Dr. Katherine Shear is the Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry in Social Work at Columbia University. A graduate of the University of Chicago and Tufts University Medical School, her primary areas of investigation include anxiety disorders, depression, and (most recently) bereavement and grief. Her research has produced a number of widely used clinical assessment tools, including the Panic Disorder Severity Scale and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Severity Scale. Dr. Shear's groundbreaking grief research was recently featured in the New York Times.
Question: What propelled you into psychiatry?
Dr. Katherine Shear: Well, I basically was always interested in human behavior. And I sort of thought about majoring in English, but then I had an interest in science, so somehow I ended up in medical school and psychiatry just drew me. And then my specialty is really psychotherapy research. And that, I got interested in because I was very interested in psychotherapy, but at the time that I trained to do it, it was not very well defined, psychotherapy, and it hadn't been tested. There was no scientific basis for it. And since I was very interested in science, I thought it would be – I just felt, again, sort of impelled to try to figure out what works and if it works and what works and how it works and things like that.
Question: Do you have firsthand experience with depression or grief?
Dr. Katherine Shear: Well, let's see. I've certainly had experience with grief in basically both of my parents died. And then also, I lost a cousin who I was quite close to when she was 39 and I think I was about in my early 30s at that point. So I learned different things from each of those experiences. What I learned from my cousin's death, which was very surprising to me, was that in a strange sort of way, after she died, I actually started to feel more comfortable with death, which, if you had asked me before that, I would have said the opposite would have happened. But something about, you know, I just started having these thoughts every once in awhile that because my cousin's name was Jackie and because Jackie was there, somehow it would be okay for me to be there, too, or for other people to be there. So that was something I think I brought with me over the years without really thinking that much about it until I got interested in grief.
And then when my parents died, that was a very different experience. And there I had the opportunity to – again, people I was very, very close to – and I was involved in their care at the end of their lives and I was with them at their bedside, both of them, when they died. So that gave me, you know, a different kind of insight into what it feels like to be in that situation. I think, in particular, even though both of them were quite ill but they time they died, the very strong since of disbelief that you have very initially right after someone dies. And also, as prepared in the sense as I was for their death, each of them, the emotions were very, very strong for a period of time after that.
Question: Do your patients' cases ever move you personally?
Dr. Katherine Shear: Well, of course, you know I am a psychotherapist. And by definition, I think I'm a person – and most of us are – who are very moved by the people that we work with. So I would say pretty much everyone that I've worked with has touched me emotionally. And it's a very good question because I think that is one of the ways that we learn about people and how to work with people, is that we are open emotionally to people in our work with them and so we learn emotionally about them. And you're right; far beyond anything that we could learn by collecting the reading skills that we do collect and some of the more I guess scientific research.
Recorded on November 3, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen