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Acting up at APA


SAN FRANCISCO – A number of years ago, Anne Hanson, Steve Daviss, and I worked together on a psychiatry podcast called “My Three Shrinks.” In the course of making the podcast, Dr. Daviss suggested the three of us should take an improv class together – he felt it would help us blend together better as we interacted to create these dialogues.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

We met on Sunday afternoons around one of our dining room tables, often with chili and beer, sometimes with guest psychiatrists, and over the course of a few years, we produced 70 episodes. But we never did take that improv class together.

Steve conveyed that in improv, it’s bad to say, “No, but ...” and instead, one should say, “Yes, and ...” to build upon a theme while working in concert with others. With this limited background, I decided that at this year’s American Psychiatric Association meeting in San Francisco I would report on a session called “You Are Human: Addressing Burnout Through Improv,” organized by Tristan Gorrindo, MD, the director of education and deputy medical director for the APA, and Ashley Whitehurst, a program manager in continuing medical education and faculty at the Second City Training Center, a Chicago-based comedy institution. The session was held on Tuesday morning and was attended by psychiatrists of all training levels. Name badges revealed that attendees were from across the United States and from Canada, Mexico, and one psychiatrist from South Africa.

Before I write about the session on using improv to address physician burnout, I’d like to back up a day, as this was not the first session I found at APA where people were acting out! On Monday, I had gone to a workshop called “Inside OCD: I Am Not My Illness.” I went with the hope of learning something about obsessive-compulsive disorder that I could use to help my patients who suffer from this disorder, with no intention of writing about the session. I was running quite late and chose the session based solely on the title. I stumbled into a rather unusual venue: Patients with OCD were putting on a performance where they discussed how it was to live with the symptoms of this disabling illness, stretched into a humorous storytelling adventure.

The performance group, a joint venture of the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida in partnership with University of Florida Center for OCD, Anxiety, & Related Disorders consisted of patients who came together in a 10-week course with an acting coach, a resident psychiatrist who participated with the group, and the oversight of their attending psychiatrist, Carol Mathews, MD, to create this collaborative and moving theatrical performance. The group performed, then talked about how this endeavor had helped them to share their stories, to grow in their self-acceptance and self-confidence, and to enjoy a sense of community, and escape from shame and loneliness.

On Monday, I went from the OCD theater to a session called “Unscripting: Using Improvisational Theatre to Move Beyond Personal Limitations.” This workshop was led by Jeffrey Katzman, MD, a psychiatrist who practices in Albuquerque, N.M., and coauthor of “Life Unscripted: Using Improv Principles to Get Unstuck, Boost Confidence, and Transform Your Life.” Dr. Katzman referenced how improv requires the participants to collaborate and respond to one another in ways that are not unlike what occurs in psychotherapy.

“It’s about two people listening to each other, reacting to each other, and ultimately regulating one another.”

A second speaker, Peter Felsman, PhD, LMSW, presented his doctoral dissertation work looking at how improv classes might impact teens with anxiety disorders.

It was at this session that I had my first experiences actually doing some improv exercises. “Improv involves increasing your uncertainty tolerance,” Dr. Katzman noted. “The available scripts are much broader than what you are used to, and they increase the sense of autonomy.” Participants were challenged to work at mirroring the actions of a partner, of switching who was leading in these exercises, and of telling stories where we built upon what the last person gave to the tale by adding unpredictable paths of plot development.

The Tuesday morning session was longer; it lasted from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. I arrived early, and the first name tag I saw was that of Steven Reidbord, MD, a psychiatrist in San Francisco whom I had never met, but with whom I had interacted many times over the years as we both have had psychiatry blogs. I was delighted as I started the session. Dr. Gorrindo started the symposium by defining physician burnout and discussing how our current system fuels burnout. He discussed his own interest in improv and its use to foster more creative, flexible, and collaborative responses.

Ashley Whitehurst then led the participants in a series of exercises. We walked around the room taking unscripted turns yelling out “I am a star” while the rest of the participants clustered around to frame each individual star! We took partners and discussed a toy each of us had longed for and never gotten in childhood, then created a fictional toy as conglomerate of those toys never received. This light exercise included conversations about the sadness of the toys longed for and the disappointments we’d suffered. One psychiatrist felt gratitude: She had received most of the toys she’d wanted. There were others who’d wanted a real pony or a real typewriter, only to be gifted with disappointing plastic versions. One gentleman longed for a sibling who had died before he had even been born; there were no toys for this space.

Our circle conversations moved into tales we created by interrupting one another with our associations about what we loved and hated; there was the annoyance of having sand in your underwear and superheros who deliver ice cream. We all talked about what it involved to let go of our own agendas and fold into what was going on in the moment, to sway with a plot that changed as soon as it was formed, to function with rules so different from what we were used to. Participants talked about feeling vulnerable, open, playful, and connected. We discussed how improv might be useful in teaching trainees.

“This was interesting and different,” said Sergio Lobato, MD, a psychiatrist from Tijuana, Mexico, who retired after more than 30 years of working in a government hospital. “I saw 20 to 30 patients a day, and there was some burnout. I’m here at the meeting and trying to learn things to help my daughter, who is in her third year of psychiatry training.”

Ms. Whitehurst, our improv instructor, has done many of these workshops with people of all ages and with other groups of physicians. “When people sign up for improv classes, they usually have some idea what they are getting into. With doctors at a conference, it takes just a little longer for them to let their guard down. Improv is an art form and a way to create, it’s a great equalizer and I’ve noticed an evolution in myself as it has changed how I interact. ”

Veronica Samet, a PGY-4 resident from Emory University, Atlanta, added: “In psychiatry, we are taught to leave space in the room for the other person. You get used to compressing yourself into something neutral and it’s hard not to bring that state home. This experience was revitalizing!”

I was delighted to find a friend when I walked into the morning symposium and by the time I left, I felt like I’d made a roomful of friends. We’d played games and I was completely consumed by the tasks at hand. We talked about how each game made us feel, and in some ways this was not all that far off from work as a psychiatrist – the humor and fun were on the surface, but ... or rather, “ ... yes, and” the stories that went along with what we did made for a moment of connection in a whole new way.

Dr. Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care,” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice in Baltimore.

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