Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

A forensic psychiatrist on meaning, empathy and integrity

Kerri Eagle giving her talk after formal dinner

On Wednesday 31 May 2017, Dr Kerri Eagle spoke to the Warrane boys about the lessons she has learnt from her role a forensic psychiatrist. Once a lawyer, she went on to become a doctor and now works at the Long Bay Correctional Complex.  Part of her job involves writing reports for courts, as well as attending court as a witness to be questioned about a person’s mental state at the time of their crime.

“Look it’s a very exciting profession, and a lot of forensic psychiatrists really think that they’re the rock stars of psychiatry,” said Dr Eagle.

“Forensic patients are those people with severe mental illness who were found not guilty for an offense by reason of that mental illness, so that’s the old insanity defence,” she continued. “It’s a bit of a tricky defence really because most people who become forensic patients – you think they’re getting off because they’re found not guilty… but in fact they spend longer being detained or incarcerated than they would otherwise if they had spent their time detained for a regular offense.”

Dr Eagle explained to the boys that a high proportion of forensic patients suffer from schizophrenia, which is considered one of the most severe mental illnesses.  She told the boys that there are 13,500 inmates in NSW – a substantial increase from years past – and that while approximately 50-70% of the jail population has some sort of mental disorder, the access to services in jail is shocking. Prisons are not therapeutic and they don’t provide good environments for rehabilitation, meaning that these prisoners are often released in worse condition than they came in.

This, she said, is why she does her job, even while it might be difficult to work with people who have committed terrible crimes. “They’ve done all sorts of horrendous things, there’s no doubt about that,” she said. “If I worked with the victims of those people I would find it very, very hard to bear. So the way I manage it is that I try to compartmentalise it. … So I acknowledge that that person has engaged in a behaviour that is completely unacceptable and wrong…but now this person is locked up in a high-security facility and my job is to sort this puzzle out, and if I can reduce the risk that this person’s ever going to do this again, then that is my job… and that benefits society, and it benefits the person.”

She continued: “And in order to do that, I need to get into the mind of the person…I think ‘mad versus bad’ is a genuine philosophical argument but I think that generally, people aren’t born psychopaths. All of the people I have ever met who have committed crimes like this have experienced the most horrendous abuses themselves…almost all are the product of severe trauma… These are victims of trauma themselves and we need to find a way to address the effects of that trauma … it’s very difficult nonetheless.”

Dr Eagle proceeded to share with the boys three things that have been an important part of her professional life: finding meaning in her work, empathy, and integrity.

Finding meaning in your work

Dr Eagle explained to the boys how finding meaning in her work made it all the more rewarding.

“I think in order to persist in something every day, or for most days of your life or for your entire life, you need to have some meaning or value in it,” she said. “And I find meaning in the fact that every day I walk into my hospital, or every day I see somebody…I hear an opportunity to help that person. And it may be even a one-hour conversation where I can express some empathy, say some nice words, do some kindness…”

The chronic helplessness of the situations that Dr Eagle sees in her work make it especially demanding at times – but it’s also something that inspires her to keep working.

“I’ve been exposed to illness and death and tragedy and trauma like everybody, certainly not to the same extent as some. But the things that keep me focused are having a sense of something more than just my own ends or my own benefit – so having a sense of meaning and value in what I do. So I think it’s really important early on to try and focus on a goal that you think is going to be meaningful in life… Getting up every day to make money seems like a good idea for about five seconds, and then when it starts getting hard it’s like ‘maybe I can do something else to make money’. So finding meaning in life is very important and keeps me going.”

Empathy

The second thing that Dr Eagle tries to bring to her work is empathy.

“Having empathy for others – I think that’s the most difficult thing,” she said. “Being able to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes, particularly if they’re people that you wouldn’t necessarily identify with, or people who’ve done things that you might think is horrendous. But actually being able to think about what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes can be a really valuable experience… It gives even more meaning to life to be able to reflect on the people around you, and it can add to the richness of life, and it can open your eyes to an amazing wealth of experience and understanding, and it keeps us going.”

“Whether it’s having empathy for your children or for your parents or for your family, or for the patients in front of you, or for your colleagues…it helps you stay a human being I think – and keep focused on what’s right.”

Integrity

Integrity was the third quality that Dr Eagle wanted to tell the boys about – something she feels is important to cultivate professionally.

“We have to have integrity,” she said. “I think we can go through life …always trying to take the open door…the easy path – always trying to worry about whether something is going to affect our job, or is going to affect how we look, or is going to affect what we do, or what our opportunities might be. I think that’s a very tempting way to go through life.”

“Being confronted by a situation where you know something’s wrong but having the courage, despite everyone around you… to stand up and say ‘no that’s wrong and I’m going to fight for what’s right’…that is one of the most important things in life… And as chair of the medical council that’s given me a lot of opportunities to really fight: to end abuses, to focus on patient safety, and to speak up for disadvantaged people, regardless of how I end up looking in the end to my own organisation; regardless of how many friends I lose if that’s the case, because what are friends if they don’t stand up for what’s right? I think that’s the most important thing I’d like to encourage everybody to pursue, particularly in our society at the moment as we face so many challenges.”

(Photographs from the evening are available here)

[Warrane College offers a lot more than just student accommodation at UNSW: find out about some of our other guest speakers.]