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Mental Health Support For Stress

Dr. Martin Johnson
Founder of Hawaii Center for Psychology

Where did you receive your schooling and training?

I received my bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy at the University of Alabama and my doctorate in clinical psychology at the American School of Professional Psychology here in Honolulu.


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Dr. Johnson discusses the different parts of the brain that deal with emotions and thinking, and how we can use that information to make better decisions | Photo by Nathalie Walker

How long have you been in practice?

I started my practice in 2001, and in ’06 I opened Hawaii Center for Psychology. I’m proud of the quality of our therapists. We have former presidents of the Hawaii Psychological Association. We have chairs of academic departments. We have Lifetime Achievement Award winners, Outstanding Clinical Skills awardees from their doctoral classes, and we have doctors who can service adult individuals, children, adolescents, couples – pretty much the gamut.

Why would a patient see a psychologist rather than a psychiatrist?

Most people who come to Hawaii Center for Psychology are people like you and me, who may be dealing with large amounts of change that they weren’t expecting. Maybe it’s stress from the economic downturn, maybe there’s been trauma or a loss in their life – loss of a job, loss of a loved one or loss of health status. Sometimes it’s a perfect storm of several of these things intersecting in their lives. They come to us looking for support in dealing with that adjustment or trauma.

For other people, life is going pretty well, but there is one aspect in life that is just not doing what they think it could or should do, and they’re wise enough to realize after several years that maybe it wasn’t the first wife and the second wife, or the current girlfriend, that are all the same. Maybe the problem is with themselves, and they’re courageous enough to come in and make that change in their own life to help that aspect of their life be just as happy and productive as the rest of it. We deal with a wide spectrum of folks – people who are feeling depressed, or stressed and anxious. A sign of stress that is increasingly common is people who are having trouble sleeping.

There are a few things that we don’t do here. We don’t work with people who are actively psychotic. We don’t work with people who are in the throes of major addiction or actively anorexic. However, anyone who calls looking for mental health support and help, we will work with them to find the appropriate referral.

Has psychology or the public view of it changed much in the past 30 or so years?

Yes, we’ve come a long way just in the past decade that I’ve been practicing. Stigma is down. I work with some 20-somethings, where it’s sort of fashionable to see a psychologist, almost like seeing a hairdresser: Who do you go to? Oh, I heard she’s pretty good. What does she say about this? Well, my guy says this.

Another change I’ve seen is a lot more men coming in and people coming in sooner, before they have no choice but to come in. At the same time, there’s still a lot more progress to make. Most people don’t realize that psychologists are covered by their health insurance. You don’t need a referral, you just pick up the phone and make an appointment.

When a patient comes to you, then what?

Psychologists train for an average of seven years of professional graduate training and postgraduate training to become licensed. Psychotherapy is like talking to a friend, but it’s different in that with psychotherapy you actually change the way you think, feel, behave and perceive the world. The other thing that’s different than talking to a friend is that, with a friend, you must take turns. In psychotherapy, it is all about you and what you’re going through, and what you’re seeking to change and how to change that. It’s the one place where you can get unconditional attention, time and acceptance by someone who is professionally trained to know what’s normal, what people go through when they’re changing and has probably worked with hundreds of people in similar circumstances to yours and helped guide them through it to a successful resolution.

On our Web page (hawaiicenterforpsychology.com), you can click on photos of the therapists and it will take you to their page, where you can click on a video and listen to them talk about their practice. Psychotherapy involves knowledge and skills, but it’s also about personal fit. Choosing a therapist is a little like meeting a new friend. If you don’t feel comfortable, it means you need somebody else. At Hawaii Center for Psychology, you can come in and see one therapist, next week go see a different therapist and find one you’re comfortable with.

What’s your advice for someone who would like to get help, but needs that extra step to call and make the appointment?

In today’s world, where people are going through large amounts of change, large amounts of stress, the U.S. Surgeon General estimates that in the United States 20 percent of the population at any given moment can benefit from psychotherapy. In Europe, it’s 30 percent, and in countries with ongoing conflict in war zones, it’s sometimes 60 percent or higher. There’s a large underestimation of the need.

If you go into psychotherapy, there’s a good chance you’re going to learn something about yourself that you didn’t know before, and it could be something good that you didn’t know about yourself. That premise is a bit unnerving, but just like jumping in the pool, anticipating is worse than the actual step. Once you’re in the water, it usually feels good.

People have this unconscious thought that once they walk in a therapist’s office, they’re going to be stuck, that it’ll take years or maybe the rest of their life. Nobody likes to make that sort of commitment. But that’s not accurate at all. The average psychotherapy in America takes six sessions.

Anything else?

Psychology is not something people tend to speak openly about unless you’re 20-something and you openly compare notes. There’s this myth that our friends and neighbors don’t go to psychologists, but look in the Yellow Pages at how many psychologists are in practice and know that there are still not enough psychologists in the state. Somebody’s going to these psychologists, and it’s your friends, your neighbors. It’s really more common than you think and there’s no reason not to give it a try.