Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Shrunken Shrinks?


Midwife with a Knife writes:

"Hm... so I'm not sure it's fair to make psychiatry residents have psychotherapy. After all, nobody made me have a gyn exam or give birth as part of my ob-gyn residency!"

It's been a common theme in our comments, this idea that one needs to walk in the shoes of the patient to truly empathize. One commenter even wanted all med students to have a couple of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments!

So let me talk for a moment about the whole concept of psychiatric residents having their own personal psychotherapies. It started as part of psychoanalytic training (and remains a requirement in order to become a psychoanalyst). The idea isn't to empathize, or to experience what the patient feels, the idea is that the analyst must understand and work through his own unconscious conflicts in order to effectively work with the patients. He must be able to recognize his own counter-transference, know which issues are his so he isn't projecting them on to the patients, and be aware of his own unconscious motivations and conflicts. It sounds good, I have no idea if it works. I'm also not a psychoanalyst and I've never been in psychoanalysis, so my knowledge is limited, and this whole last paragraph may be a bit off or misstated.

Some residency training programs encourage residents to have their own therapeutic experiences. Where I went to medical school, residents would openly post that they were off to therapy or analysis, and it was both expected and encouraged, and trainees would leave the hospital four and five times a week to lie on the couch. Where I trained as a resident, I was aware that some residents were in therapy, but it was never openly announced in public-- it was something that was either done quietly or on the residents' time-- I believe if a resident working on an inpatient unit announced they had to leave for therapy, it would have been frowned upon during working hours. The residents were expected to be doctoring and leaving th for the hospital for treatment in the middle of the work day was not encouraged.

It's hard to learn therapy. It's a process over time and there's not a great mechanism to watch it unwind. Having it oneself probably provides at least one example, and that can't be bad. Most supervision occurs based on notes or the resident's report and so it is skewed, the supervisor can't always be sure the reporting is accurate or necessarily get a great feel for an unseen patient. Yes, there is "mirror" supervision (where the supervisor watches the resident with a live patient), and this is a terrific learning experience, but there isn't really a way for a trainee to be a fly on the wall of an older, more experience psychotherapist over time. Being your own experiment may help with the learning curve, but I'm not aware of any programs that require it. Is therapy required (as opposed to encouraged) to become a social worker or a psychologist? If so, does the program pay for it, does health insurance, are there discounted ways of getting treatment, or does the trainee pay for it? And for how long and how often?

Does one need to have therapy to be a sympathetic human being? Absolutely not. In fact, one can have years of therapy and still be a creep, while another person can be a wonderful therapist even without having been a patient. Nor does one need to have chemotherapy to understand that cancer sucks, or have AIDS to treat it with kindness. As MWAK has pointed out, many child-free people have delivered wonderful healthy babies and rendered terrific care to their pregnant and delivering mothers without ever having had the experience themselves. And if one has never psychotic, can one truly appreciate the pain it causes: I doubt it. Is it necessary to feel that pain in order to render good care? Of course not.

Sometimes it brings people comfort to know their doc has been there. Substance abuse counselors are often open about their own past histories with drugs. A friend with cancer is now seeing a therapist who is a survivor, and she feels very comfortable with this. I have always been comforted by the idea that my children's pediatrician is himself a father.

But you don't have to have panic disorder to treat it. You don't have to have suffered with depression or schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder to treat it or to appreciate that someone else is suffering.

Should psychiatrists undergo their own psychotherapy?
Oh, everyone knows what I'll say: yes, if they want to.
I believe that most people who are drawn to being psychotherapists have a somewhat analytic nature. They like to look at patterns and relationships (maybe they even like to blog about them). They are curious about what makes humans act the way they do, and by extension, they are probably interested in what makes their own psyches tick. Furthermore, people who practice psychotherapy tend to believe in it's power, they feel there is value in articulating emotional life and in examining the internal world. Given this, a personal therapy may have some appeal, with or without the presence of a psychiatric disorder. (I'm not going to even touch the question of who should pay for it if the psychiatrist doesn't actually have an illness...). If the psychiatry resident wants to have a personal psychotherapy, he should. If he has a psychiatric illness, he should get treatment. But a psychiatry resident who is not ill, who is not suffering emotionally, and who is able to work and to love and who doesn't want to have psychotherapy should not feel compelled to do so for it's own sake. And, by the way, if he later decides it might be helpful, there's no time limit on when, it's not just for trainees.

Are there studies? I don't know of any that randomly divide shrinks who've been shrunken from shrinks who are unshrunken and then looked at their treatment successes with patients....