By Shady Shebak, MD
Psychiatrists are the “bad guys” who imprison the most creative geniuses against their will and give them poison in an attempt to make them zombies! Unfortunately, this is the impression many people have of psychiatrists and mental health workers in general. This is not the product of ignorance alone. This is the product of ignorance and the product of immediate access to information with little to no scientific backing, and access to an array of opinions on social media. Let us also not forget the many Hollywood films that glamorize mental illness and demonize psychiatry.
The problem with psychiatry is not the practice of psychiatry or psychiatrists, it’s the nature of the field. Psychiatrists deal with the so-called “unwanted demons” that society has to offer. The field of psychiatry is scary, haunting, and an inconvenient truth to some people who do not want to believe in the fragility of the human mind. Many people want to pretend that such fragility is not true, for if they admit that the mind is fragile, then they may find themselves at the mercy of mental illness. People would rather repress, suppress, or openly oppose those things which they do not understand or choose not to understand. Much of the criticism levelled at psychiatry comes from people who have never set foot in a psychiatric hospital. They have not seen the schizophrenic who is a prisoner of a split mind, or the depressed patient recovering from an intentional overdose, or the manic patient who cannot stop his thoughts from racing, begging for mercy! Moreover, they do not want to admit that negative personality traits exist, because they would almost be admitting to themselves that they may have some of these traits, and thus ruin their perfect image of themselves for themselves.
Psychiatry has a dark history, not so much different from the dark history of medicine and surgery. The difference is psychiatry’s history is more recent, and therefore better documented and easier to fetch. And because psychiatry deals with the abstract, it is an easy target for those who want to make a quick name for themselves or find some limited fame, or act as liberators. One day we will be able to use imaging and physical findings to diagnose mental disorders, but until then, there will always be those who say “Where’s the blood test for depression. Where’s the x-ray for schizophrenia”… To those people, I humbly say that we are not there yet, but we are on our way. Until then, psychiatrists and mental health workers will bravely tread forward to lessen the suffering of those with mental illness, the same way psychiatrists treaded forward at the turn of the 20th century.
Finally, with the passing of Robin Williams, who succumbed to depression, this is a good time for psychiatrists and all who are interested in mental illness to become activists. We need to teach people the reality of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, personality disorders, and more. We need to bring mental health awareness to the level of true awareness, and change the way people think about these illnesses. We need to stop referring to mental illness as “demons” and as some terrifying, mystical curse. Most importantly, we need to be honest about our own imperfections, and not be too proud to seek help for ourselves, for our friends, and for our families.