In Committed (HMH, July), Adam Stern, a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, reflects on his time as a resident. “People struggling with mental illness are human beings and the people trying to take care of them are human beings,” he says. “We all share the same complex set of emotions.” The book traces his growth as a doctor over four years, from naive 20-something, hampered by imposter syndrome, to young professional, eager and ready to help others navigate their turbulent minds. Stern spoke with PW about his misunderstood profession and the taboos around discussing mental health.
How did you land on the book’s title?
It’s a word with a tremendous amount of baggage. I went into this field wanting to treat patients who wanted to be treated. Part of the training and part of my work now sometimes involves treating patients who don’t want to be treated, but society says they must be treated because they’re either a danger to themselves or to someone else. That line is difficult to navigate. Commitment is generally assumed to be a positive thing: “I’m committed to the ideals of the profession,” or “I’m committed to a relationship.” In the world of psychiatry, commitment is a double-edged sword: a necessary restriction of someone’s rights that is difficult even on the person doing the restricting.
What do you hope readers learn about your profession?
The power of psychiatry is built upon a foundation of human connection. Everything happens after you’ve established “I’m a person, you’re a person, and we’re both trying to figure out how to help you.” There’s shared humanity between the psychiatrists, the physicians, and the residents who are working and learning, and the patients.
What challenges did you face in writing this memoir?
I was limited to what happened in real life, and so there were times when I thought, “If only things had happened slightly differently, it would’ve been more interesting to the reader.” Writing a memoir is not telling the story of your life, but rather telling a story from your life. I had to define the story that I was telling, and then keep it within the realm of what happened to me. I also had to keep in mind the privacies of everyone involved. The book captures the humor that exists in this world, without dehumanizing the patients. It takes very seriously the suffering that the patients are experiencing while reflecting the lightness and heaviness of real life.
Why is your memoir relevant now?
Mental health is having its moment. It’s a part of medicine that was largely stigmatized and not spoken about; now, it’s more accepted to talk openly about mental health. When Meghan Markle told Oprah that she was experiencing suicidal thoughts and wanted to seek treatment—that was a groundbreaking moment. What was so remarkable was society’s acceptance of that, and welcoming of it as a sign of strength. I hope that my book does a small part in humanizing the experience of seeking help.