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7 November 2019

The enigma – and stigma – surrounding psychiatrists

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“For most people in this region, seeing a psychiatrist is still a clandestine affair – and being a psychiatrist is only marginally better,” says Dr. Ali Khalil

“One out of four people have had, have or will have one form of mental health illness or other, at a point in their lives,” says Dr. Ali Khalil. “That makes it the one of the most common ailments in a population.

“Despite this prevalence, there is still a shroud of secrecy associated with it, especially in this part of the world. And this has rubbed off onto our profession as well. For most people, seeing a psychiatrist is still a clandestine affair – and being a psychiatrist is only marginally better.”

Dr. Khalil, though, says that choosing to be a psychiatrist was one of the best decisions he’s ever made. The 32 year-old is currently a Visiting Resident at Qatar Foundation member Sidra Medicine’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Sciences, and a senior psychiatry resident at Mental Health Services, Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC). And having spent close to a decade in this field, he is often amused by people’s response when they learn he is a psychiatrist.

“Although it’s the 21st Century, introductions are at times awkward to say the least,” smiles Dr. Khalil. “People still shift uncomfortably when they learn I’m a psychiatrist.

Part of the enigma, and the stigma, surrounding psychiatry stems from a reluctance to accept that mental health is even worth treating.

Dr. Ali Khalil

“They assume that I’m a mind reader; that by merely glancing at a person, I can read their thoughts and reach a diagnosis. Nothing could be further from the truth. Psychiatry is as much an evidence-based specialization as any other aspect of the healthcare sector.”

Dr. Khalil says that part of the enigma, and the stigma, surrounding psychiatry stems from a reluctance to accept that mental health is even worth treating. And he says some of the preconceived notions about psychiatrists are misleading and damaging.

“I’ve often been asked if I’m a real doctor; whether I have had the same medical training that other physicians have,” he explains. “Another question that I’m often asked is whether I’m worried that, by treating patients with mental health concerns, my chances of having a mental illness would increase.

“A lot of people also assume that psychiatrists have only two capabilities: that we are excellent persuaders who can glibly convince people of their mental health status, or that we are great listeners who allow their patients to cry on their shoulders.”

The Sidra Medicine Visiting Resident recalls how he faced these misconceptions himself when he first decided to be a psychiatrist. With one of his siblings being an orthopedic surgeon, another a cardiologist, and a third a neurologist, most of his friends and family were taken aback when he chose to deviate from other supposedly “glamorous” and sought after medical specializations. But he wasn’t dissuaded.

I knew that if I could treat a patient’s mental illness, I would be boosting their physical health as well.

Dr. Ali Khalil

“I have always had a fascination for human psychology,” he says. “The more I immersed myself in it, the more I learned about the physiological changes that occur in the human body due to mental variations such as panic, anger, persistent gloom, happiness and so on. I knew that if I could treat a patient’s mental illness, I would be boosting their physical health as well.”

Dr. Khalil believes the MENA region still has a long way to go when it comes to lifting the veil of mystery, and even shame, associated with mental health – and psychiatry. “People need to understand that visiting a psychiatrist is the same as visiting a physician from any other specialty,” he says

And when he’s asked if his profession could affect his mental health, he has a straightforward answer: “While it is indeed mentally challenging to be empathetic and invest your time in patient’s lives and emotional struggles, this remains an invalid argument.

“It’s like saying that cardiologists have a higher risk of acquiring heart disease, or that a neurologist is more prone to a stroke.”

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