Get Comfortable with Dr. Marilyn Chotem: An Interview with a Registered Psychologist

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What do you enjoy most about practicing psychology?

The part I love most is being in the timeless present with a client in psychotherapy.

Were there many challenges that came with it? How did you overcome those challenges?
It can be challenging to figure out how to help the client change. I must be strategic – everyone is different. People come in saying ‘I don’t want to be doing this anymore’ or ‘this hurts’, and it can be a challenge figuring out how to represent it [a resolution] to them in a way their mind can shift around it.

Before becoming a psychologist, you were a costume designer for theatre, what led you to become a psychologist instead?
There was a particular moment – the last season at the theatre every show (and there were 6), the night before there was an emotional blow up in the theatre, people would be arguing with each other and I didn’t know if the show would go on. It was then I knew I didn’t want to do this my whole life. I wanted to do something that was important to me, which was helping people and communication. So, I applied for a masters in counselling at UVic.

Have you ever used art therapy in your practice? Have you, personally, seen art benefit those with a mental illness? How did it help them?
No, originally I moved to Victoria for a Master’s and intended to train in art therapy, but I didn’t end up doing that. I try to get people to express verbally and in other ways in sessions but I don’t actually use art as a medium. I have seen it help though, it helps symbolize the problems and externalize them rather than having it internal. Helps get it out, giving form and symbolism to something that might otherwise be uncontrollably tormenting.

What do you think is one of the most common misconceptions about mental illness?
The stigma both about mental health and getting help – it’s outdated. A lot of things are treatable and many others can be managed. It’s not a hopeless situation to have a mental illness. Like any disability you work with, there is help you can get.

What can we do to remove this stigma? Do you believe the POM project has/is helping to remove it?
There has been steps moved forward. People used to be very secretive about getting help, now it’s more common to get help. POM is definitely helping, it shows that you can do something expressive, beautiful and artistic and have it both therapeutic and put form to the problems. The Beauty of POM is that it opens up the expressive therapies of such an internal, intimate personality, and to share that with others and have dialogue around it and show where peace comes from internally breaks down the barriers between people.

How can someone help a loved one who has, or may have a mental illness?
The first thing is recognition. Don’t assume that people are being difficult maleficently. If they are acting out of character or being difficult, maybe there is a problem. People often don’t know that when something is bothering them they show it in their behaviour and outlook. Take it seriously, ask questions, reflect that something is different, and ask: “do you want to talk?” or, “is something bothering you?” Be alongside of them, not directive. Be honest – “I don’t have the skills to deal with this so let’s find help together”.

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