During new patient evaluations, psychiatrists generally have a standard set of questions that are asked to help formulate a diagnosis based on diagnostic criteria and to develop a treatment plan. Every psychiatrist has their own style, but I’ve always been interested in asking patients more open-ended questions if I think it will provide me with a greater understanding of who they are as unique individuals. I also assume that my questions might be a bit different than the norm because I’ve grown accustomed to patients making statements such as “You know, nobody’s ever asked me that before.” Oftentimes, I believe that the art of psychiatry has dwindled down to a checklist which subsequently churns out a diagnosis based on the minimum criteria needed to properly meet billing requirements. Such a practice may lead to a lack of connection in the therapeutic relationship, therefore, I sought to create a series that explores the unspoken thoughts that a person may have when meeting with a psychiatrist. If you would like to contribute to future questions in this series, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK:
What goes on in your mind when a new psychiatrist asks if you’re suicidal?
It’s been some time since I’ve seen a new psychiatrist; thankfully I’ve been (somewhat) stable and happy with the treatment I’ve been receiving with my current one. But I do remember going through what was round-robin of mental health professionals before I found my current doctor. The situation is horrible, as I’m sure most people who have gone through the same process can testify. Although someone may be a professional who’s gone through years of grad school and training about what may be wrong with me, why would I want to share my darkest, deepest pain to someone I just met? It never felt right.
The two psychiatrists whom I connected with most during my care have been the ones that treated me like a person (and even a friend) first. No, I’m not that textbook case study you read in Psychology 407 back in grad school. Nor am I willing to try new psych medications with the script you’ve given me after our 5 minute visit.
There are no 100% effective cures for mental illness, but you can still treat those living with mental illness like human beings. It’s not that hard.
First thing that springs to mind is: “I can’t tell you I’m suicidal because you’ll hospitalize me and that will just ruin everything I’ve worked so hard for.” (as strange as that sounds…)
However, I always think there’s no point in outright lying to my psychiatrist if I genuinely want to get better. So, usually, I just tell them what I’m thinking, even if it means telling them I’m suicidal. But, I make sure I explain exactly what I’m thinking. Usually my thoughts are more of a passively suicidal nature and I don’t have a concrete plan in mind. My current psychiatrist is well aware of that. I haven’t had suicidal ideation with a plan for quite some time now. The last time was with my first psychiatrist, two years ago. And even then I’d tell her the truth. I only got hospitalized once, when I told her I genuinely couldn’t guarantee that I wasn’t going to do it. I guess the fact that I’m always honest about what goes on in my mind is precisely what has helped me not get hospitalized more than once. I’ve always thought of the patient-psychiatrist relationship as one built on trust. If they can’t trust me then they can’t help me to the best of their capacity and I’d just end up self-sabotaging.
Dana S, medical student (borderlinemed.wordpress.com)
‘I’d never kill myself. Wanting to die to end my misery and actually going through with it are completely different. But that’s probably not the answer you were looking for…’
First thought in my head if asked if I was suicidal would be something sarcastic like this: ‘Would I be sitting here if I was [suicidal]?’ and/or ‘Yes and to be honest, you’re just having a visual hallucination of myself right now.’
What goes on in my mind? Terror yet the need to be honest and tell the psychiatrist if I’m feeling that way. From experience (I was hospitalized several times for suicidal ideation) I know I had to be truthful about feeling suicidal because despite the intense compulsion, I didn’t want to do it and leave my two young daughters without their mom. I needed to be kept safe so I didn’t go through with it and I knew I needed hospitalization. I got better, and if the feelings return I will be honest with my current psychiatrist. I realize that he would most likely place me on a 5150 hold, but I accept that.
Dyane Leshin-Harwood, author of “Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar” (Post Hill Press, 2017). Blog: www.proudlybipolar.wordpress.com, Twitter: @birthofnewbrain
The first thing that comes to mind is that I need to justify why I’m there seeking help at this appointment and I wasn’t really sure how I need to respond. I was asked to rate my suicidal thoughts on a scale of ‘1 to 10’ (1 being the least severe and 10 being the most severe) and thought to myself, ‘do I need to respond with a high number so that I can get the help that I need, or will a low number not make them take me seriously enough?’ I remember feeling like I needed to justify that I needed help and it seemed as if a number was supposed to prove it. I get that a number is supposed to reflect my thoughts and feelings, but I didn’t feel like it was a genuine representation of my situation.
Having seen a psychiatrist in the past, I remember feeling anxious about this question because I knew what to expect in an evaluation, even though I didn’t feel suicidal. Fortunately, I knew the psychiatrist came highly recommended, was well-established in the community, and was someone I could trust, but what if I had no choice but to see a random psychiatrist (quite similar to the experiences many of my patients have encountered in the past) who was a novice, unskilled, or didn’t care to take the time to get to know or properly assess me? A psychiatrist’s job is hard and safety is our utmost concern, but building trust and mutual respect in a physician-patient relationship also needs to be a priority.
Vania, Psychiatrist and writer of Freud & Fashion
Photo by Marlon Santos