CONVERSATIONS WITH… A Mental Health Expert

A medical practitioner who works with children and adults opens up about his vocation and offers insights on mental illness.

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Not only can mental illness be deadly, this condition affects people of different ages — even kids.

Here’s a sobering fact: As many as one in 15 people will be affected by mental illness in their lifetime, says Dr Lim Boon Leng, 42, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, His patients range from children to the elderly.

A psychiatrist in private practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre, a third of Dr Lim’s patients are kids aged 6 to 18. Conditions he treats in youths range from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and anxiety disorders to depression and more.

Noting that his young patients visit him for many issues — from a fear of ghosts to a teen lost in love, he explains, “As I may be their first point of contact, my duty is first to determine if they are suffering from a psychiatric disorder and to make a diagnosis”. He hastens to add, however, that what his youthful patients often actually need is to see a counsellor.

All parents want the best for their children, but it can be difficult to cotton on that your offspring is struggling and needs professional help, especially if they don’t share all of their emotions with you. Dr Lim, who has been practising for 16 years, says that it is important for you to check on your child’s well-being from time to time.

Be vigilant, he advises, to signs that your child is behaving strangely. For instance, if your mini-me’s temperament, behaviour or personality changes, this is a sign that something may be wrong. He adds, “Dangerous behaviour like self-harm, expressions of [wanting to commit] suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, and irrational aggression are all strong red flags.”

Dangerous behaviour like self-harm, expressions of [wanting to commit] suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, and irrational aggression are all strong red flags.”

Acknowledging that the number of patients he is treating has risen over the years, Dr Lim notes that this is due in part to better awareness of mental health illness. He stresses, “Early treatment may prevent chronic mental illness and lead to better outcomes, but many people still refuse to seek treatment as they are worried about the stigma of mental illness… Decreasing the fear of stigma is crucial to decreasing the fear of seeking treatment.”

However, if you’re unsure if you or your child needs treatment, he has this advice, “If your ability to function at work or in school and in a social situation is adversely affected, you should seek professional help.”

We also asked Dr Lim how he refrains from taking his problems home to his two children, age 9 and 13. He explains that many years of training has helped him to compartmentalise his personal life from his professional one. Peer support is important, too, to “keep our own emotions in check”.

He adds, “I see it also as wearing different hats and having very different distinct roles in different situations. When I am at home, I’m a father, husband and son, and I leave my hat as a psychiatrist in the clinic.”

SmartParents sits down with Dr Lim for a heart-to-heart about his experiences as a psychiatrist, as well as the issues affecting kids in this (digital) day and age.

Dr Lim, why did you decide to become a psychiatrist?
The human psyche and human mind have always been of interest to me. I wanted to become a psychiatrist during junior college... More importantly, I discovered after graduating from medical school that hanging the stethoscope around my neck the whole day gave me a bad neck ache and, as a psychiatrist, I did not have to do that [chuckles]!

What misconceptions do people have about mental illness?
Many. People believe that patients with mental illness are dangerous. Many think that having a mental illness means that they are crazy. They think that once they have been started on medication, they will get addicted and have to be on them forever.