Avoiding hubris: connections between the unsinkable ship and psychiatry.
PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS
The RMS Titanic is the infamous passenger line ship that sank on April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg. More than 1500 died, about two-thirds of the total passengers. Much fiction and nonfiction has been written about it.
For the second time, we saw “Titanic: The Musical” last Thursday at the Fireside Theatre. What a difference 22 years make. The first time we saw it was in 2001, which was not long before 9/11, and a couple of years before I became a climate change activist. Since 9/11, there have not been any further foreign terrorist attacks in the United States, but much worsening in the climate crisis. I am also now 77, thinking, writing, and talking more about death and dying. Maybe all that is why I cried through most of this second viewing. As far as the climate goes, as if on cue, the next day, there were record-setting torrential rains in the Northeast, putting about 23 million individuals at risk from flooding. The National Weather Service in New York declared that it was the wettest day in recorded history.
The Titanic acute disaster seems human made, just like the ongoing climate crisis seems to be. Hubris and displaced blame sunk the Titanic, spread among the captain, owner, builder, and the vessel close by that did not respond to the distress call. The unsinkable ship sunk. Perhaps if the Titanic sailed today, all could be paradoxically better because the icebergs are melting. We do have even larger ships with safety improvements that have not sunk, but are susceptible to illness spreading like COVID-19.
However, as if we have not learned our lessons well enough, on June 18, 2023, as I also covered in a column on June 22nd title “Heading High and Diving Deep: The Human Quest for Exploration and the Fate of the Submersible ‘Titan,’” the submersible Titan, carrying tourists to view the wreckage of the Titanic, was lost after a catastrophic implosion. All in it died.
We must do our best to avoid such hubris in psychiatry. Safety is utmost regarding potential adverse effects of our medications, devices, and psychotherapy, both short and long-term. Explanation of what we know cannot be misleading. We cannot dismiss out-of-hand external critics. Humility is necessary as we await improved interventions.
But maybe the Titanic and the Titan are examples of awe, the more negative version. They, too, are emotionally powerful experiences of expansive intensity, but negative instead of positive. You could sense that in those interviewed in New York right after the flooding, usually starting with “Oh, my God . . .”! Life-giving water turned into life-wrecking water. We would do well to learn from them. Just think of the terrible awe individuals have been feeling after acute climate-related disasters and the even worse projections for the future.
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry, and is now in retirement and refirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.