Expat Therapist Networks: SIMHA

In my last post, I highlighted IMHPJ, a professional support network for expatriate mental health therapists living and working in Japan. Since I believe that quality support networks are important for mental health therapists, I wanted to highlight IMHPJ as a network that has established a good working model for others who may wish to develop something similar in their own part of the world.

A shining example, Shanghai International Mental Health Association (SIMHA), is one such group! Founded in 2008 by Dr. Lauren Muhlheim, SIMHA has directly modeled their association after IMHPJ, having adopted the same Constitution, Code of Ethics, and Mission Statement.

To my delight, SIMHA’s founder, Dr. Lauren Muhlheim, and current president, Barbara Shaya, agreed to answer a few questions, that we may all be enlightened by their experiences with leading SIMHA. Further, Lauren is listed here and Barbara is listed here in the ITD.

The interview follows:

Josh Sandoz: How did SIMHA get started?

Lauren Muhlheim: I arrived in Shanghai in January 2008, and by February I had started working part-time at the community center. In May, I also took a job with Parkway Health. My appointments were booked by a call center so I couldn’t screen my clients to make sure that they were appropriate for my practice. I tried to identify other English-speaking clinicians in the community with whom I could consult or refer patients to.  Every school and organization had a different list of clinicians and most of the lists were out of date due to the high turnover of expats. I met other clinicians both through my affiliation at the community center and randomly at other events such as my child’s soccer game and a pearl stringing class. I became preoccupied with creating an accurate and thorough list of who was really practicing psychotherapy in Shanghai. At the same time, I was working with a student at an international school who was moving to Japan. The school counselor at that school stumbled upon the IMHPJ website and told me about it. I convened the first meeting of therapists practicing in Shanghai on October 29, 2008. The turnout was great; 17 practitioners who were all excited to connect. We then formed a steering committee to build the organization.

JS: What are the core purposes of SIMHA?

Barbara Shaya: To improve the quality and accessibility of mental health services to the international community in Shanghai by: verifying to the extent possible the credentials of professionals, providing a forum for networking and professional workshops, maintaining an up-to-date database of practicing mental health professionals in Shanghai.

JS: How important was your interaction with IMHPJ as you began your process?

LM: Our interaction with IMHPJ was critical. First of all, it gave us a model for our organization. I doubt that we would have formalized the organization beyond a networking group if we didn’t have their lead to follow. In addition, they were very supportive of our efforts and shared their advice and 10 years of experience. Lastly, they allowed us to copy and modify for our own use their mission statement, constitution, and ethics code, which saved us a lot of work.

JS: What is your vision for SIMHA’s future?

LM: It is my hope that SIMHA will continue to be a resource to the foreign community in Shanghai. By helping clinicians get integrated into the counseling community and make them available to clients who need their support.

BS: Having other professionals with which to connect is critical in our field. Working in isolation is detrimental to the ability to provide continuing care to the community. SIMHA helps clinicians ‘hit the ground running’. My personal experience is that when I was preparing to move to Shanghai, I found the SIMHA website and contacted Dr. Lauren Muhlheim. She encouraged me to join SIMHA and referred me to some select individuals within the community so I would get an idea of what needs and resources were in the community and how I might best fit in. By the time my shipment arrived and I got my office set up, I had referrals waiting. I jumped right in.

JS: Any advice for other expatriate therapists in other parts of the world who may wish to establish their own local network of mental health professionals?

BS: Yes, you don’t have to start from scratch. There are others (like IMHPJ and SIMHA) who have gone before you and are willing to help you get started. Within the expat communities there is a significant need for mental health services – the faster people can find you, the better!

JS: I want to thank you both, Lauren and Barbara, so much for your time, thoughtfulness, and generosity in engaging these questions. SIMHA, along with IMHPJ, have set a standard, and I’m grateful for your leadership and ongoing example.