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Lessons Medicine Reflection Systems

Reflections on Psychiatry.

A medical student named Anthony sent me an e-mail and asked:

Are [the items listed below] things that have nagged at you during your training or as a psychiatrist now? How do you deal with the ambiguity of psychiatry, or do you find that as your clinical experience grows, you find yourself more reassured in what you do from seeing your patients improve? Where do you see psychiatry going in the next couple of decades? I understand these are big questions, but I feel it would be incredibly helpful to hear from someone who’s been practicing for a while.

Indeed, these are big questions, but the big questions make us reflect on what we do: What is the point? Why do we bother? Are we doing the “right” thing?

Are these things that have nagged at you during your training or as a psychiatrist now?

The things Anthony listed as frustrations—the primacy of the biological model, the lack of novel and consistently effective medications, the role of medications and pharmaceutical companies, the medicalization of “normal” human experience—resonate with me, too. These things bothered me while I was in medical school, irritated me when I was a resident, and continue to vex me as an attending.

What bothers me the most is how psychiatry can become an agent of social control. Psychiatry can lend its vocabulary and constructs to authorities to oppress or exclude certain populations.

Consider the spate of school shootings. If we label the shooters as “mentally ill”, that distracts from the culture of fear and violence. Homosexuality was a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis until 1973. African Americans are more likely to receive diagnoses of schizophrenia.

Words are powerful. The ramifications of diagnosis are serious. We must not forget how our words can affect how people perceive themselves and how others treat them.

This overlaps with the medicalization of human experience. Is it okay that people receive Xanax from physicians when they are grieving the death of a loved one? Is it okay that students receive Adderall from physicians when they are striving for academic excellence? Is it okay that people from other cultures receive antipsychotic medication from physicians when they report hearing the voices of their ancestors?

My discomfort with this has affected my practice: I purposely choose to work with people who exhibit symptoms that rarely overlap with the general spectrum of human experience. Most people do not believe that someone has stolen their internal organs. Most people do not drink a fifth of alcohol each day to cope with guilt and shame. Most people do not fear that aliens will execute them if they move into housing from the streets.

A natural consequence of working with this population is that advocacy becomes a large part of the work: People with severe conditions can and do get better. Most people enter medicine to help people, to see people get better. The gains in this population may take longer and sometimes may not be as great as in other populations, but they do occur.

How do you deal with the ambiguity of psychiatry, or do you find that as your clinical experience grows, you find yourself more reassured in what you do from seeing your patients improve?

I learned early on that, if I don’t know the answer, the best thing to do is to say, “I don’t know.” It can be hard to say that out loud because we don’t want to admit our ignorance to ourselves or to others. Perhaps the difficulty isn’t the ambiguity of psychiatry. Maybe the challenge is managing our own vulnerability.

This is how I deal with the ambiguity:

  • I remind myself that it is impossible for me—or for anyone—to know everything. That doesn’t mean I give up and walk away: I do the work to learn as much as I can. The learning never stops, even when I want it to.
  • I remind myself that I will mess up. I hope that I will make fewer mistakes as I advance in my career, but I trust that I will screw up. I also hope that I will have the wisdom and humility to learn from my errors and avoid them in the future.
  • I remind myself to “First, do no harm.” I may feel pressure[1. Know that the system will often put pressure on you to “do something”. That doesn’t mean the system is right. Unless someone is dying in that moment, there is always time to stop and think.] to “do” something—prescribe a medication! send someone to the hospital! intervene right now! There is always time to pause and consider: “Will this cause (more) harm?” To be clear, I don’t advocate living life through avoidance. Sometimes the way to navigate ambiguity is to avoid actions that will make things worse.

I’m sure this isn’t the first time you have heard an attending say this: The farther along I go the more I realize how little I know. There is so much more for me to learn.

Where do you see psychiatry going in the next couple of decades?

Experts are much better at describing base rates than they are at predicting the future.[2. This idea about base rates and predictions comes from the book Decisive, which I recommend with enthusiasm.] This is an important question that deserves more reflection. Different ideas spin in my head: Psychiatry will have to reconcile with people who have experienced mistreatment from our field. Psychiatry must examine social determinants of health and scrutinize how they affect diagnosis and treatment. Psychiatry must collaborate with other fields and cannot expect that isolation will actually help patients, our colleagues, or the specialty.

For you (and me) I would add that we cannot expect to influence or change a system if we do not take part in it.[3. Full disclosure: I am not a member of the American Psychiatric Association. My values do not seem to align with theirs. However, who am I to complain about the values of the APA if I’m not willing to help shift them? And how can I contribute to any shift if I do not join them?]

Good questions, Anthony. I encourage you to ask other psychiatrists these same questions. Regardless of which field you choose to enter, I hope you continue to exercise curiosity and healthy skepticism of the work you do. This will not only help you grow as a person and physician, but will also help your patients and field of expertise.