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Featured Therapist Interview
Wei-Chin Hwang, Ph.D., is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Claremont McKenna College (One of the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the U.S). He received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2003, which has been repeatedly ranked #1 in clinical psychology training programs by U.S. News and World Report. Dr. Hwang completed his pre-doctoral fellowship at Richmond Area Multi-Services (RAMS) – National Asian American Psychology Training Center, and also completed a clinical-research postdoctoral fellowship at Harbor UCLA Medical Center. As a professor, he conducts cutting-edge clinical research, consults for universities and healthcare organizations, and also trains and supervises students, interns, and mental health professionals. He has received numerous grants and published over 70 academic articles, book chapters, treatment manuals, and assessment measures. Moreover, he has provided over 150 research and clinical talks and trainings.
His research focuses on understanding and reducing mental health disparities, improving psychotherapy process and outcomes, cultivating therapist cultural competency and effectiveness when working with people from different backgrounds, and developing models and frameworks for culturally adapting treatments for ethnic minorities. He was the first person to be funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to develop and culturally adapt cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for depressed Chinese Americans and to test it against standard CBT. He also recently published a book and treatment manual entitled “Culturally Adapting Psychotherapy for Asian Heritage Populations: an Evidence-based Approach.”
Dr. Hwang’s work has been recognized by a number of professional organizations, and he was awarded the American Psychological Association Minority Fellowship Program Early Career Award. He was also inducted as a Fellow in the Asian American Psychological Association and the Western Psychological Association. He was awarded the Asian-American Psychological Association Early Career Award and the Western Psychological Association’s Enrico E. Jones Award for Research in Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology. At his home institution, he has received the Roy P. Crocker Award for Merit and Service to the college, as well as the 7 Claremont Colleges Diversity Mentor Award.
Dr. Hwang is a licensed clinical psychologist and has an independent clinical and consulting practice in Pasadena and Claremont, California. He has worked in numerous clinical settings, which help him provide the highest quality care for his clients. He has experience providing individual, couples, family, and group psychotherapy in inpatient, outpatient, partial hospitalization, and school settings. He has previously provided clinical services at Harbor UCLA Medical Center, Richmond Area Multi-Services Community Mental Health Center, West Los Angeles Veterans Administration (VA), UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, UCLA Student Psychological Services, UCLA Psychology Clinic, Valley Mental Health, the Rape Crisis Center, and various high schools and junior high schools. Dr. Hwang is trained to work with clients struggling with issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, family conflict, couples problems, self-esteem, personal growth and identity development, adjustment difficulties, and traumatic experiences. In addition to his clinical expertise, he also has an expertise in understanding how culture influences mental health processes and treatment. He often helps his clients work through immigrant adjustment issues and intergenerational family conflict. He also specializes in training practitioners to be culturally competent and effective. Because it takes specialized training to take culture into account in treatment, his specialty in diversity issues allows him to be effective in working with majority as well as ethnic minority clients. The links to my private practice website and faculty website are included below:
First, we would like to know a little about your practice.
What are your personal strengths as a practitioner?
As a professor, I utilize a scientist-practitioner approach to provide treatment that is evidence-based and grounded in science and research. I am also effective at quickly conceptualizing historical developmental issues that have led to problem development, but also take a practical, solution-focused approach to care. For example, we focus on orienting the clients to treatment, goal-setting, monitoring treatment progress, pragmatic skills-building, self-empowerment, decision-making, role-playing, and replacing short-term maladaptive coping strategies with sustainable and healthy life changes.
In my practice, the client is an important consumer and I am good at creating a warm and welcoming nonjudgmental and collaborative safe space to individualized care. During the first session, I review the client’s previous treatments and their needs for psychotherapy. We go over what was effective and what wasn’t effective in their previous treatment. I very clearly let the client know that I am open to feedback and that it is safe to tell me if they are not getting their needs met, and ask them to monitor and express their emotions when working with me.
My expertise in cultural influences on mental health really helps me individualize and tailor treatments for people from a variety of backgrounds. This helps me take into account and respect differences in goals, worldviews, family dynamics and values, communication styles, and the impact of immigration and acculturation on intergenerational mental health problems. In doing so, I take a compassionate and holistic approach to tailoring treatments to the client’s individual needs. I also use a lot of metaphors in my work to help make CBT more accessible to those less familiar with psychotherapy, and also help bridge cultural values with treatment goals and strategies. In my work to culturally adapt treatments, I was trained in many other theoretical orientations, which allows me to cater to clients’ preferences for providing straight CBT, integrative treatment, or eclectic approaches.
What “tips” can you offer to colleagues just opening a practice?
I would recommend creating a profile on Psychology Today because it is such a popular referral website. I think it’s important for psychologists to branch out and network with primary care physicians and specialists. Make sure to give a lot of talks at schools and in the community to get your name out there and demonstrate who you are and how you work. Also, definitely create a website so that clients can read more about you and feel more comfortable before calling and making an appointment.
I think it’s important to really value yourself and the treatment that you provide. However, in order to provide quality care, make sure you take care of yourself so that you are emotionally available and continue to be effective. Don’t get burned out; make sure you exercise regularly and have a healthy social and emotional life. The 7-minute workout app is a great way to make sure that you get in some form of exercise every day.
