This week Mona’s guest is Dr Wojtek Wojcik, Consultant Liaison Psychiatrist.
Mona Siddiqui: Tell us a little bit about the work that you do.
Wojtek Wojcik: I work as a Liaison Psychiatrist at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. I’m a psychiatrist – a doctor who specialises in mental health who works at the interface between mental and physical health in a general hospital. That might mean that we meet with patients in the emergency department who are experiencing a crisis, but it also means that we see patients referred from, say, a cardiology ward or a surgical ward for a consultation there.
MS: What drew you to psychiatry?
WW: A curiosity about people. I think, as often is the case, other friends would have suggested I would head this way but for me I particularly remember when seeing a series of patients that had a really interesting neurological problem. I found it was really listening to their story and their experience of illness that drew me in over and above the interest and fascination with the investigations and the brain imaging that we would also do.
MS: Do you think we as a public have a mature and sophisticated understanding of mental health?
WW: I think that’s something that we make – we make an understanding of ourselves and make an understanding of shared problems and I think at the moment we have, and I’m very grateful, an active dialogue about mental health in the context of our lives. Psychiatrists would often wish to advocate for people who are more disadvantaged and maybe missing from the conversation. Whilst we do very well on discussing our experiences of depression or distress maybe patients who experience chronic mental illness, like schizophrenia, should be in that discussion too.
MS: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over the last 15 months with Covid restrictions and the emphasis on mental health, but also as a psychiatrist what have you personally faced in terms of seeing patients?
WW: For me, there’s been a great deal of learning; a great deal of learning from other people, but also a great deal of learning about myself. I think, like a lot of NHS staff, it’s been a tumultuous period during which we have worked steadily and in so doing, you know, become more aware of our own limits. But I’ve also learnt so much both from the humbling stories that patients shared with me of ways that they’ve coped from much more difficult circumstances than my own, and then also that great experience of how when we’re first lost, or frightened, it’s really heartening to find we’re not alone. So it’s been a real privilege to work in a hospital where everyday, we would come and work together, when a lot of others were isolated at home. It’s been such a richness to read of how, not only are we not alone but how we’re not the first people here and just historically the different accounts and stories of how people have survived previous pandemics or lived through periods of isolation and those stories go so far back.
MS: Looking back at either your recent or distant past, is there anything you regret?
WW: So I think, if you look backwards there can always be things we would call regrets. I’m not sure if I’m answering your question fairly but I regret I cannot have more contact than I have had with my family during the past year and a half but that’s a little bit of a cop out. I wonder if maybe I could have done more to foster more regular contact, even if digitally.
MS: Do you think that some of us just got used to not seeing people and didn’t make that extra effort?
WW: For some of us, a prolonged period of isolation, resulted in brick walls being built – where when the door opens there’s actually a brick wall there. And so certainly for some of us this period has diminished us in ways that now require work to overcome and that can be really challenging for people because they feel quite trapped, and they know they’re trapped but that knowledge alone does not give them freedom.
MS: And finally, moving forward, what’s one hope that you carry with you?
WW: My one hope would be that in amongst so many things, this experience has, for a lot of us, helped us focus on the question of what matters, and what we’re doing here. My hope would be that we can carry this forward productively as we hopefully work through the pandemic.