Celebrating success, while striving to do better

A few days ago, an Asiana Airlines 777 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport.  The comments from the talking heads on TV as well as the general public were predictable: “How could an accident like this happen?” and “It’s a miracle that only two people out of the more than 300 aboard were killed” and “I’ll never feel safe flying again.”  Relatively few noted that it has been several years since there was a major commercial airline accident and the 777’s safety record was extraordinary. Commercial aviation’s strong safety record continues to improve, and the lessons learned from previous disasters, applied to the construction of new aircraft and the training of cabin crews to deal with emergencies, created the “miraculous” low death toll.

Similarly, US psychiatrists see tens of thousands of patients every day. The overwhelming percentage of those patients benefit tremendously from that treatment. Improvements in the treatment of mental illness have made once catastrophic diagnoses manageable, liberated hundreds of thousands of formerly untreatable patients from the confines of “insane asylums” and reduced the stigma of mental illness. But what gets most of the attention? The admittedly heartbreaking cases of homicide and suicide by the mentally ill (many of whom were never treated for their illness). The implication is that psychiatry is obviously not ‘working’. This simply isn’t true.

Consider this story published in Psychiatric News on June 25, 2013. It recounts a discussion during the recent Annual Meeting between APA then-President Dilip Jeste, M.D. and Elyn Saks, Ph.D., J.D., a professor of Law, Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at University of Southern California. Professor Saks first manifested symptoms of schizophrenia as an adolescent and was hospitalized while in college. She has struggled for many years with her illness, continues to struggle, and, by the way, counts herself as a cancer survivor as well. The final paragraph of the story, I hope, makes my point that psychiatry has the right to be proud of stories like hers, most of which are not (and for confidentiality reasons, cannot) be told.

Saks also recalled the painful – as well as joyful and humorous – aspects of her journey and concluded with a note of gratitude to the field of psychiatry.  “In many ways psychiatry has been the star of my show,” Saks said. “I’m incredibly grateful for what you do.  And on behalf of my fellow patients, thank you very much.”

If one of your own patients hasn’t thanked you lately for being the ‘star of their show’, take comfort that there are those like Elyn Saks who treasure you.