Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: A reader asked how a person can tell if psychiatry is "working." We would like to offer some suggestions.

The patient or client should have a specific plan for recovery. The therapist -- a clinical social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or marriage and family therapist -- should teach coping skills so the person can assemble a "coping toolbox." Patients should expect to do behavioral homework between counseling sessions.

Sometimes medication is needed; often it is not. Most uncomplicated depression and anxiety problems respond favorably within 10 to 20 sessions. Additional complicating factors may extend the number of sessions, but by the 20th session the person should see definite improvement.

Just "talking about" problems is helpful, but not usually enough to make and maintain changes. It is also not generally helpful to focus ONLY on the past/childhood when the problems are occurring today. Therapists and clients can be sure that goals are being met by assessing behavior and emotional changes at regular intervals.

We hope this information is helpful. -- ERIK J. ABELL, PH.D., GAIL SIMPSON, MSW, LCSW, COSTA MESA, CALIF.

DEAR DR. ABELL AND MS. SIMPSON: Thank you for lending your expertise to answer this often-asked question. People who are emotionally vulnerable are not always in the best position to evaluate their own progress. I'm sure your letter will be appreciated by many readers.

DEAR ABBY: I am 30 years old and have been married for four years. I have known since I was a teen-ager that I never wanted to have children. My husband was well aware of this when we met, dated and married.

His sister gave birth to a baby boy last summer, and suddenly my husband has changed his mind and wants children too.

I know I am not parent material. I am impatient with children and generally uncomfortable around them. I do not want my life to be defined by children, nor do I want to give up the lifestyle I enjoy to raise them.

What can I do? Is a divorce pending? -- CHILDLESS BY CHOICE IN FLORIDA

DEAR C.B.C.: While parenthood can be joyful and rewarding, it requires commitment and sacrifice. The bundle from heaven cannot be returned to sender if the recipients change their minds. It would be interesting to see if baby-sitting for his nephew would change your husband's mind -- or yours. However, if you cannot come to a meeting of the minds, a divorce may indeed be on the horizon.

DEAR ABBY: My marriage is pretty much over. My wife and I can't get along, and all the counseling we've had didn't help.

I feel "naked" without my wedding band and am wondering if it is proper for me to wear another ring that has personal sentimental value on my ring finger. I hope this isn't a dumb question. -- TOM IN NEW YORK

DEAR TOM: No question is dumb if it's sincere. You may wear any kind of ring you wish on your ring finger -- but please be aware that a ring on the third finger of the left hand is a signal that the wearer is "unavailable."

P.S. Many divorced people feel naked when they remove their wedding ring for the last time, but that stage usually passes by the time the tan line fades.

Abby shares more than 100 of her favorite recipes in two booklets: "Abby's Favorite Recipes" and "More Favorite Recipes by Dear Abby." Send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $10 (U.S. funds)

to: Dear Abby -- Cookbooklet Set, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included in price.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111; (816) 932-6600