I recently came across a Patient’s Bill of Rights, written by Bernie Siegel in Love, Medicine and Miracles. A surgeon who’s written about about Self-Healing from his experience with what he calls exceptional patients, He believes that “the quickest way to develop patients’ trust and independence is simply to be human, to share their pain, and avoid playing the role of a mechanic-lifesaver.”
The letter expressed many of the things I hoped my own clients would want going forward, and things we can cultivate in their awareness to help facilitate growth and healing. And it gave me a few gentle reminders of possible biases of my own which I needed to stay aware of. I made sure I did not edit these out as I modified the letter with the intention of asking my own clients to read and sign it.
Here is my version:
Please don’t conceal my diagnosis. We both know I came to you to learn if I have mental health issues. If I know what I have, I know what I am fighting, then there is less to fear. If you hide the name and the facts, you deprive me of the chance to help myself. When you are questioning whether I should be told, I already know. You may feel better if you don’t tell me, but your deception hurts me.
At the same time, let’s both agree that this diagnosis is only a snapshot in time, and change can be as simple as just wanting it. A snapshot of tomorrow or next year may look completely different, and I may be completely free of the issues we pinpoint today. Such is the malleability of my life experiences. Do not tell me how long it will take to change things, even if I ask. I alone can decide when and how to change who I am. It is my desire, my goals, my values, my strengths, and my will that will make the decision.
Teach me and my family about how and why my dalliance from perfect health–mental, physical, or both–happened to me. Help me and my family to live now. Tell me about nutrition and my body’s needs. Tell me how to love myself and my body so that my mind and body can work together. Healing comes from within, but I want to combine my strength with yours. If you and I are a team, I will live a longer and better life.
Judith, don’t let your negative beliefs, your fears, and your biases affect my mental health. Don’t stand in the way of my getting well and exceeding your expectations. Give me the chance to be the exception to your statistics.
Get to know me and my needs up front and check in on them throughout our work together. If I just need to unload, let me talk for an entire session without interruption. At the same time, if I am a compulsive talker, please find the courage to interrupt and derail what can often amount to the ceaseless (and senseless) spinning of verbal wheels.
If you feel that I would benefit from more contact with nature, encourage me to meet with you in a natural setting. If you feel I that I would benefit from the warmth of others’ understanding that comes from experiences similar to mine, encourage me to meet your other clients in a group session. Let me see that I’m not alone in my quest for growth and understanding.
Teach me about your beliefs and therapies and help me to incorporate them into mine. However, remember that my beliefs are the most important. What I don’t believe in won’t help me. Please try to convert my beliefs if you feel yours will work better for me, and be patient and await my conversion. It may come at a time when I am feeling desperate and in great need of your therapy.
Judith, teach me and my family to live with my problem(s) when I am not with you. Take time for our questions and give us your attention when we need it. It is important that I feel free to talk with you and question you. I will live a longer and more meaningful life if you and I can develop a significant relationship. But don’t forget to balance my needs with yours, so that you stay healthy and grounded enough to help me. I need you in my life to achieve my new goals.
How does this letter strike you? Would you work happily and confidently with a therapist who emphasizes these particular client rights, or would you spin and bolt? Is the letter yawn-inducing, or does it perk you up and make you want more? What would you write in the margins, or cross out in bold ink? Comments welcome below; would love to hear from you.