StarLifestyle’s pet columnist Ellen Whyte must be a household name in Malaysia. But perhaps not many people know that she is also a counselling pyschologist and a seasoned writer who dabbles on a gamut of topics.
A Scottish-Dutch married to an American academic, Whyte, 52, has lived in Malaysia for over 20 years. She finds writing to be “a lot of fun”, and feels very lucky to have sold more than 3,200 articles in over 12 countries and published a few textbooks.
In 2012, she began writing romance and crime novels as well. Writing, Whyte said, brought her back to her first love, psychology.
She said: “A few years ago, I was asked by a magazine to interview rape victims. They told me that they had found it very hard to find help to deal with the psychological part of the trauma. It inspired me to pick up on my original degree again.”
Whyte has a Bachelor of Psychology (Hons) from Stirling University, Scotland. After she graduated, she moved abroad and went into sales and then writing.
She also has a Masters in Counselling from Open University Malaysia. When she was studying for her Masters degree, she interned with All Women’s Action Society (Awam), Asia Pacific University and Dresser-Rand, an engineering company that is part of the Siemens family.
She said: “These different environments gave me an opportunity to work with people from different walks of life, ages and experiences.”
Today, Whyte divides her time between writing and counselling. Burnout, she said, is a huge issue in all healthcare services. For her, it’s a different scenario.
“Having two very different jobs helps keep me fresh. I also try not to stack clients one after the other,” said Whyte, who travels to Spain every year to see her mother.
Regional and online
Whyte specialises in teaching techniques to manage stress and depression. Her clients come from Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Australia. “I’m able to work regionally because I work online,” she said.
When she was an intern, her clients told her that one of the major headaches was getting to the therapist’s office. They complained that with traffic, work and sometimes sourcing for babysitters, it could take several hours before they even got to the session.
“I thought it would be simplest if I set up to work online. I meet my clients over live video streaming using Skype, Messenger and WhatsApp,” said Whyte.
“Apart from the convenience, it’s also super private. That’s an advantage because many people are a bit shy about mental health issues. With online video, they can talk to me from the privacy of their home or office, and nobody knows we’re talking.”
Whyte offers a free 20-minute session to new clients. “We talk briefly about the issues they are worried about, and I explain the different types of help they might want to look into. If the solution is not within my field, I will try and help them find proper resources.”
According to her, therapy is like taking out a gym membership because “you want to be healthier. You can’t just pay the fees! It takes effort.” Also, it’s intensely personal. To have a good experience, it’s not enough to work with a pro.
Said Whyte: “You also need to use an approach that suits your mindset and have a good connection. That initial free session is also for us to see if we get along.
“For example, if I feel that a client needs a certain type of therapy that I don’t offer, or if we don’t click, I will suggest they move to another practitioner. Also, I will stop if I feel a client isn’t invested because then the sessions don’t help them.”
A ‘mental plumber’
Psychotherapy, Whyte explained, is not about giving advice or trying to solve problems for others.
“That approach can be problematic because it prevents clients from progressing. The aim is to help them learn how to manage their issues. Ultimately, my success is to reach a point where they don’t need me.”
She starts by helping her clients unravel issues. Usually people are too close to their problems to see them clearly.
“The first step is to find out exactly what’s going on. It sounds easy but actually that can be quite a challenge, especially if you’re dealing with complex issues. Once we know exactly what we’re dealing with, we work out goals. Then we work out how we’re going to get to those goals.”
Figuring out how to get effective change, she said, is the key to success in her job. As every person is different, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
“It’s my job to map out the techniques and approaches that will help the client to progress. That means explaining what we know from studies, what various approaches people use, and the pros and cons of all the options,” said Whyte, who said that one client described her as a “mental plumber”, which she thinks is apt.
Sometimes, she suggests a particular route because it’s been shown to be the most effective. “But the final choice is always up to the client. It’s a collaboration. Also, when the decision is made, I track the progress and provide support,” she added.
Whyte likes to be on the same page as her client. “However, sometimes I have clients who sign up because they were told to get help by their partners or bosses: ‘I’ll divorce/fire you unless you can show me you’re trying to change.’
“Sometimes that works, but often people who have been forced into attending sessions have no intention of even trying to make an effort. I won’t work with them. Come to think of it, that’s probably a bad business decision. But I prefer to be happy in my work.”
Self-determination and happiness
How does she solve her own problems?
“For me, connecting socially gives me a boost. After a long day, I go out and have a good time. Also, if I have a problem that really bugs me, I talk to Tom (her hubby) or to my brother, Ian. And if they’re busy, I’ll talk to a friend who has had a similar issue, and ask for insight.”
Whyte thinks her job is pretty uplifting because both herself and the client are working towards being happier.
She shared one of the most useful approaches to happiness: “It comes from self-determination theory, initially developed by psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan to describe motivation.
“Basically, we need three things: autonomy, competence and relatedness. First, we need to feel we are in charge of our own destiny. Second is that we have skills and that other people appreciate those skills. Third is that we are connected to others.”
While there are many benefits of working online, this medium is not suitable for crisis situations.
She said: “If a person is suicidal or the victim of a crime, like domestic violence or rape, the person needs to go to a centre to meet up with professionals. This would be the nearest public hospital’s accident and emergency department and/or the police station.”
Depression, she said, is “particularly nasty because it typically inspires hopelessness, and feelings of guilt and worthlessness. The people who need help to manage the condition have terribly negative thoughts that tell them, ‘There’s no hope. It can’t be fixed.’ And also often, ‘You’re this way because you suck. It’s all your fault. You’re a bad person’.”
She said that these thoughts are not true. “That’s why we call depression a mood disorder. Those thoughts are literally your depression lying to you! The most important message I have is: If you’re depressed, reach out. There is hope. You can get relief. Do not suffer.”
Asked how people can live happier and problem-free lives, Whyte’s advice is: “Be brave – reach for the happiness you deserve.”