Intimate Portrait: Richard M. Berlin, MD

Psychiatric TimesVol 31 No 6
Volume 31
Issue 6

A brief psychological portrait of this psychiatrist/poet.

Editor’s note:

Being a Therapist features intimate portraits of psychotherapists in their private work spaces. The photograph was taken by Sebastian Zimmerman, MD, and is part of a collection he made over a 10-year period when he interviewed more than 50 psychotherapists in their offices. Dr Zimmerman published his photographs and essays this year in his book Fifty Shrinks. More information is available at

. An excerpt of the interview his wife, Renee Silverman, had with Dr Richard M. Berlin follows.

The poem springs from the half spoken words of the patient. . . . When asked, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing.

-William Carlos Williams


My poem “How a Psychiatrist Writes a Poem” opens with images of skittering leaves and blowing wind and drifts through other scenes, finally reaching a pivotal moment with my mother in a Grand Union grocery store. The free association process that generated this poem is like the classic psychoanalytic situation in which the patient and analyst allow thoughts to flow without censorship and wait to see where they will lead. This is the process I tend to follow when I write, and it is definitely a reflection of my psychiatric education. Many times, I’ve had patients start a visit by announcing, “I don’t know what to talk about today!” only to have that session yield especially productive and fruitful insights and motivation for change.

Having trained as a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and poet, I tend to think in metaphors, a type of thinking that feels very natural to me. In working with patients, I find that I am often able to create images that describe their experiences from a new angle, one that is close enough to feel familiar, yet different enough to change the patient’s perspective. Patients often smile or laugh in recognition and start to play with these new ideas about themselves. I suppose this is the way I apply a poet’s perspective to enhance my traditional psychiatric diagnostic skills, medical knowledge, and expertise in psychopharmacology.

Poetry and the clinical encounter have much more in common than I imagined when I started to write during a mid-life transition. When I perform a psychiatric evaluation, part of my job is to gather all of the biological, psychological, and social information at my disposal and condense what I have learned into a diagnosis and treatment plan. Poets distill the world in a comparable way. When I write, I try to be aware of my subjective emotional state, physical sensations, the music of language, and the thoughts or feelings I am trying to express, all in the brief, condensed flash of the poem. Like an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan, an effective poem will communicate something of the writer’s insight and experience that will touch-and perhaps heal-the reader in some way.

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Richard M. Berlin, MD

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