Flexibility of the Stepped Care Model of Psychotherapy

What would you do if you are emotionally disturbed? Talk to a friend? Let it be settled with the passage of time? Or seek professional help? For many people, seeking psychotherapy is not an easy move. On the one hand, opting for public health services entails a long waiting time. On the other hand, it could be a financial burden if one chooses private services. In fact, if you are suffering from mild emotional distress, other than specialists (e.g., clinical psychologists or psychiatrists), you can also seek assistance from paraprofessionals. Countries such as England and Australia have already adopted the Stepped Care Model, which provides corresponding levels of psychological intervention according to the intensity and severity of emotional distress as well as specific needs of the individuals.

Perhaps this is the first time you heard this model, and you may wonder what exactly it is. Let us think about how we normally deal with our body’s physical conditions: when our body starts to show warning signals, we may deal with them by adjusting or changing our daily habits; when symptoms arise, we may seek treatment from general practitioners; if unfortunately, we are severely ill, we may consult specialists for specific, high-intensity treatment. As for mental health, what the Stepped Care Model advocates is exactly the same as for physical health mentioned above. When there are symptoms of emotional distress, such as stress reactions or low mood, this model could provide fundamental information on emotional health depending on the needs of emotionally distressed individuals, in order to help them in managing and improving mental health.

For those who are experiencing mild to moderate depression and anxiety symptoms, low-intensity psychological therapy is recommended, including one-on-one guided self-help therapy and psychoeducation groups, which are supported by empirical evidence. Comparing with traditional high-intensity psychotherapy, low-intensity psychological therapy consists of fewer sessions with a more flexible format, not only making it more convenient for people from different industries but also shortening the waiting time. Through timely and appropriate treatment, the deterioration of the situation over time could be avoided and further improve one’s mental health.

If emotional distress reaches severe levels, or if other problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder or mental disorders arise, it is then recommended that high-intensity psychological therapy or a multidisciplinary case management approach is used. Regardless of the ups and downs, emotions are the seasonings of life, and the same goes for stress. Being trapped by emotions is beyond reproach. The Stepped Care Model could hence alleviate the huge demand for mental health services while shortening the waiting time for specialists’ help, allowing more people to have access to help. May that bitterness and spiciness turn into flavours in life eventually instead of distress.

‘Emotion GPS’ is one of the services provided by the online self-help psychological support platform. Through one-to-one guided self-help treatment, it provides early psychological intervention services with empirical support for those suffering from emotional distress. If interested, feel free to register through the following website: www.egps.hk.

Text:Psychological Well-being Officer Wong Yui Tung、Psychology Assistant Lau Yuen Yi


Clark, D.M. (2018). Realizing the mass public benefit of evidence-based psychological therapies: The IAPT program. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 14, 159-183. doi:10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050817-084833