We can build deeper relationships with our patients by talking with them about their passions—from Broadway to zinnias.
I love stories. I usually gravitate to novels with strong character development or “fictional biographies.” I love watching the ways the various characters evolve over the course of a narrative, an interest that also extends to real life. I like learning about people—who they are, what life circumstances they find themselves in, and how they’re shaped and changed as individuals by experiences.
This is a theme for me both personally and professionally, whether understanding a character in a novel or a patient in my office. Through my patients’ stories I construct a multi-dimensional lens that I use to view and support them. By building a relationship with patients over things that are personally important to them, I develop deeper connections, earn their trust, and give care that extends beyond treating psychiatric needs.
When I went to see Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women,” not only did I want to see how she masterfully retold a timeless story, but also I paid particular attention to the costumography of the actors. One of my young adult patients is an expert in historical garb and I planned on discussing the accuracy or inaccuracy of these costumes at her next visit. While she said there were historical inaccuracies, we both agreed it was a storytelling masterpiece. For anyone interested, there are many articles written about this topic online, which I discovered when I pursued further knowledge about this area.
I genuinely enjoy connecting with patients over common interests or learning about new topics. When visiting a patient on an inpatient unit, after I inquired how she was feeling and how her hospital stay was going, I asked about the latest book she was reading, which was a different one each time we talked. I loved hearing both her opinion of the book and lessons she was going to apply to her life. One book on her list to read when she returned home was a memoir I’d recently finished. At a subsequent outpatient visit we discussed her views on the memoir. I hoped these conversations brought a sense of normalcy to an otherwise challenging experience with depression.
Another patient of mine is a teen who loves Broadway. Not only do I love hearing her opinions about the latest show, but I also look forward to her recommendations. I was eagerly waiting for her to see “Dear Evan Hansen” so we could discuss this amazing play. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s both heart-wrenching and uplifting. The musical score is unbelievably catchy and begs one to play on repeat. And the message—that connections are crucial to our well-being—is one we must especially take to heart during these times of physical distancing. Unfortunately, COVID-19 interfered with her ability to see the performance, but I look forward to having that discussion when theaters reopen.
Mental health and well-being extend beyond psychiatric diagnoses and prescriptions. What’s meaningful to my patients becomes meaningful to me, and their stories and interests are the path by which I’m able to better understand, connect with, and support them.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.