“If you need to, then seek professional help”
Prof. Radek Ptáček is the first professor of medical psychology in the Czech Republic. He works as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, and lectures at the First Faculty of Medicine at Charles University in Prague and the University of New York in Prague. He is the author or co-author of more than 100 original scientific papers with a high citation count index, 15 scientific monographs, and popularisation articles. He has also been a member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child of the government of the Czech Republic since 2019. His media appearances are numerous and I personally recommend, in particular, his piece on the psychopathy of leaders. Radek Ptáček is married and has three children.
Our conversation took place during the coronavirus, when some rules had begun to relax, but it was also clear to everyone that the battle with Covid-19 was a marathon rather than a sprint. My meandering questions to the professor did not put him off-balance; he is probably used to people asking him, as a psychologist, about almost everything and almost always needing to say something. I will remember the conversation for a long time, not only for its content, but for the circumstances in which it took place. I see an image in my mind of how intensely I noticed the beauty, the different shades of green and the white flowers of the garden next to the psychiatric clinic, and how grateful I was for being able to walk there. Albeit with a face covering on. And what is more, the professor made some coffee and I enjoyed it in his office just as I would in a café. Without milk, of course, because milk increases the acidity in coffee. We talked in our conversation about the way the professor was experiencing the pandemic on a personal level and as a professional, the need to de-stigmatise psychology and psychiatry, and the good core of Czech society. And remember that you don’t have to be alone with your mental health problems or concerns and that experts can help you improve your quality of life in a relatively short space of time.
The first question might seem trivial, but it is now perhaps gaining in relevance and depth. How are you today?
Personally, I’m good. I’m looking forward to our talk. If I had to speak as an expert, though, I’d say it’s fifty-fifty. I see the gravity of the situation and I am often in contact with people who are dealing with serious problems, whether psychological or existential. The number of people who will be getting in touch with us experts asking for help will rise. We are all concerned about how many people will eventually be affected by the pandemic and its consequences, whether in this wave or in the next. During the pandemic, I tried to make myself as available as possible, either on the phone or by mail. Last but not least, I gave a lot of interviews to the effect that people should not be afraid to seek professional help if they have psychological problems.
And, like many, I experienced a decline in the routine work involved in different meetings or gatherings. The experience of quarantine from the perspective of a father of three young children has enriched me with situations I had not experienced before, such as home teaching. My admiration for teachers is now even greater. And, last but not least, I managed to complete several projects that I had no time for before.
The fight against the pandemic is not a sprint, but a marathon. Even after the easing of lockdown, many people worry about taking off their face coverings, returning to normal life, beginning to get back among other people…
I think it is important that people do not remain alone with their fears or worries and seek professional help. Whether psychological concerns or the real impacts of debt, for example, or even companies going bust. There should be no stigma attached to seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist. Whether a psychologist or a psychiatrist, it is good to know that both are often able to help the client get their bearings better after just a few sessions, helping them make a fundamental change in their lives. Don’t simply stay alone with your problems. Professional help is there. We need to overcome the barriers and shame and seek it out. Even during the crisis, when personal contact was restricted, many colleagues provided their services online and were available to those who needed them. I myself am active in this way, for example, as part of the Czech Television project Dr Honzák’s Surgery, where people have the opportunity to talk about their problems.
Let’s stay with the division of society. It looks like the gap has widened between liberal advocates of globalisation and travel and the opposite group, which to a certain extent did not seem to mind the major restriction of individual freedoms. Petitions from parents to keep schools closed took turns with petitions from parents to open them. How, from the perspective of a psychologist, do you view the phenomenon of the polarisation of society, when it is really difficult to say which side is actually in the right?
Every crisis reveals something that is not seen under normal circumstances. The good thing the crisis has shown is the huge wave of benevolence. Before the crisis, I often spoke about the issue of the psychopathisation of society and warned of the fact that people are closing themselves off. Suddenly, it turned out that Czech society is not that bad and that there is a big core of good at its base. Neither do I see the second position, when we are, if required, able to close ourselves off in our homes and our own country, as being entirely negative. It is more likely an expression of the fact that Czech society is willing to be led and organised. I am not here to judge the extent to which the country’s leadership is right. What I can judge positively in terms of how Czechs behave, however, is the kindness on the one hand and a willingness to comply with regulations on the other. We cannot say that benevolence and discipline go hand-in-hand in the surrounding countries that are facing the same problem.