For ethnic minority psychologists, I would recommend being careful about marketing diversity expertise. I think a lot of psychologists tend to pigeonhole minority therapists, and only refer minority clients to them. It’s important to realize that those who have an additional specialty in diversity issues undergo additional training to address cultural issues, but in doing so they are also really adept at addressing mainstream clientele issues. In order to not be stereotyped, make sure you market your clinical expertise not just your cultural expertise.
How do you remind your patients of their strengths during the therapy process?
Very rarely do clients come in without strengths in certain contexts. For example, some clients are very professional at work and have no problems with managing conflict in that setting. When at home, however, all of their communication strengths go out the door because they become more emotionally sensitive and triggered. I help remind clients that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel and develop a completely new skill. Many of their current strengths and skills can generalize from one context to another.
I also help them understand that coping strategies that were utilized during childhood often are no longer effective during different stages of life, and to use more present-day, effective strategies. A lot of clients hold onto anger and negative emotions that really hold them back and are a real detriment to their health. I help them focus and learn about self- and other-compassion as a way to a healthier and happier life. Focusing on what is right or wrong or fair or unfair often leads to conflict and dissatisfaction. Focusing on what is wise, effective, and healthy really helps bring out my clients’ strengths. When working with kids, I often use role model and superhero therapy to help bring out the superhero in them!
Are you involved in other types of professional activities in addition to your private practice?
Yes, as a professor I am involved in a lot of professional organizations. such as APA, ABCT, Western psychological Association, Division 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity), Division 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology), Asian-American Psychological Association, and the Taiwan Psychology Network. I have provided 3 to 4 hour continuing education (CE) trainings at APA and the National Multicultural Summit, and will also be doing a 3-hour CE training at ABCT 2017.
I serve on the editorial board of Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, and previously served on the editorial board for the Asian American Journal of Psychology. I also previously served as the Section VI (Clinical Psychology of Ethnic Minorities) editor for APA Division 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology) newsletter (The Clinical Psychologist).
We would also like to know a little about you personally.
Who was your mentor?
I have had some of the most wonderful mentors throughout my training. I would like to thank Hector Myers for helping me learn about diversity issues, stress, health comorbidities, and Gestalt therapy; Jeanne Miranda for helping train me in CBT, manualized treatments, and primary care; Paul Florsheim for his cross-cultural community adolescent and couples work; Alla Volovich and Bob Carrere for training me in psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapies that have really helped me improve my case conceptualization and relational interactions in treatment; and David Takeuchi for helping me better understand issues in diagnosis, help-seeking, and addressing causal factors.
When not practicing CBT, what do you do for fun?
I love to travel, explore different cultures, and learn different languages. I’m also into exercise and health, with a love for yoga, hiking, relaxing on the beach, and CrossFit. Mindfulness and meditation are important components in my life, as is playing with my dog (such unconditional love!). As a professor, I love to attend various talks and educate myself, stay aware of current issues, and keep my brain active.
We are also interested in some of your views of CBT.
What do you think is the single most important thing CBT can do for your clients?
I think CBT is really good at providing action-oriented tools to help clients break out of dysfunctional thinking and maladaptive coping strategies. CBT helps empower clients to regain control over the way they think and stop vicious and stressful rumination. I think it’s really important to help clients understand that with practice they will get stronger and things will get better. It also provides alternative coping behaviors that can help lead to better outcomes.
Where do you see the field of the behavioral therapies going over the next 3-5 years?
I think we are going to see an increase in the integration of technology and psychotherapy. There’s got to be an “app for that” and a lot more manualized self-help treatments will be provided over computers and videoconferencing. Hopefully, there will be more dismantling studies done on the mediators and moderators of outcomes. In addition, I hope that we will do more studies on how to culturally adapt CBT so that it can be more accessible to domestic minorities and international populations. By studying cultural issues, the science of mental health treatments and their effectiveness improves. So does our understanding of culture-specific and culture-universal healing mechanisms.
How do you use the local or social media to educate your community on the benefits of CBT?
I’m not a big social media person. I find that in-person methods are more my cup of tea. Giving community talks, getting to know people, and conducting trainings really helps put a face to a name.
Finally, we would like to know your opinions about ABCT.
How long have you been a member of ABCT?
I have been involved with ABCT since I was a doctoral student from 1997 to 2003. However I did not become a formal professional member until about 10 years ago.
How has ABCT helped you professionally?
It’s great to be able to connect with colleagues and to attend workshops that are provided by the creators of various treatments. No other conference can compare in regards to the quality of evidence-based clinical trainings provided.
What services do you consider the most valuable from ABCT?
I think ABCT’s allegiance and contribution to the scientist-practitioner model is its most valuable contribution. ABCT has helped ensure that psychotherapy is vetted in regards to efficacy and effectiveness. Our organization has helped ensure the presence, development, and advancement of evidence-based treatments and practices. The journals are also top notch and help integrate science and clinical practice.
What service(s) are missing from ABCT in your role as a practitioner?
I think historically ABCT could be more involved in important diversity issues that affect training and clientele. I hope ABCT will also be more present in debates regarding national mental health care, and advocacy for clients and therapists with insurance companies and managed care. More research on community outreach, education, preventative care, and stigma reduction are also needed.
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!