Farzana Bharmal, M.D.
A passion that goes beyond the practice
Dr. Farzana Bharmal, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Morehouse School of Medicine and staff psychiatrist at Morehouse Healthcare (MHC), is living proof that listening to your parents is a good thing. “Many doctors have long stories about why they chose to become doctors,” she said, “but I got into the medical field simply because my parents—especially my father—wanted me to.” When she went to college, she discovered that she had a natural interest in medicine and saw that it would be a rewarding career for her. “My message to others,” she laughs, “is to follow your parents' wishes.
Finding a home at Morehouse
When exploring medical schools and training programs, Dr. Bharmal was immediately drawn to Morehouse School of Medicine because of its culturally sensitive environment and commitment to serving diverse communities. She added, “And to be frank, I like Atlanta. This is where I wanted to be."
Today, the diversity of specialties at MHC is something that Dr. Bharmal points to as an aspect she appreciates. “The multi-disciplinary setting of MHC provides an ease and convenience for consultations and referrals,” she said. “If I suspect that a patient has a physical issue in addition to a psychiatric problem, I can easily get help for that issue, or even have a hallway consultation with my colleagues to address it.”
Cultural differences in psychiatric expression
One aspect of her field that is of particular interest to Dr. Bharmal is how psychiatric disorders are articulated in different countries. While many physical ailments, such as a headache or stomachache, are expressed in terms that are universally understood, conditions such as depression or schizophrenia are perceived and discussed in significantly different ways around the world.
Dr. Bharmal said, “In a number of Asian countries, nobody says, ‘I’m feeling sad.’ Instead they might say, ‘I have a pain in my body,’ or ‘I don’t feel well.’ It’s a much different way of expressing a psychiatric condition. If this kind of situation is not interpreted correctly by an alert physician, the patient may receive medication for physical pain instead of treatment for psychic or emotional pain.”
She also recalled how, in a recent medical conference in Argentina, the methods for addressing addiction behavior and developing treatment strategies were completely different than those common in the U.S. “I try to bring these different perspectives I encounter on my travels back to Morehouse and share it with my colleagues and residents,” she said. Given the wide diversity of backgrounds and origins in the populations served by Morehouse, it’s clear why these insights have helped bring greater understanding across ethno-cultural differences in patients and, ultimately, better treatment.
A passion for purposeful travel
Dr. Bharmal’s understanding of how psychiatric practices and expression vary among different cultures is a direct result of her zeal for travel. She frequently conducts lectures and presentations on psychiatric topics on her trips and also targets medically noteworthy sites as destinations. “I go all over the globe—South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Australia,” she said. “It is a passion for me to combine my work with travel, even when I’m not lecturing. To me, it’s fascinating to learn about a place with medical significance related to history, geography or culture.”
“When I was in Budapest not long ago, I visited an underground trench hospital which was state-of-the-art during WWII, and saw how it operated. I think it’s valuable to pass these observations on to residents so they can understand how medicine was practiced in the past and how it has developed. The history of medicine provides a sense of direction for the future.”
The impact of mental health on society
While Dr. Bharmal notes that general awareness and knowledge of mental and behavioral disorders is growing, she still sees a gap in the public’s understanding of how critically important these issues are. She said, “If someone has high blood pressure, the impact of that condition is limited to that individual or that individual’s family. But a psychiatric patient can have a far wider impact if not treated. You often see examples of this in the news. A psychiatrically sick person can have a significant effect on the community, region or even country. Mental health is a societal and public health issue. We should be looking at how to create access to psychiatric care on a larger scale.”
For nearly 20 years, Dr. Bharmal has been at Morehouse School of Medicine and, later, MHC. She finds it gratifying to practice and teach where she received her training. “Morehouse is my alma mater, so I feel happy and rewarded to be here,” she said. “But also it’s great to see how the practice has become even better over the years. Primary care has been the focus of MHC for a long time, but more specialties and highly skilled physicians have been coming to the practice.” She adds, “There are places where physicians are highly directed and managed. But at MHC, we can decide how to mold our practice the way we want. We have an environment that provides the flexibility and autonomy for us to deliver the best care.”