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  • A Threat to Selfhood: Moral Distress and the Psychiatric Training Culture
  • Esther Nathanson

While many medical specialties offer to heal, or even cure, psychiatry—uniquely—places the doctor–patient relationship at the center of the therapeutic effort. Psychiatrists must possess a complex and challenging combination of broad medical knowledge, finely honed interpersonal and analytic skills and confidence in their abilities, despite limited understanding of the workings of the brain. Inpatient psychiatry in particular demands a degree of strength to withstand emotional, and sometimes physical, assault from patients who may be suicidal, desperate, paranoid, aggressive or delusional. Beyond these abilities, a good psychiatrist must have robust but ‘therapeutically porous’ emotional boundaries that allow genuine empathy for the patient but, at the same time, limit internalization of the patient’s anguish as the practitioner’s own: the exquisite balance of ‘self–versus–other’ in the therapeutic encounter.

Unfortunately, during my psychiatry residency in the UK, development of these intangible but essential boundaries was entirely absent from the curriculum. Early in training I struggled with my tendency to become an emotional chameleon with feelings and energies buffeted around by the prevailing emotions of each patient that walked through the door. I felt that patients expected me to offer tidy explanations for their suffering and provide answers to profound questions of meaning; to make the world a safe and understandable place. Given the complexity of mental illness and its interplay with social circumstances this was naïve and, I now realize, often unnecessary, but the weight of responsibility was unbearable. I was also completely unprepared for the intensity of human suffering I saw, and wholly unready to provide the level of interpersonal engagement required for genuine healing. My own emotional integrity felt threatened by the depth of patients’ needs, and my response—both physical and emotional—was intense and frightening.

Much of my distress resulted from the profound and inevitable tension between the empathy necessary to comprehend patients’ experiences, which were often extreme and bewildering, and the need for resilience and self–protection at a time when my grasp of psychological theories and treatment practices was still rudimentary. I felt guilty that patients bore the brunt of my inexperience, and duplicitous purporting to help while burdening them with intolerable drug side–effects and stigmatizing, albeit effective, treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Time constraints and guidance from senior faculty encouraged expediency over treatment efficacy or durability; psychopharmacology was prioritized over the psychotherapeutic techniques and psychosocial interventions I found more effective for many patients. During the phase of our training that took place in a rambling, now defunct, asylum in the U.K, visits to the locked ward, which was reserved for patients considered a danger to others, were usually prompted by nurses’ requests for chemical restraint, the ‘pharmaceutical strait–jacket’. I was deeply uncomfortable with the role of ‘restrainer’ but had insufficient experience or seniority to propose other methods. It was only when, years later, I investigated re–training in the U.S that the senior psychiatry resident at a well–known program told me gently, ‘Oh, we assume that students will have a breakdown in their first year, so we have systems in place to help’. I’ll never forget those words; they are, to this day, the only validation of the emotional toll of my early training years.

Adding to my discomfort were various ethically dubious administrative practices, the most troubling being the clinic’s unwillingness to disclose to patients that we were trainees, with little clinical experience. Senior faculty were dismissive when I asked whether my first psychotherapy patient had been told I was a trainee, indeed that I had never conducted psychotherapy before. My question was greeted with amusement and an assurance that, although she had not been told, I (not the patient, interestingly) would do fine.

Due to the large number of no–shows in psychiatric outpatient clinics it was also standard practice to triple–book appointment times on the [End Page 115] assumption that one or more patients would fail to attend. Not uncommonly, more than one patient would arrive for the same appointment, leaving others to suffer agonizing waits that were often intensified by the deep discomfort...


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pp. 115-117
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