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Doctoring minds

He had no idea what he was getting himself into with a career in psychiatry, but now he's hooked and wants to tell the world



Doctoring minds

Taweesilp Visanuyothin, a spokesman for the mental-health department, never thought he would become a psychiatrist. He says his career path was determined by a ping-pong ball.

When Taweesilp graduated in 1989 from Khon Kaen University, he had to draw a ping-pong ball to choose a hospital for his three-year internship. All medical graduates had to do the same, and the ball sent him to the Department of Psychiatry of Nakhon Ratchasima Rajanagarindra Psychiatric Hospital in Nakhon Ratchasima, which is his home town.

At first he thought he'd work there three years and leave.

"I was worried about working in the psychiatry department. What was going to happen to me, and what did I have to face in a hospital which people call a madhouse?" Taweesilp wondered when he learned he had to work at that hospital.

Every morning at Nakhon Ratchasima Rajanagarindra Psychiatric Hospital, Taweesilp had to check about 250 patients in three hours. The hours were short compared to the number of patients. And he didn't know much about mental problems. So the best thing he could do at that time was to give them some medicine.

"I felt that I worked like a machine, and I was very tired."

But the patients' suffering and expectations totally changed his plan.

"I didn't know things in depth. Even though I saw their suffering and they wanted me to help, I couldn't," says Taweesilp.

The pressure reached a breaking point, and he finally decided to make a career out of psychiatry. He went on to study at Somdet Chaopraya Institute of Psychiatry and worked there before flying to the US to study neuropsychiatry in Chicago.

"That was the biggest decision of my life," he says.

"I have to say thank you to the ping pong ball. I learned about the body in medical school, but I understood more about the mind, brain and feelings when I studied psychiatry. We know how to prevent and cure diabetes, but we don't know even what a depression disorder is."

Taweesilp is also a special lecturer at hospitals and a host of the "Life and News" programme on UBC 7 at 9pm on Sundays. And he works at Samitivej Hospital.

Every Sundays he sees patients there in the Sukhumvit area. His visiting hours run from 8am to 4pm, but his job never ends on time.

"Surgeons have to know how many incisions they should make to go through the breast or to remove a tumour. Psychiatrists have to know when we should ask questions to dig into their mind. Surgeons have to close wounds before blood flows from the entire body. Psychiatrists have to do the same too. If not, the patients could dive off a bridge into the river and commit suicide. What should we do?"

Since psychiatrists have to listen to many stories and problems from patients, they need to learn to manage it. Taweesilp says it's a very important process in the training of psychiatrists.

"Each patient is like a drawer. We have to slide each drawer open and then shut it when we're finished. Otherwise we feel depressed and want to end our lives at the end of the day.

"We can't choose our working time and say: 'Oh, I'm in a bad mood and don't want to listen to sad stories any more'. If patients' stories can touch our mind, it means we still don't control our own feelings and emotions good enough."

Taweesilp says psychiatrists have to show empathy, or understanding of patients' feelings, but not sympathy, or sharing those feelings. It's like seeing a sad movie and crying because the story touches you. Psychiatrists cannot be like that.

Overseas, seeing a psychiatrist is normal. Mental illness can happen to anyone. In many Hollywood movies it's usual to see characters going to seek help from a head-shrinker. Some Hollywood actors and actresses like Linda Hamilton, Brook Shields or even Tipper Gore, former US vice president Al Gore's wife, simply admit that they have a mental problem.

But for Thais, it's hard to imagine who'd dare to say in public: "I'm mentally ill" or "I've seen a psychiatrist".

"Because of stereotypes that mentally ill people are mad, crazy, dangerous, harmful to others, they're often presented in a negative way in the media," he says.

Even Taweesilp is sometimes called a "mad" doctor, and his father was afraid that he might be at risk through contact with patients. So Taweesilp says that whenever he has the chance he cleans up those negative images.

Now he's running a project called anti-stigma, which aims to build understanding and reduce the gap between mentally sick patients and people in society.

 

Suwicha Chanitnun

The Nation

 



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