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Personal impressions - A Cup of Coffee with a Psychologist
13. Dec 2019.
As the end of the year is time for summing up impressions, I will try to list, in a systematic way, numerous and very powerful experiences I gained at the sessions while having a cup of coffee with psychologists, psychiatrists and other professionals dealing with mental health. We have also gained equally significant insights while listening to personal experiences of our guests, as well as the participants of the panel talks, people from audience

Author: Dragan Ilic, psychologist and journalist at weekly Vreme


Two seasons ago, I received an invitation from Hemofarm Foundation to be a moderator at ‘A Cup of Coffee with a Psychologist’ panel talks held in the premises of the art commune Dorcol Platz, if I wanted. I didn’t have to make coffee, but during these two-hour long sessions, as planned, that lasted even longer actually, together with competent and professional interlocutors, and very interested audience, I had a rare chance to gain, as it seems to me, a realistic view of the status of mental health in Serbia.

‘A Cup of Coffee with a Psychologist’ project has been conceived as a series of free-of-charge sessions with psychologists, where all interested people could gain insight into certain psychological conditions and get advice whom to refer to for support. Panel sessions provide an opportunity to openly talk about mental health to professionals – psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as the representatives of relevant institutions and public figures, who have also encountered some of the similar problems during their life.

The Institute of Psychology of the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy and the Art Commune Dorcol Platz have rendered the precious support to us in the implementation of the project.

During two seasons, we talked about depression, stress at work, career vs. family dilemma, how to cope with an illness, how to accept the fact that you cannot get pregnant, about divorce, addiction, how to limit the use of electronic devices to children, burnout syndrome at work.

As the end of the year is time for summing up impressions, I will try to list, in a systematic way, numerous and very powerful experiences I gained at the sessions while having a cup of coffee with psychologists, psychiatrists and other professionals dealing with mental health. We also gained equally significant insights while listening to personal experiences of our guests, as well as the participants of the panel talks, people from audience, who attended the sessions in surprisingly large numbers, at work days, from 6 to 8 PM, wading their way through the well-known Belgrade traffic jam.

I would start with a simple fact, which points out to existence of a burning urge to talk about mental health publicly, in a professional, yet comprehensive way. The interest is huge, both at panel talks and even more on social networks, where we can see that thousands of people (sometimes even more than 120,000 people) watch the video footage.

It is an encouraging experience showing that we have chosen the right topic. Another significant impression refers to stigmatization, which has been a companion to every self-acknowledging or public talk about mental health for decades. It seems to me, and the experts confirm it, that the degree of stigmatization, except in extremely small and isolated places, has been declining. For sure, we are still miles away from the mindset that you can fearlessly talk, or visit a psychologist or psychiatrist searching for a piece of advice or therapy.

That is perhaps the deepest root of the problem that accompanies facing of any kind of conditions. Our healthcare system has reduced psychiatric, and especially psychological support service, to minimum. There are no such professionals in numerous healthcare institutions, and where they are nevertheless present, in the domain of primary healthcare, they are overburdened with huge number of patients. A person urging for help is thus left alone to cope with a maze of referrals, wait together with hundreds of patients, and a lottery regarding the allocated professional who has literally several minutes to make assessment and determine the following steps. If you do not wait for a prescription for some of the Serbian favourite anxiolytics, you are getting closer to a situation that the following step is a psychiatric clinic.

For that reason, much more practical way to the solution could be found if the procedure of seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist was simpler and placed outside psychiatric institutions. In such a way, the service of providing advice is made more accessible to people and deprived of a pathocentric patient-doctor relationship.

Not only the number of professionals in primary healthcare dealing with mental health, but also the way of reaching them, is disputable.

There are no easy solutions, no shortcuts, because facing the problems in the area of mental health requires a kind of change and development on the part of individual, in the first place. Sometimes institutions are there to help, and sometimes not.

The examples when psychologists or psychiatrists work with cohort groups of traumatized patients show exceptionally good results. Here I think about oncology patients, couples undergoing artificial insemination, people passing through a divorce, or experiencing burnout at work. Instead of letting people cope with ‘healthcare system mazes’, it seems to me that it is necessary to simplify procedures, and face the problems at the point of their origination.

My impression, gained after talking to people who attended the panel sessions, is that an individual, in the state of crisis, in a society undergoing transition, as a rule, feels terrified.

Having decided to seek help, one encounters obstacles in family, where the strongest support is actually provided later on, then in one’s environment (at work and among friends), and only then professional support is sought.

There are no easy solutions, no shortcuts, because facing the problems in the area of mental health requires a kind of change and development on the part of individual, in the first place. Sometimes institutions are there to help, and sometimes not. It depends on whether you were lucky enough to come across motivated experts and enthusiasts, or you were put aside to wait in a queue for medicines. System should be more sensitive in recognizing the problem as early as possible, when symptoms are milder and therapy more effective.

An important aspect of ‘A Cup of Coffee with a Psychologist’ panel talks included the talks about the role of the media when the topic is mental health in Serbia. As a psychologist, as well as a journalist, I have to say that the status in this area is perhaps the worst. The majority of media deals with this topic only in response to a direct cause (murder, suicide, extreme form of a disorder) and it is sensationalistic, in the majority of cases.

The recommendations of the associations of journalists about the method of reporting in such situations are not followed, the identity of persons with mental problems is not kept confidential, and a discussion with professionals is replaced with details and photos obtained from police. One could say that a primitive and hypocritical attitude has been created in the media about ‘lunatics’ who silently and unobtrusively live among us until the moment when something klicks in their heads and when they become dangerous to the environment. This kind of attitude is not only inaccurate, but it is also dangerous.

As early as during the first lectures of clinical psychology, I learnt that primal fear of psychological problems declines after realizing that there are more people in the world who have faced the same problem. So, you are not alone, and you are not the only ones.

Another aspect of the panel talks, that I have set as a task to myself, is the affirmation of professionals who deal with mental health. It has turned out that there are exceptionally knowledgeable experts within our system, whose potential is neither recognized nor used, primarily due to inert, huge and centralized nature of our healthcare system. Professionals rarely and unwillingly talk for the media, due to professional ethics, and due to, I will now use the nowadays popular phrase ‘academic integrity’. Journalist, also, while searching for collocutors who provide instant solutions, do not like ‘complicated collocutors’, and give space to all kinds of ‘life coaches and gurus’. I can accept the role of these life coaches in work with the population where an additional motivation or a change of perception of yourself or the environment is needed. However, I honestly doubt that ‘treatment’ by suspicious methods should be entrusted to ‘laymen’. We come to an urgent need for regulating this area by legislation, which has already been done in the neighboring Croatia. Namely, the persons authorized to provide services of psycho-therapy and counseling should be legally defined. Similar to the situation that you cannot allow a hairdresser and beautician to inject botox to clients, we must know who in Serbia is allowed to provide services in this area.

So, it has turned out that all these Wednesday get-togethers are much more than just having a cup of coffee with a psychologist, that they have assumed a role of not only disclosing a problem, but for some attendees they were the first step in trying to find the solution. As early as during the first lectures of clinical psychology, I learnt that primal fear of psychological problems declines after realizing that there are more people in the world who have faced the same problem. So, you are not alone, and you are not the only ones. The atmosphere of acceptance and empathy could be felt at each session, which has made Dorcol Plats a small lighthouse, a safe place. The goal is, by all means, to pass this atmosphere on to a wider community.