“You are a human first, before a therapist”

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By Sylvia @ MSF

Sylvia is a forensic psychologist at MSF. She looks at rehabilitating offenders and helping them reintegrate into society.


When she saw him sitting in the hallway, her heart sank. Seeing them back in the Boys’ Home was always difficult.

“I asked myself if there was something I could have done better then,” Sylvia recounted.

John (not his real name) was initially put on probation after being convicted of robbery. However, he soon reoffended a few months into treatment.

As a trained forensic psychologist, Sylvia’s role was to ascertain the offenders’ reasons for offending and assess their risk of reoffending. She was then to work with her team to craft and carry out a rehabilitative program tailored to the offender’s needs.

One of the challenges that she faced when she first started the job was the tendency to doubt herself when the client reoffended.

But one particular counselling with her supervisor has stayed with her since:

“You are a human first, before a therapist.”

And it is these very words that have given her the strength to preserve. Everyone is human, including the officers – it is therefore only natural to have an emotional reaction to the case.

“What was important was to make self-care a priority,” Sylvia said. “And to know that different people respond differently to therapy and some may fall back into old habits. Rehabilitation is a continuous process that takes time and effort. The best way to go about it would be to take things in stride and to motivate clients to sustain their improvements, albeit big or small.”

Often, the offenders that she saw to were convicted of crimes ranging from violence, abuse, sexual assault and rape – many of which are ‘major’ offences that society would shun from.

Why then, did she choose to engage the offenders rather than the victims?

“If everyone were to only work with the victims, then who will help the offenders?” Sylvia said.

Back at the Boys’ Home, Sylvia sat her client down and began the process of figuring out the factors associated with his offending behaviour.

When further probed into his reason for committing robbery, John believed that violence was the way to get the victim to meet his demands. As how he witnessed his father beat his mother to get something done around the house.

Offenders like him were often victims themselves to violence, abuse and neglect; and lack appropriate guidance and support, especially as they were growing up.

And believing in the need to help them find their way back onto the right track has kept her going through the ups and downs of being a forensic psychologist.

“If you only help the victims and not the offenders… then the cycle never stops,” Sylvia said.