Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Dr. Sidney Freedman

And speaking of television…

Growing up, I never knew any psychiatrists. There were none in my immediate world of family and parents’ friends. So I came to understand what psychiatrists did through TV characters. Reading Paula Caplan’s book reminded me that my model of humanistic psychiatry – to be sure, there might be some idealization in my recollections – was Sidney Freedman, an occasional character on M*A*S*H played perfectly by Allan Arbus. He was compassionate, curious, undogmatic. He rejected military claims about psychological problems manifesting weakness or cowardice, and always appreciated the psychological toll of war. He took people’s problems seriously, whether a surgeon’s sleepwalking or a soldier’s belief that he was Jesus, but never pathologized them. (And his few interactions with Col. Flagg were beautiful.)

Contrasting that model to today’s psychiatry is depressing. It’s true that he was a fictional character. And that there do exist some humanistic practitioners today. And also that the psychiatry of that era wasn’t all wonderful: humanistic currents were always marginal or marginalized; sexism, homophobia, victim-blaming, self-help nonsense, and adjustment psychiatry abounded; and terrible interventions were used (some of which continue today). But I’m happy that the M*A*S*H writers created the character – today, when it seems psychiatry couldn’t get less humanistic in its approach, Sidney Freedman reminds us that another psychiatry is possible.

Incidentally, Me TV will be showing the M*A*S*H finale episode – which features Dr. Freedman - along with interviews with actors and writers, this Sunday, May 3, at 7 PM EDT.

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