May 8, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Mental illness can be just as debilitating as physical illness—sometimes even more so.  As a medical student, you learn about medical specializations, and during rotations you try them all.  Psychiatry is a specialized field of medicine because of its focus on mental health.

Currently, there is a national shortage of psychiatrists, and the demand is big.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, US workers lose nearly $2 billion in wages annually because mental health problems inhibit their ability to work. In a 2016 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, an additional 2,800 psychiatrists are needed to fulfill the US’s needs this year alone.  We haven’t even touched on the shortage of highly-qualified child psychiatrists.

Besides a booming job market, medical students on the brink of deciding their fields and applying for residency should consider psychiatry for other reasons, like its tremendous flexibility, its sense of reward, the ability to become more empathetic, and psychiatry’s overall usefulness in a fast-paced world.

Let’s take a closer look at 5 reasons why you should study psychiatry.


1. Work-Life Balance

If there ever was a field in medicine in which you could work a “normal” day, it’s psychiatry.  You’re generally on-call less, and you can shape your schedule to meet your family’s needs.  The field’s flexibility is one reason so many psychiatrists are drawn to it—it’s easy to practice the work-life balance that you help to create for so many of your patients.

If catering to family life isn’t on your list, psychiatry also offers tremendous opportunity to travel and work. 


2. Rewarding

Psychiatry—like other medical specialties—is evidence-based.  It’s shaped by scientific evidence—and there’s a lot of it.  Here’s what’s rewarding about it: you can dramatically improve your patients’ lives.  You can help patients who were once institutionalized indefinitely by treating them so that they can live at home (even partially), work, and have relationships with people. 

As a psychiatrist, you have the unique opportunity to improve the mental health of your patients and improve their quality of life.  You can weigh and treat the impact of mental illness on your patients—and help them function in society.


3. Great Timing

We’ve told you there’s a need—there are opening in clinical work, research, and leadership that all strive to make positive impacts for those who suffer from mental illnesses. 

There’s also tremendous research happening in neuroscience.  Scientists are beginning to understand the complicated systems of our brains—and how they affect our behavior.  There’s blossoming research on neurotransmitters and brain stimulation therapies.  There’s also significant research on drugs, including a study on gut bacteria and its role in stress, inflammation, and mood.  There are also significant studies about Alzheimer’s and dementia—two mental illnesses that affect a growing geriatric population. 


4. Empathy

To treat your patients effectively, you must be able to empathize. 

All physicians practice empathy on some level, but psychiatrists more than most.  As a psychiatrist, you are required to get to know your patients at a depth that most physicians don’t. 

How do we conceptualize illness?  Psychiatrists feel empathetic not just at the level of understanding that their patients are suffering, but must also be able to understand how a patient understands his or her illness. 

It’s not just about facts, knowledge, tests, and treatment.  It’s about connection—human and scientific.


5. Utility

Psychiatry is useful for any medical specialty.  Why?  For starters, it gives practitioners a fine-tuned sense of empathy (see #4). 

All medical practitioners should have some understanding of it.  No matter what a medical student plans to do after graduation, he or she will encounter patients with mental health issues.  It’s better to be able to recognize them than not, so that you can advocate for your patients and get them the help they need, even if that help is not in your office.  

Psychiatry gives medical students key skills in how to develop positive relationships with patients.  That’s the key: relationships.  All doctors need to be able to develop those positive relationships so that they can treat their patients.  Rare is the patient who hates their physician, but goes to them anyway. 

Understanding who your patients are, where they’re coming from, and what’s important to them is often just as important as figuring out their medical treatment.

Find out more about careers in mental healthcare.


Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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