I understand that you do not want to comment on the country’s leadership. So I will ask a different question. Who and what today can be trusted? Scientists’ opinions differ too, and only the extreme views always reach the media. If someone is moderate in both expression and judgment, he is essentially uninteresting from a media perspective and is not given any space.
I am not sure whether that question is the right one for a psychologist. So I will try to answer differently. People need something to believe in; it is one of our basic needs. People who do not believe in anything are actually absolute relativists, have far more complex lives, and might even be more susceptible to various mental illnesses. We believe in God, in political leaders, in our individual values… Faith is important and in this day and age, characterised by a flood of different and contradictory information, it is extremely difficult to choose who or what to believe. I advise my clients to intuitively choose one channel that they trust, watch it once a day, and leave it there. The channel might be television or a website. If we are not professionals and begin dealing with contradictory information, it can only bring us anxiety. There are still people who make light of Covid-19 and who choose the information that backs them up in this, so let them do that. It is their belief, which stabilises them and helps them manage the situation. In the same way we respect those who might be overly cautious, because it is this belief that helps them cope with the situation.
What will the “post-Covid” age be like?
Political scientists or sociologists are saying that the world will no longer be the same, that it will be different. As a psychologist, I am not in complete agreement. For the general population, for whom the time of the pandemic was merely one when they were at home with children and had to deal with home teaching, the world will get back to its old ways relatively soon, as was the case after the floods, for example. Let’s hope that Covid-19 will pass in a few months and that we will see it as one possible infection. There is, however, another group of people for whom this period will be a breaking point. Here I am talking about entrepreneurs, people who have lost their jobs, and people getting into debt. For them, the world they knew and were accustomed to could literally come to an end. I repeat that these people should seek help, whether from non-profit organisations, various state institutions, or other experts who can help them get back on a track that is acceptable to them. I myself am in contact with clients that are entrepreneurs who have very limited resources and do not know how long they can keep going in uncertainty.
In this context I recall an interview with Dominik Furgler, the Swiss ambassador to the Czech Republic. When he described how the Swiss government provided such fast and administratively simple help to small and medium-sized entrepreneurs through the banks, I wanted to cry about the situation here.
We spoke about the hidden tendencies that a crisis intensifies. Even before the crisis, sole traders and small businesses felt disadvantaged by the state. In spite of that, however, they tried and supplied society with their services, whether as tradesmen, through small shops, or through family businesses. Society is built on those people and the state has not helped them now. It is an inappropriate message to the young generation and to the whole of society. The idea that the sole trader will suddenly have to become a temp in a warehouse because there are no other jobs really is not encouraging. And on your topic of the gap widening, I would point out that there is a risk here of a further major division of society between gigantic companies on the one hand and sole traders on the other.
I often ask scientists and experts about what we do not know that we actually already know. You mentioned the de-stigmatisation of psychology and the ability to help. Is there anything else you can tell us that is directly applicable to the current situation?
Modern psychology, in connection with medicine, provides evidence that our health, whether physical or mental, is more influenced by our own behaviour and thinking in comparison with other factors. The thoughts that I have can activate certain genes that produce certain undesirable substances or, on the contrary, stop the production of desirable substances and as a result lead to mental or somatic illnesses. Research on large samples of the population shows that people who live with negative thoughts have a higher tendency toward mental illnesses, and that negative settings affect life expectancy. The main learnings of modern psychology and psychiatry are therefore focused on discovering the mechanisms that we trigger ourselves. It has been shown that walking for half an hour a day at a brisk pace can have the same effect as the antidepressants used for less extreme depressive disorders. We can affect our own mental health! Let’s not use the excuse of circumstance or genetic make-up.
By Linda Štucbartová