Amazing role of psychiatrists

Dr Shafqat Huma

Psychiatric practice is not for the faint of the heart. Every day, psychiatrists face human miseries, traumas, tragedies, deaths and suicidality. People outside of the field (and even our own patients) frequently declare that they could not imagine of being psychiatrists as it is a very tough job and they (psychiatrists) would be too depressed by listening mentally-ill patients all the day.

Our work requires us to enter deeply into the painful experiences of others and to be in a constructive way with the people who may have any trouble with anyone or anything. Yet there is a reason that we become psychiatrists and a reason that we remain in the field. For all its perils, psychiatry is filled with extraordinary moments of healing, honesty, insight and human connection. With such a heady mix of costs and benefits, psychiatrists will always run the danger of being swamped by the negative as they seek to cultivate the positive.

As human beings, in fact as mammals, we are inherently prone to pay more attention to bad than good and to demonstrate a ‘negative bias’ in the most aspects of life. Gottman and his colleagues have asserted that it takes five positive interactions for every negative one to keep a relationship stable and happy. Positive psychology has taught us that we need to actively cultivate appreciation for the goods of life – gratitude, by regular and conscious practice.

Conscious emphasis on positive does not mean the denial of negative as a naive Pollyanna-like attitude constitutes self-actualization. Rather by emphasizing the good, we more accurately balance positive and negative in our emotional and intellectual lives or more fundamentally by focusing on positive, we help keep ourselves from sinking into an ocean of negativity and so, with a spirit of gratitude, here are a few of the many extraordinary advantages of being a psychiatrist.

Regardless of their position in the salary range, psychiatrists earn more than enough to provide for themselves and their families. We are among the top 3% in educational attainment with a lengthy graduation and four or five years of post-graduate training. We also enjoy the tremendous prestige of being a physician with instant respect, credibility and social status wherever we go. Of course, positive psychology has confirmed that money, possessions and social status are relatively superficial goods and are not the most important factors in happiness and well-being. So (being good psychiatrists) let us look more deeply.

As we know, the human brain is the most complex object in the physical universe. Our job challenges us to understand the working of the human brain and the person on every level that we can, and to help people make us able to live better lives. We help people in understanding and seeking integration and healing on biological, psychological, social and spiritual levels. Our patients teach us, our colleagues teach us and every day new studies come out to illuminate this most exquisite of all creations. So, we will never stop learning and we need never to be bored.

A profound and inescapable aspect of a meaningful and happy life is the ability to contribute to the good of others. As psychiatrists, helping others is the essence of our job. This truth is so familiar that it often feels trivial when it is in fact profound. We enjoy a social role that is ultimately about doing well for our patients, their families and our society, and we will see tangible results of our efforts in both the short term and long term. By the end of a psychiatric career (and in spite of mistakes and limitations), countless people and their families will be better off because of our work.

Nationally and worldwide, there is a vast shortage of psychiatrists that will not end in the foreseeable future. Wherever we go, we will be needed and valued. We do not need to worry about being able to find work and support ourselves. Better than that, as an individual psychiatrist, I can contemplate the fact that if I was not filling the need I now fill, there would not be anyone else to make up for it.

Obviously, we matter as psychiatrists. Yet how many of us have considered the strange fact that people rearrange their lives, schedules and finances, all to receive the privilege of sitting with us in a room and talking? Yes, they need medications, but realistically they can get medications elsewhere. They want to talk to us, want to be heard and want to learn from our knowledge and wisdom. They actually believe (at least on some level) that time spent with us will make their lives better. This is extraordinary, after all how many people in the rest of daily life approach us and offer us money for our sage advice or re-arrange their day just to hear what we have to say about their lives? Do family members wait every day with bated breath for our words of wisdom? And yet there are people every day who commute, show up, sit and wait just for the opportunity to talk to us (their psychiatrists).

As a psychiatrist, whatever I learn applies to me every day; our work teaches us more about the human condition. We have access to the inner, intimate and (generally) honest experiences of countless people, not the superficial Facebook-type self-advertising that goes on in much of our culture. Thus, we have a source of knowledge about the human condition that no one can have and we have a daily motivator to practice our own self-care, self-improvement and growth. As we understand our patients more deeply and help them, we simultaneously learn to understand and help ourselves.

People who spend large amount of time on social media appear vulnerable to the feelings of inferiority and discouragement in the face of others’ relentless success as the old Alcoholics Anonymous says: “You are comparing your insides with other people’s outsides.” As psychiatrists, we have a rare view into the ‘insides’ of countless people. We enjoy the privilege of seeing that self-doubt, inadequacy, guilt, stress and illness are a normal part of individual and family life. Our profession allows us to accept ourselves and our limitations, using adverse experiences for our own growth and the benefit of others.

I consider love to be the ‘L-word’ of our profession and it is overrated in the postmodern world. We don’t often use it with patients for obvious reasons. But psychiatrists create constructive relationships as the fundamental basis of their work. We are formally trained to do so even with the most difficult patients. Though extreme levels of patience and skill are sometimes required, achieving such good and meaningful relationships is among the greatest joys of life. Better than the most other professionals, psychiatrists understand that relationships are central to good life and base their professional lives on nurturing such relationships.

At the end, I would like to quote William Goldman, who says: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” So, if it is true then thanks to goodness for psychiatry and thanks to those who practice it as because of them, human life is a little bit less painful.

The writer is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry, University College of Medicine, University of Lahore. He can be contacted at:

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