PORTRAIT OF A PSYCHIATRIST
-Series Editor, H. Steven Moffic, MD
The expression on his face was that of disgust. Of course, I knew this look only too well; I am an expert by lived experience after all, and I had been the victim of mental health related stigma and discrimination for many years. But seeing this person’s reaction somehow surprised me.
I received an invitation to deliver my Wounded Healer program at an Ivy League college in the US as a Grand Rounds presentation. A Professor of anesthesiology approached me after I delivered a talk titled The Wounded Healer at the 2014 International Symposium of Poetry and Medicine in London. He emphatically exclaimed, “We’ve gotta bring this over to the US!” After the presentation, my hosts arranged for me to meet with the head of the department of psychiatry and it was this person who had the perceived expression of revulsion on his face during my meeting with him.
Throughout the meeting, this expert at caring for people with mental health problems appeared guarded, and he made very little eye contact with me. He seldom spoke; however, he did disclose that he had met a renowned British scholar who I revered immensely. I displayed excitement and exuberance at this revelation. It was at this point that his face contorted, and he suddenly recoiled his body as if I were about to contaminate him with some ghastly disease. Was it because he had seen this elation in many of the patients whose mania he treated in his illustrious career? It felt as though he reflexively “pathologized” my overture as if it were symptomatic of my illness and not an expression of human emotion.
In my Wounded Healer program, I openly disclose that I am a practicing Muslim and that my faith protected me against suicidal behavior. Given that Islamophobia is rife in the US (and this was what inspired me to co-edit a textbook, Islamophobia and Psychiatry, with H. Steven Moffic, MD, and colleagues (Springer; 2019).1 I suspect that this may be a factor that also contributed to the professor’s reaction towards me. In hindsight, I felt that he stigmatized me because I am an adherent of the Islamic faith and because of my experience with mental illness (the so-called “double stigma” and intersectionality that Muslims with mental illness are often subjected to).2
After I left his office, we walked in opposite directions in the corridor and I recall smiling at him. What ensued was astonishing. Instead of reciprocating, not only did he seemingly shun me, but it felt like he also wanted me to both see and feel this act. His manner came across as hostile and aggressive, and it was only at that moment that I was galvanized into realizing that I was being reduced “to a tainted and discounted person” because of my “deeply discrediting attributes”3 of mental illness and being an adherent of the Islamic faith. Indeed, his disgust was intense enough to induce a visceral sensation of pain in my chest…
Was I simply misreading him? If I was, clearly I was not the only person to because his medical secretary, who was also in the corridor, appeared visibly perturbed by him and the expression on her face betrayed this. He attempted to dissolve the tension by smiling, but all the while he refused to look at me and acknowledge my existence.
To show insight into my own reaction, I am a sensitive soul. His reaction may very well have influenced my feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Maybe I was overreacting? Notwithstanding this caveat, there is a loud and wise voice in my mind that declares this was a flagrant act of arrogance. Of course, I could be wrong. But then again, I could be right.
In short, I felt violated by the experience; I expected this eminent psychiatrist to know better than anyone that stigma can be devastating (many report that mental health stigma is worse than the mental illness itself) and that my being so honest and open about my lived experience was an act of candor and courage.
I wish I could say my evaluation of the encounter was wrong, but the fact remains there are people in this world who are cruel toward those with mental illness, including psychiatrists. Indeed, the 2008 Stigma Shout Survey conducted in the UK on 4000 people using mental health services and carers revealed that psychiatrists are a common source of stigma reported by people with mental illness.4
Although the wound remains indelibly carved in my consciousness, I am grateful for learning a precious lesson—and that is never to make someone feel the way I felt, It is, however, crucial to note that many people I met at the college welcomed me. In fact, I received a standing ovation, and some people literally embraced me afterwards. A perceived isolated incident of discrimination must not tarnish what was otherwise a beautiful experience.
1. Moffic, HS, Peteet J, Hankir R. Islamophobia and Psychiatry: Recognition, Prevention, and Treatment. 2020 (In Press); Springer.
2. Ciftci A, Jones N, Corrigan PW. Mental health stigma in the Muslim community. J Muslim Ment Health. 2012;7. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/jmmh.10381607.0007.102
3. Goffman E. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc, 1963.
4. Time to Change. Let's End Mental Health Discrimination. 2008. https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/sites/default/files/Stigma%20Shout.pdf. Accessed December 2, 2019.
5. Hankir A, Zaman R. Jung's archetype, 'The Wounded Healer', mental illness in the medical profession and the role of the health humanities in psychiatry. BMJ Case Rep. 2013;12;20.