Written by Sarah Low.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
There are many reasons as to why psychiatry may be one of medicine’s most unloved specialties; after all, in the eyes of many, psychiatry may as well be the practice of psychological “voodoo magic” meant to warp and control patients’ minds. Even the term “shrink” (slang oftentimes used to refer to a psychiatrist), is derived from the shamanistic practice of preserving and shrinking heads for indigenous ritual.
It doesn’t help that the field has always had to bear the weight of its controversial past. Beginning in the 1950s, the anti-psychiatry movement passionately condemned the practice’s usage of asylums and measures such as electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies. Today, they accuse the field of “abusing” its patients by overprescribing them “useless and insidious” drugs.
I find the multiplicity of allegations that have submerged the entire practice into the murky waters of stigmatization to be detrimental not only for those suffering from mental illnesses, but also for aspiring psychiatrists like myself. When I tell others about my professional goals, I have frequently been met with skeptical reactions– “I heard that psychiatrists often prescribe people medications they don’t need and won’t work,” a professional, for example, once told me, her eyebrows furrowed and lips tightly drawn in a grimace. “Are you sure you want to do that? Besides, psychologists don’t get paid well, and there are too many of them!” Or, perhaps the most scathing: “I think there is corruption in the field,” a friend of mine exclaimed. “and psychiatric patients are dangerous to deal with! Do you really want to work with crazy people and criminals?”
Historically and anecdotally, those who lack the proper knowledge have unfortunately only viewed psychiatry through a jaded lens and experience difficulty separating the practice’s critical role in public health from its distortions.
As a result, those in need of care experience stigmatization instead of receiving psychiatric help. Likewise, aspiring psychiatrists face a dearth of professional encouragement and are few and far between (according to the American Psychiatric Association, the percentage of seniors in medical school electing to pursue psychiatry was only 4.2% in 2015). The latter issue is especially concerning considering the escalating nationwide shortage of psychiatrists.
In light of such complex attitudes towards psychiatry, I decided to interview several students on campus in regards to what they knew about the specialty and their opinions on it. Though by no means did I conduct a scientific poll, I was interested in hearing first-hand about what my peers thought of the field.
When asked about her general thoughts pertaining to psychiatry, ThienTien Ho, a freshman majoring in nutrition, astutely pointed out several problems she believed plagued the speciality. Ho commented that she felt “psychiatrists sometimes push too many drugs when it is not always necessary… In psychiatry, it can be very hard to research and pinpoint the [illness] at hand; there’s a lot of room for [clinical] error, because people are individually different.” Ho said, concerned. Ho further went on to explain that she did in fact believe that psychiatric drugs were necessary for some patients depending on the “severity” of their condition, before proposing a simple and possible solution to overprescription: “psychiatrists should make sure to explain [prescription] drugs to patients.”
I then went on to ask Emma Gordon about her own perceptions regarding the scarcity of aspiring and professional psychiatrists in the United States. I first asked the freshman biomedical engineer if she believed that psychiatry, compared to other specialties, was considered a more or less common field of interest in medicine. Gordon responded that she thought psychiatry was indeed a less common field of interest compared to other specialties. “[After] talking to a lot of premedical students,” Gordon said, “I think most people who want to become doctors are more interested in more [physical] specialties, such as surgery, anesthesiology, and dermatology.”
I found it particularly interesting that Gordon was not alone in her observations. Kevin Chen, a freshman majoring in psychology, shares Gordon’s opinion. “I know a few people who are interested in psychiatry.” He stated. “[But] it certainly seems like a less common field of medicine.”
Despite its general rarity in comparison to other chosen medical specialties, I found no shortage of passion for psychiatry among the students I interviewed. Chen himself, along with sophomore Carolyn Minton, is interested in pursuing the field. “I’m interested in psychiatry because it’s intriguing to learn more about mental health illnesses, especially in a time where many people feel uncomfortable sharing their internal afflictions,” Chen wrote. “Deciphering the complex nature of how the brain works is exciting, and I want to be able to contribute to the growing field of the study of mental health.” Minton, currently studying neuroscience, expressed similar sentiments regarding her psychiatric aspirations: “Not only do I find the brain fascinating, but I also want to help [patients],” she said.
“Mental illness affects a lot of people; many Americans will be depressed at least once in their lifetime, and a big issue is that a lot of people either won’t go get professional help or won’t admit that they are receiving treatment because of the strong stigmas in our society.”
After these conversations with my peers, I certainly got a clearer picture of what some students today thought of the field; in other ways, conversations with other aspiring psychiatrists inspired me to not only reexamine my own views towards the field, but to also reflect further on why I want to become a psychiatrist. As for the latter, I feel that my thoughts are most accurately summarized in the words of one of my interviewees: “Though psychiatry can be a very emotionally demanding, [clinically difficult], and stigmatized profession,” Minton admitted, “at the end of the day, I really do want to be able to help people get better.”