A bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology at the UvA. Countless exams. An internship. Two theses. You graduate, go to work in a practice, and suddenly “you are sitting across from a real person of flesh and blood. A real person with actual problems who comes to you looking for a solution.” How do you deal with that? That question is answered by basic psychologist, UvA alumnus, and author Raz van Houts in his first book, We are all patients: The life of a young psychologist in practice.
In the book, Van Houts describes what it is like to start working in practice straight from the lecture halls of the UvA. The book offers a glimpse into the working life of a beginning psychologist with all the uncertainties and doubts that come with it.
During the conversation with Van Houts, he kindly declines the offer to have a drink. “I have water,” he says. Subtly, a red and white Dopper bottle appears from his backpack with “113” written in bold letters on it. In his book, Van Houts writes that he uses the bottle as an ice breaker. It works. Even before his book comes up as a topic, the conversation turns to 113.
Did you first work at 113 Suicide Prevention?
“I did an internship there in the third year of my bachelor’s here at the UvA. I wanted to gain practical experience to see if the work suited me at all. I ended up working there for about a year until I started an internship at the practice where I am still working now. The bottle is a memento of my time there. That’s also when I became more certain that I really wanted to be a psychologist. Because despite the heavy and intense conversations I had with people during my time there, the work actually gave me energy.”
Why did you write this book in the first place?
“I love to write, so writing a book is something I wanted to do anyway. I also already had a literary agent for another project. We were talking about my job and I was telling him about the things I was going through or running into. Then he said, ‘Raz, there’s a book in there, too.’ From that moment on, it went very fast; publishers were immediately excited. There also wasn’t a book from the perspective of a beginning psychologist yet as far as I know. Most psychologists don’t write these kinds of books until later in their careers. I started writing in February 2022 or a little before that, and now it’s been out for a month.”
“It was exciting at first. One of the first things I thought was: how am I going to do this without violating confidentiality? After all, I don’t want to have to appear before a disciplinary committee in my first year. Then I decided not to include any direct cases or interviews with patients in the book. So it gives more insight into the experience of a young psychologist, for example, the questions you ask yourself out of uncertainty. As a beginning psychologist, can I help people properly? And if I haven’t experienced the problems myself, can I empathize? With the book, I wanted to give a hint of what the profession is like. For many people, my work still has something mysterious or mythical about it. As if it’s all a big secret. You can tell by the questions people often ask me.”
“People I meet now in my private life often see me as just a psychologist and treat me as such. You then often get a series of questions that I’m familiar with by now. How do you separate work and private life? Isn’t secrecy difficult? And do you also diagnose all your friends? Those are also questions I try to answer in my book - basically, all the questions you don’t dare ask your psychologist.”
“To answer one of those questions a little bit: I don’t always behave like a psychologist with friends. There is always a kind of distance between practitioner and patient when you are treating someone. Sometimes a patient also says: ‘With you, I can say anything, because you don’t really know me.” The chances of just running into each other on the street are not that great, which also helps the process. That’s why it’s different with friends because you have a different bond and that distance isn’t there. If my friends are stuck with something that my work is also relevant to or they specifically ask about it, I usually ask them for permission first: may I psychologize for a moment? At least that’s the way it works best for me; it might be different for another psychologist.”
For whom did you write the book?
“Basically for anyone who is curious about what it’s like to be or just become a psychologist. In the first part of the book I also explain a lot of psychological concepts. It’s basically the foundation to better understand the problems and experiences I discuss afterward. For psychology students, the first part of the book will be repetition.”
Have you had any inspiration within psychology?
“For sure. Irvin Yalom, an American psychiatrist and writer who writes mostly about his work. The first book I read by him was given to me by my aunt during my studies. After that, I started reading all his other books. My aunt is a psychologist herself. She didn’t used to be an inspiration, but now that we are both psychologists she is. I think she is really good at her job.”
“One of the experiences my book deals with is the moment when you start working and have to apply what you’ve learned. Because, of course, you don’t know everything yourself. That’s something I had to learn to accept, partly also through Irvin Yalom’s books. He explains treatment as a collaboration between practitioner and patient, something which has also influenced my own method. The patient cannot go on alone and comes to you with questions, but you don’t have all the answers, either. But that’s not a bad thing, because you really have to work on it together. That’s why good rapport between patient and psychologist is so important.”
What is your own favorite chapter?
“(The) burden on the man. I myself am quite concerned with the concept of masculinity and whether I can find myself in it. I deal with a lot of dichotomy surrounding masculinity in practice. In fact, most of the people I treat have been victims of a male perpetrator, from various forms of violence, to sexual abuse, or an unsafe work environment. This quickly gives rise to the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with men. On the other hand, I also speak to many male patients who struggle with their masculinity and society’s ideas about it. For example, some men don’t see themselves as man enough and say things like, ‘a stronger man would get through this.’“
“So on the one hand, you have a huge excess in male over female offenders and on the other hand, the taboos on mental health and suicide rates are also highest among men. There is something not quite right when it comes to men. In this chapter I try to explore how that comes about and the roles of society and parenting in it. The chapter also addresses my uncertainty as a practitioner and uncertainty about how I should relate to victims of male offenders. It is a difficult subject, but I personally think it is a very interesting chapter.”