What Is a Humanitarian Psychiatrist?


What does it mean to be humanitarian?

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Two things have made me wonder about what humanitarian means. One is the continual call for humanitarian aid in Gaza since the Mideast war began. The other is more personal, surprisingly being selected for the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry, with a session for it at our upcoming annual APA meeting. Indeed! What, I wondered, made me be viewed as such a humanitarian?

At first glance, humanitarianism seems obvious. By definition, it is anything benefitting the essential welfare of humanity, from the basics of safe shelter and adequate food on up to transcendental development of the self in caring and compassion for others. As psychiatrists, we fit somewhere on that spectrum.

However, it also seems that there are other significant challenges to overcome in emphasizing humanitarianism. One is the needs of both parties in a harmful conflict, ranging from individuals to countries. Another is the missing of the needs of other living things and our overall environment. That is reflected in the 2 creation stories in the Torah (Old Testament). In one, humans are to use nature and animals for their own needs. In the other, we humans are to be shepherds for the well-being of other living things and the earth. In terms of the dangers of climate change and instability, it is the latter story that is essential.

Perhaps it is paradoxically the needs of the “other,” including the “stranger” and other living things, that is the essence of being a humanitarian. We are all in this together, and humans cannot thrive in a dangerous conflict and the neglect of our environment.

I can only consider myself as being a humanitarian if I include, but also go beyond, focusing on the needs of humans.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement 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.

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