Finding a home in psychiatry: A medical student’s story


Perched on a meditation cushion with the day’s first light creeping up the Himalayan foothills around me, I felt more at ease within myself than I could ever recall over my previous 19 years.

Mr. Alec Terrana, fourth-year medical student at University of California, San Diego, who is applying into psychiatry residency programs Alec Terrana

Mr. Alec Terrana

My immersion in daily conversations within the Tibetan monastic community on achieving a more harmonious relationship to our thoughts and feelings awoke a consideration of myself and my inner life in a way that I’d never truly contemplated before. These reflections gave me a vocabulary and a toolkit for navigating my own internal landscape that I have used ever since.

However, upon returning home, I was forced to acknowledge how fortunate I had been, and that these tools and the underlying spirit of inquiry are not commonplace in our society. Despite great strides in shifting views toward mental illness over the past few decades, our public discourse rarely captures the nuances of the mental health crisis that our culture has faced well before COVID-19 catalyzed even greater distress. We all pay the price of this cultural deficit to varying degrees, and I became captivated by the notion that things could be different.

I followed that thread of inquiry through the practices of Buddhist studies, massage therapy, yoga instruction, and refugee aid before coming to psychiatry as the unlikely yet ideal crucible for integrating my experiences in these spaces. Since arriving at medical school, however, my vision of myself as a psychiatrist has changed dramatically as my aspirations have collided with the realities of clinical experience and been tempered by the wisdom of mentors, colleagues, and patients, opening up a space for a deeper appreciation of what psychiatry might offer.

Clinical experience changes perspective

Short on clinical experience, I had previously imagined my future practice primarily as one of mindful listening and finding presence with each patient as a kind ear, supplemented by the ability to prescribe medication. Since then, working with patients has offered me insight into the ways in which my personality, perception, and potential access to a range of affective stances can serve as tools for skillfully developing the therapeutic encounter.

Moreover, “challenging” patients have taught me that my role is not always to offer unbounded empathetic support, but to potentially initiate compassionately tactful confrontation, shifting my sense of my role in the therapeutic relationship.

My responsibility is neither to passively support my patients by unambiguously endorsing the validity of experiences, nor to win them over to a particular way of viewing and approaching the world, but to help them get better. This is a lofty goal, which might entail modeling the successful navigation of potential ruptures and the subsequent repair of relationships so that they can live more adaptably in the world.

However, while I can support their envisioning of a realistic future for themselves and facilitate their acquisition of the tools needed to get there, my role is significant yet limited. This has been a hard truth to reckon with, but one that’s opened up pathways to greater empathy and a deeper understanding of each patient’s struggles. As a result, my view of pathology as a state has shifted to one of a dynamic process that emerges through the interaction of their genes, environment, life history, pharmacological supplements, psychodynamic tendencies, diet, and more.

Yet, while holding this reality of the complexities of mental illness, clinical decision-making often hinges on making binary choices regarding diagnoses, medications, and criteria for legal determinations. Developing this capacity to simultaneously practice different ways of knowing and sit with uncertainty excites me tremendously, not only equipping me to balance clinical practice with the demands of the modern health care system, but also nourishing the roots of a rich and ethical life.

Psychiatry calls to me for this expectation of sustaining an appropriate tension between uncertainty and decisiveness. It also inspires a deeper dive into the history of the field in order to learn the roots of its theories and perspectives so I can better understand how those inform contemporary practice in ways that are both helpful and harmful.


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