I have often wondered whether a psychiatrist knows how to show empathy. Most of the psychiatrists I met were unable to do so, which set me wondering whether I could possibly find one who had a child suffering from a mental illness like paranoid schizophrenia. I asked many people for recommendations but was never given a name. Much later I discovered that a professional finds this situation as difficult to handle as the rest of us, and is seldom prepared to talk about it. Maybe they are afraid that they will lose patients if they admit to being as human as the rest of us and of being the parent of a mentally ill child.
In order to be successful, I think that a psychiatrist should possess specific characteristics. It is imperative to be empathetic. A psychiatrist should be willing to look a patient and their parents straight in the eye and be careful not to stereotype any of them. These doctors needs the strength to relate to the problems facing their patients but as most of them have not been in the unfortunate position of having a child suffering from a mental illness, it is difficult for them to really understand.
It is one thing to learn about psychiatry at medical school, but to be confronted with many very ill patients in a psychiatric hospital hour after hour, day after day, I am not sure whether they can imagine the interaction between their patients and their parents when they are at home. After all, most patients get sent home over weekends, whether they have shown violent behavior or not. I heard a doctor tell his staff: “See that person over there? Don’t ever walk in front of him if you know what is good for you.” But that same patient was sent home every single weekend to a house with teenage children and parents who seldom received sufficient information from the doctor on how to handle outbreaks of rage during times when he/she became psychotic.
As a mother, I knew how to recognize mumps, measles and chicken pox. I knew instinctively when one of my children needed to see a doctor but where mental illness was concerned, I was way out of my depth. I did not understand what was happening to my son and dreamed of meeting a psychiatrist who would and could explain things to us in detail. I realize how overworked they are, but that has to change. I am not dumb. I have studied, taught and am a published author so I am sure that someone in the hospital could have done more explaining.
I remember saying the following to my late husband: “Psychiatrists probably have their hearts removed before they leave medical school in case they interfere with their careers.” I once told our son’s doctor that I felt he distanced himself too much from David. His reply: “I have to sleep at night, you know. I can’t take each case to heart.” My reply: “Maybe you are in the wrong profession, doctor?” No reply. We weren’t exactly having a picnic at home. Mental illness touched the life of every single one of us and anyone else who came in contact with David.
It’s not only the patient who requires a bit of empathy. In all the years that my son was involved in the ‘system’ not one nurse, social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist ever touched my shoulder or put an arm around me. I felt like an object, merely the patient’s mother. I have written about some psychiatrists who blamed me for my son’s schizophrenia. That theory no longer holds but is still being used all over the world, I am told.
Learning to be a psychiatrist takes many years and I respect someone who is prepared to study for so long, b u t … in the 16 years we were involved in the system and the many times that our son was in the hospital, this is the conclusion I came to.
Psychiatrists rely almost solely on medication, call for an orderly to give the patient a shot or have him tied down in what my family called ‘the correction room’ (for want of another name.)
Is this what psychiatrists learn in medical school? Is this psychiatry?
My Random House Dictionary describes psychiatry as: the practice or the science of treating mental disorders