Understanding others with Dr Svetlana Kracenko

As a psychiatrist at Clinique La Prairie, Svetlana Kravcenko Cappi is fascinated by human diversity. This 48-year-old mother of two children found her vocation in life around 20 years ago. Here, we take a look back at her career in Croatia and Switzerland.

As a little girl living in Zagreb, Svetlana Kravcenko Cappi dreamt of becoming a vet. However, living far from the countryside, apart from looking after cats or dogs very few interesting opportunities were open to her. She decided to focus on medicine, a scientific discipline with similar foundations although by doing so she was going against the wishes of her parents who were concerned that a career of this kind would occupy every minute of their daughter’s life or that she would struggle under the weight of the responsibilities involved. “Instead, they saw me as a pharmacist or an architect, although they supported my choices when the time came” she recalls.

After completing her studies, she left her home town for London to improve her English. It was only when she was around 26 years old during a three-month internship at Monthey psychiatric hospital and with only a basic knowledge of French that completely out of the blue she discovered her passion for psychiatry.

“I was immediately attracted by the special relationship you can forge with people. I realised to what extent each individual is truly unique. The background, beliefs, obstacles and opportunities vary. You have to start from scratch each time”. This is what drives her on and constitutes her source of motivation: understanding people, how they work, what they think, what they want, what they are deep down and how they came to be that way. In seeking to discover this, it is impossible to avoid contextualisation and above all to avoid taking account of the family environment. “After gaining several years experience, I realised that there is no other way of working. You understand someone better when you know about their background, their childhood and the role their parents played in their life”.

Naturally, an occupation such as this leads a person to question themselves from a personal viewpoint. “To become a psychiatrist, you really can’t avoid analysing yourself. Better understanding your own personality helps you to avoid influencing the person sitting opposite you based on your own personal choices. The worst thing is to try and solve your own problems by treating a patient. With this in mind, you have to ensure that you don’t project a conflict on the patient, such as a family or career problem for example which you yourself have experienced. You need to adopt the necessary perspective and to avoid getting too involved or ‘importing’ yourself into the case”.

The most important things are never to judge anyone, never to supply answers and to avoid giving advice. “Using questions, you help people to ask themselves the right questions”, explains the psychiatrist, whose blonde hair accentuates the brightness of her gentle yet piercing eyes. “Proceeding in this way you can judge whether the patient possesses the necessary toolkit or not but also what he wants and whether he is capable of achieving it”. In short, the psychiatrist must play the role of a guide, which naturally requires a good deal of time and patience. “You shouldn’t expect thanks or recognition” she explains. “If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s better to choose another occupation” .

After spending years working as an assistant and clinic manager, working weeks without a break and with very little recovery time, since her arrival at Clinique La Prairie in 2009 Svetlana Kravcenko Cappi has found it easier to strike the right balance between private and worklife. Her work rate now varies according to demand. Married to a Swiss and mother to two children aged 9 and 11 she is today fully integrated in her host country to the extent that she feels more Swiss than Croat. When she returns home to her country of origin sometimes she no longer recognises certain streets because things have changed so much. However, she tries to ensure that her children maintain a link with their roots. It is for this reason that she has taught them Croat which enables them to communicate with other children during their holidays.

In Switzerland, she particularly appreciates the richness and diversity contributed by its large foreign population. This cosmopolitan spirit is well rooted in her own family, which among other things includes Ukrainian and Hungarian origins. “Pathologies are the same everywhere but the degree of support is different in countries where the family is particularly prominent. One of the similarities between Switzerland and Croatia for example is that people are living their lives in increasingly individualistic ways”. As the only child of two engineer parents, she herself has never experienced this feeling of living as part of a large family.

Another key lesson which she has learned from practising psychiatry is that all through your life you never stop discovering new things. Her job has enabled her to observe to what extent it is possible to view the same events from different angles according to age. Each period has its own unique features and this feeling of being “all-powerful” often found among young people tends to diminish over the years. The same situations, such as retirement for example, can also be experienced very differently according to the people involved and their characters. The relationship to death also varies with some people having a greater capacity than others to still find something positive in life, despite several successive bereavements for example. “The clinic’s setting really is beautiful”, adds the psychiatrist. “I nevertheless think it’s important to keep my office as simple as possible with no frills, to enable me to concentrate exclusively on the person in front of me. My aim is not to impress others or to scare them but rather to sweep aside the veil of mystery surrounding psychiatry and to encourage people to continue to move forward with their lives”. Once again, it’s important to step back and take second place behind patients to try and alleviate their problems or reduce their symptoms. “The problem is that many people haven’t learned to open up, to share and to talk. I often advise them to go and have a coffee with friends or family as often as possible and to really express what they are feeling. This in itself is a form of therapy. A relationship with a psychiatrist alone can never replace that vital support from friends or family”.