Christopher AhnAllen, Ph.D.
Director of Psychology Training, Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
How far apart is 6 feet? I’m 5’11” so it’s just one more inch than I am tall. So how will my trainees arrange the chairs in a circle to provide group psychotherapy on the inpatient psychiatry unit? Just how is this “social distancing” going to work in psychiatry? Our care is predicated on establishing a therapeutic context, a closeness in space, one’s caring and compassionate expression. How am I going to teach this now?
It was March 11th, and I knew that this would be a training year like no other. While other training programs closed or outpatient trainees began virtual care, I needed to find a safe way to deliver care and protect the trainees at the same time. For our patients who experience psychosis, struggle with isolation and think about ending their lives, this was exactly the time that we could in no way abandon them. Wash hands, Purell, repeat. Step back, checking your distance.
In the midst of all of my worry about their training plans, training goals, and accruing of supervised clinical hours, our interns were on the front lines giving care: learning how to don a surgical facial mask for the first time, showing care through the eyes, and entering the unit on a daily basis ready to be supportive, help patients learn to cope, and instill hope at a time when recovery seemed harder than ever. It was my role to lead them through this time and to do so in a way that mirrored the personalized support that I had been trying so hard to demonstrate all year.
Our training program and teaching environment will continue to change. The roles of educator and learner seem to shift as the educator learns from the learner and the learner educates the educator. Today’s group therapy skill focused on compassion. A shared humanity. An acceptance and acknowledgement of universal suffering. A message for our new world. A message for our patients. A message for our trainees. A message for the educator. Six feet apart, and right by their side.