Lately I've been feeling impressed by the courage of my patients and my friends.
Once a month at the clinic where I work, two members of the team conduct a psychological evaluation with a new patient, while a group of medical residents and psych interns observes. Each time, I'm struck by the courage of the patient who sits before the group and describes in detail the manifestations and origin of the presenting mental health problem, the distress or impairment it causes, current and past relationships, and goals for treatment. How brave is that!
I was similarly struck a few weeks ago when a colleague told me that her patient with panic disorder willingly ran up and down the stairs inside the clinic, trying to expose himself to the terrifying breathlessness that triggers his panic attacks. I feel the same respect when a patient with chronic health anxiety successfully writes, records, and listens to an exposure scenario describing himself dying of cancer, or when a painfully shy patient reports that she successfully completed her plan to initiate a conversation with
one of the other parents in her son's class.
It's not just my patients who are impressive: my friends are, too. A few months ago, one of my friends was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a difficult-to-diagnose mix of depression, mania, and psychosis that neatly explains symptoms he's been experiencing for years. Following the diagnosis, he took his mental health into his own hands--seeking out a support group and tirelessly navigating the overwhelming bureaucracy of the health care system until he found a doctor who understood the diagnosis, prescribed medication appropriately, and addressed his concerns about side effects. Another friend recently began psychotherapy to deal with a procrastination problem that has plagued her for years. A third friend called me up for a referral for a couples therapist so that he and his partner could address some issues they were unable to resolve on their own.
My friends' and patients' initiative touches and impresses me. There's still a stigma attached to mental health care and there are still people who believe that seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist or taking medication is a sign of weakness. I'm pretty sure that acknowledging a problem and seeking help demonstrates the precise opposite.
Think about it.