Inpatient psychiatry wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. The people locked up on the tenth floor of our hospital were just a little too crazy to really be interesting. A little insanity, like a little spice, adds flavor to a patient’s personality. Too much of it and it overpowers everything. After all, a patient can only cut his scrotum open with a razor blade a couple of times before everybody just yawns and moves on to the next sensation.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate odd behavior. I am as mean-spirited as anybody and take the usual guilty pleasure in other people’s misfortunes, particularly when they are the result of some absolutely inexplicable but voluntary lapse of common sense.
It’s like slapstick comedy. We shouldn’t laugh but we do.
The truly insane, however, are directed by impulses so remote from the normal as to be both chilling and profoundly boring at the same time. If you’ve heard one patient explain how the television has commanded him to kill you’ve heard them all. If it’s not the television it’s the lawnmower, the dog, or the dead people next door. Just some variation of minds so out of whack that there isn’t even any guilty fun to be had. We don’t laugh and point at a diabetic. It’s the same with insanity.
Now if someone claimed that his cat was hissing dark commands in his head, instructing him to take night courses at the local community college towards a degree in medical coding, well, that would be unusual. I’d settle for his dead mother screaming at him about the benefits of good dental hygiene, something you almost never see in the insane.
What is your job as a medical student working on the psych ward? In essence, nothing. Oh sure, you will follow patients but except that you may have extraordinary conversational skills, you might as well just sit and stare at each other for all the good it will do. They’re schizophrenic. Their brains hear and see things that are internally generated but perceived as absolute external reality. Maybe they can be talked out of it but it will require someone skilled in the black arts of psychotherapy, not little old you casually rotating through. All the talk in the world probably isn’t going to make a difference anyways. The voices will not listen to reason and have to be silenced with psychiatry’s ever-expanding arsenal of medications.
So you will round on your patients and write your notes. Unlike, say, a surgery rotation where you can state proudly on your progress note that the patient “has had a bowel movement and is tolerating a soft diet on post-op day three of his bowel resection,” in psychiatry progress is hard to measure and most of your notes might as well conclude that “The patient is still as crazy as a shithouse rat…but we’re going to discharge him today because he is not a threat to himself or others…for now.”
About all you can do is be a little familiar with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV, the fourth and current edition) which is the Bible, Koran, and Vedic Texts of psychiatry rolled into one hard to digest bolus. When I say to become familiar with the DSM-IV I mean to get a review book, preferably one that will fit in your pocket. The DSM-IV is a large reference text and therefore highly unreadable except on the idiot savant level.
The DSM was developed to standardize the language of psychiatry between different mental health professionals in different countries and psychiatric traditions. This was necessary because as you can imagine, psychiatry is one of the most subjective medical specialties and has previously been very flexible even in the objective description of psychiatric pathology. The DSM also sets forth criteria for the diagnosis of discrete disorders as well as providing a framework for completely describing a patient for the purposes of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment by the use of five categories or “Axis.”
Axis I, for example, describes major disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar.
Axis II is for underlying or pervasive personality disorders or things like mental retardation.
Axis III is a “gimme” or a “freebie” for most medical students and residents who are not interested in psychiatry because while it is technically a description of other medical conditions that may contribute to the disorder, in practice it is the non-psychiatric past medical history. It gives you something to grab a hold of on an otherwise mystifying patient. Here, at last, are conditions that we can treat definitively, or at least definitively know we can’t treat.
Axis IV describes psychosocial factors, things like homelessness, unemployment, or poor family support. Axis V is the Global Assessment of Function (GAF) and is a numeric score from 0 to 100. Most of us function at around 90 to 100 which is considered normal. Someone lower than 60 probably needs to be committed except our society has unfortunately moved away from institutionalizing the mentally ill. That’s a subject for a different day but it would freeze your blood if you knew some of the truly unhinged characters standing in line with you at Wal Mart.
If you know a handful of common psychiatric presentations and can fit them into the five axis you will do all right.
Your psych ward patients will be a mixed bag (of nuts), ranging from the homeless guy claiming suicidal intentions for “three hots and a cot” to the raving but mostly non-violent schizophrenic. It is unlikely that you will rotate, as a medical student, on a ward for the criminally insane which would definitely kick things up a notch in the fear department. Students are occasionally attacked but this is not as common as you imagine. Just make sure to never let the patient get between you and the door, never wear a tie, and don’t get into a pissing contest with a lunatic. With a little common sense you will be fine.
My favorite patients are the bums who have the system figured out. They typically draw a disability check every month and use most of it for booze and drugs. By good economy and thrift they may manage to get almost to the end of the month at which point, malnourished, hung over, withdrawing, and cold they present to the Emergency Department, the 24-hour representative of “The Man” and claim they want to kill themselves. This buys them a stay in the psych ward where they can get a shower, hot food, and some rest in the bosom of the system. The only price to pay is being interviewed every day by an earnest medical student trying to cure them. Most of them actually have underlying psychiatric disorders that contribute to their situation but this disorder by itself is usually not serious enough to warrant inpatient care.
The bipolar patients are probably the most interesting. They will talk for hours in response to one question when they are manic. Even their medications can’t completely suppress this. I’d hate to be friends with a person like that but if you’ve got nothing better to do (and you won’t) you might as well listen to somebody who has everything figured out all the time. Beginners try to faithfully record everything the patient says in their progress note, often scribbling away furiously as the patient talks. Eventually you realize that it doesn’t really matter what the patient says and you condense your description of thirty minutes of frenzied speech to “Expansive mood, inflated self-esteem, and grandiosity.”
When they’re depressed, and you can sometimes follow the same patient long enough to see both sides of the disease, they can be almost catatonic and you will miss your chatty buddy from the previous week.
Will you like inpatient psychiatry? It is an easy rotation. You don’t really do anything but talk and there are no procedural or physical exam skills to learn. The hours are generally pretty good. You see your patients, present them, and maybe sit in a group therapy session and listen to the patients try to one-up each other. It can be frustrating, on the other hand, to write notes that nobody even reads, see patients for whom you don’t even have the usual medical student pretend-responsibility, and get the same tired story from the same patient day after day after day until somebody decides that, mirabile dictu, they are well enough to be discharged.