Today’s blog entry comes from Menno Oosterhoff, a psychiatrist and board member for Dwang.eu, an IOCDF Global Partner based in the Netherlands. Dr. Oosterhoff’s post represents both a global perspective on mental health issues and that of a treatment provider with OCD himself, resulting in a unique point of view we are thrilled to share with readers.
His mother rang me. The day before, I had spoken to her 17-year-old son about his compulsive thoughts. She wanted to let me know that her son had felt understood and he had added, “I bet that man suffers from it himself. Otherwise he would not be able to know so precisely how I feel.”
Years before I had seen a patient with a completely different view. The patient was a young woman who was constantly worrying. “I wish I was a psychiatrist,” she said. “It seems so beautiful to always be happy.” I did not tell her that medical doctors are more often depressed, addicted, and have higher rates of suicide than the average person.
A problem shared?
As a professional, I try to be myself in contacts with my patients. But should this also be the case when it involves your own problems? Should a practitioner tell patients that he or she knows from one’s own experience what the patient struggles with? A problem shared is a problem halved, but problems are shared with partners in misfortune. Can a professional be a fellow sufferer at the same time?
It is a complex problem, like a builder living in a ruin, a relationship therapist with a troubled marriage, or a doctor becoming ill. Somehow it seems distorted. However, a family doctor with diabetes doesn’t seem that out of place, right?
I am a fervent advocate of therapists in (mental) health care being open about their own psychological problems. By being open, we show people with mental illness that they don’t have to be ashamed. If we don’t dare to be open about it, who can we expect openness from? However being open in general is different from being open in a patient–health provider relationship.
And what about “that man?”
So what is my own situation? Does “that man” suffer from it himself? Yes, I suffer from OCD. It feels very vulnerable to admit that publicly, but I am past being ashamed of it. The disorder often causes me to feel, do, and think strange things, but it is detached from my value as a person. I am one of the lucky ones: my social functioning is not affected by it; that is not a virtue but pure luck. And as a professional, I know what is going on and therefore, I know what the best approach for treatment is.
Until now, I have never talked about my own obsessive compulsive disorder with my patients. In most cases, it seemed neither useful nor necessary, but maybe I also was not ready for it yet. I am currently more publicly active to raise awareness for OCD. One of the things that I want to bring across is that it is not a condition to be ashamed of. And in that context, it seems inappropriate to conceal my own experiences.
And what about psychiatrists always being happy? Well, not so. Psychiatrists are as prone to mental disorders as other people are. My OCD is often tormenting me. It has spoiled an awful lot, but on the other hand, it has not ruined my life. That’s because there has been improvement. As long as there is improvement, a human being can endure much, even if it is persistent problem. More often than not this is the case with the obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD is treatable and therefore improvement is possible, but usually not without help. That is what I try to impress on anyone who suffers from this condition: seek help!
So my patient was right: I have “it,” too — for 40 years already — but it is much better than it used to be. Am I always happy? Often enough.
IOCDF Global Partners are nonprofits that share our mission of OCD awareness and advocacy in countries around the globe. Learn more here.