Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

What Do You Do?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 14, 2013

In trying to explain what I do for a living, I am acutely aware how inarticulate I become. “Well, I try to help people sort out their psychological issues and the points in their lives that lead them to feeling confused and bewildered.” I say, not quite happy with this answer, but unable to say it in a better way. “Sure, I prescribe medications and I think that is very important, but that is incorporated into a bigger picture of trying to listen and understand how the person has made important decisions in his life.” I continue, still not satisfied with my answer. As a psychiatrist, some folks imagine my practice to be filled with the chronically mentally ill, and, of course, I do see these folks and I have the skill-set to help them. Yet, in addition, I work with many people who do not meet criteria for a mental illness, but still benefit from medication and psychological exploration. My listener often looks confused as I talk about this. I try again to encapsulate my work, but I feel that my response does not capture the variety in my work. I work with kids, families, couples,  and individuals of all ages.  I work with people who have spent time in psychiatric hospitals, as well as those who will likely never need those services. I prescribe medication to many, but  not all of my patients. My work is varied and customized to each client. How do I communicate that? I need to think more about this.

4 Responses to “What Do You Do?”

  1. Jon said

    I have been a reader and commenter to this blog for years, interactive with you and getting a feel for how you work. As such, I will take the liberty (chutzpah ??, hubris ???) to offer you an answer to your title question. For a succinct statement of what you do, you may want to start with “I talk with people who are anxious, neurotic, or psychotic, and work with them to help alleviate their suffering – and, with luck, the root cause of that suffering. This may or may not require psychotropic medications as well.”

    On a lighter side of being inarticulate, I have always liked the lines:

    Some men have a way with words,
    Other men not have way.
    My lips are as frozen as Admiral Byrd’s,
    Except on a very warm day.

    • Shelly said

      Jon, that is not quite right. While psychiatrists do talk with people who are anxious, neurotic or psychotic, they also talk to people who are none of these characteristics either. They may be simply lonely and need someone to talk to, or they need to understand their life situations and want help doing so, may be going through stressful life events (death of a spouse, divorce, empty nest, loss of a job, etc…) and need some guidance, etc… I agree with Shirah that it is very difficult to precisely pin down a psychiatrist’s job description, but I would include that the psychiatrist must understand the human condition as well as bring about a unification of the inner and outer worlds.

      • Jon said

        You are right, Shelly. Thanks for the helpful suggestions. Thus, I amend my comments for Shirah’s and everyone’s considerations (with a tip of the hat to Maimonides), “I talk with people who are perplexed, anxious, neurotic, or psychotic…”

        • I am loving this discussion, as it brings the point home about our diagnostic system, creating more confusion than clarity. One reason it is hard to say what I do is because when people ask, oftentimes, I sense that they are wondering if they could ever avail themselves to my services, but quickly dismissing that notion as they do not see themselves as “ill”. Thus, when I describe what I do as helping people sort out confusing times in their lives, then they seemed shocked when I talk about folks who have psychotic illness. To me, it is all a range, and as such, we share a common vulnerability to mental distress. One purpose of my blog is to highlight this point in order to diminish the stigma of mental illness. Seeing a psychiatrist does not imply serious psychopathology, but then again, it might. Understanding the broad range of mental states is critical to what I do, and as such, I continue to be grateful to my medical training which involved endless hours in both medical and psychiatric hospitals. Having said that, I wish for a public health campaign which clarifies that psychiatrists, seeing the depths, can help with, what may seem to the person, to be a relatively superficial problem. When we begin to name these problems as anxiety or depression, we label issues which, upon further exploration, are not so easily categorized. Yes, in broad strokes, people with all kinds of mental suffering are helped with understanding, probing, medication, and the structure and relationship embedded in a therapeutic environment, sometimes. I engage in that journey. That is what I do.

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