinical work as she couldn't devote a regular schedule to see patients. She has since been doing voluntary work, training those interested in clinical psychology and doing consultancy work.

One of her most challenging cases involved an eight-year-old boy who had been sexually, physically and emotionally abused by his father and grandmother. "It was difficult to hear the child's horrendous experiences but he was a living testament to children's resilience," said Dr Subbiah.

What is one piece of advice she would give to a loved one about children? She said: "Recognise that when your children behave in certain ways, there may be a good underlying reason for it so don't discount that behaviour or label your child as a bad kid. Approach the child with warmth and love."

amritak@sph.com.sg
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