How Long Does It Take to Become a Psychiatrist?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness each year. A few suffer such acute and debilitating conditions as schizophrenia, major depression, severe bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others may seek or be ordered into treatment for substance abuse, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, eating disorders, or attention disorders.
Assisting people with mental health issues is the job of various professionals, including psychologists, counselors, and social workers. But perhaps none of these professionals is as vital in the treatment of mental illness as the psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in diagnosing and treating mental illness.
Psychologists and counselors can administer various kinds of psychotherapy (talk therapy treatments) to help people with mental illness. But as a medical doctor, a psychiatrist is uniquely suited to discern the anatomical and physiological underpinnings of mental illness. Psychiatrist schooling also prepares a psychiatrist to prescribe medication for the treatment of mental illness.
A psychiatrist has powerful capabilities in the treatment of mental illness. But these capabilities come at a price measured in education, experience, and time. This article will describe how to become a psychiatrist and discuss what to expect at each step, how much time it will all take, and why the reward may be well worth the effort.
HOW TO BECOME A PSYCHIATRIST
To be a psychiatrist, you must first become a physician by graduating from an accredited medical school—such as American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine* (AUC). The path to a medical degree at AUC, which is located on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, is the same as at United States-based schools: two years of medical science classes and two years of hands-on clinical training. For AUC students, the medical sciences curriculum is completed at the St. Maarten campus; the clinical training can be completed at affiliated teaching hospitals in the United States or in the United Kingdom.
AUC also partners with the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in the United Kingdom for a “UK-track” option. The first two years at UCLan focus on studying the medical sciences. Upon completion, students receive a Post Graduate Diploma in International Medical Sciences, which AUC recognizes as equivalent to its own medical sciences curriculum. During the final two years, students can then complete clinical training across AUC’s network of affiliated teaching hospitals.
During clinical training, AUC students complete core rotations in internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, family medicine, obstetrics/ gynecology, and psychiatry. Each individual student, then, selects from among dozens of specialty elective clerkships to fulfill their remaining clinical requirements.
During the fourth and final year of medical school, students prepare for the next phase of their medical education: residency. At AUC, the Office of Career Advisement (OCA) can help students determine which residency specialty—such as psychiatry—suits them best. The OCA then helps students navigate the National Resident Matching Program® (NRMP®)—a placement system which medical students who wish to become licensed in the United States use to “match” with a medical residency. A psychiatry residency is typically four years.
In 2021, AUC had a first-time residency attainment rate of 92 percent for 2020-2021 graduates—on par with the overall match rate (92.8 percent) for medical schools in the United States. In recent years, AUC MD’s have matched with such psychiatry residency programs as the Creedmore Psychiatric Center in New York; East Carolina University in North Carolina; Griffin Memorial Hospital in Oklahoma; and St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri.
After completing psychiatry training, a physician may be certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). Many board-certified psychiatry doctors are members of the American College of Psychiatrists (ACP). With additional training, doctors may subspecialize in a specific area of psychiatry. These subspecialties include:
- Addiction psychiatry
- Child and adolescent psychiatry
- Consultation-liaison psychiatry
- Forensic psychiatry
- Geriatric psychiatry
- Psychosomatic Medicine
MEET A PSYCHIATRIST
Esi Bentsi-Barnes, MD, a 2016 AUC graduate, is a geriatric psychiatry fellow at Baylor College of Medicine, Dallas, Texas. We asked Dr. Bentsi-Barnes to describe the role of a psychiatrist.
Q: Why did you go into your specialty?
A: Entering medical school, I had a feeling I would like psychiatry but I was open to all specialties. I completed my 3rd year rotations in Ealing, London, and really enjoyed my time on the different services. But during my psychiatry rotation, everything clicked and I knew I couldn’t do anything else. I like the holistic nature of psychiatry, I combine medical and socio-psychological factors in evaluating my patients intertwined with complex pharmacology. I’m currently completing a geriatric psychiatry fellowship at Baylor and I use a lot of my general medicine knowledge every day. Plus, the work is never boring; I hear the most interesting stories.
Q: Any advice to medical students considering the specialty?
A: Seeing patients improve is probably the most rewarding part of my job. As a psychiatrist, I see patients during the most difficult/ upsetting times in their lives and I get to help them through it. It is the best feeling to see someone flourish after being debilitated by anxiety, depression, or some other illness. Now I am working with dementia patients and do a lot to educate families and caregivers. I really enjoy working with this population.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: Psychiatry is a great field to go into! There is a lot of research and interest in the field and it has an extensive professional community. Express interest in psychiatry during your rotation and try to do psych electives. Delve deeper in your history taking and familiarize yourself with core DSM diagnoses (Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety, Substance Use Disorders, etc). It’s important to have an understanding of basic psychiatric principles because no matter what specialty you go into, you will interact with psychiatric patients.
SUBSPECIALTIES OF PSYCHIATRY?
Some psychiatrists choose to specialize even further. They may pursue a one or more year fellowship in such psychiatry subspecialties as:
- Addiction psychiatry
- Child and adolescent psychiatry
- Consultation-liaison psychiatry (for mental illness occurring alongside other medical conditions)
- Forensic psychiatry (including the treatment of criminals and convicts)
- Geriatric psychiatry (treatment of the elderly)
HOW MANY YEARS DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME A PSYCHIATRIST?
From college to medical school and through residency, it takes about 12 years of training to become a psychiatrist. That may seem like a long road, but for many people who complete psychiatrist schooling, the payoff is worth the effort.
Psychiatry is a rewarding specialty that offers the opportunity to help patients and improve their lives. Psychiatrists are also at the forefront of changing attitudes about mental illness. Seeking mental health treatment traditionally carried a substantial social stigma. But thanks in part to the work of psychiatrists, many people now understand that good mental health is an important component of overall well-being.
Psychiatry offers many advantages as a medical specialty, including the potential for self-employment. With little specialized equipment required, psychiatry is much easier to manage as a solo practice than many other specialties. A psychiatrist’s office is also generally a relaxed, comfortable work environment.
Psychiatry also offers an appealing work-life balance. Psychiatrists generally see their patients during normal business hours, though they may need to share on-call duties in case of emergencies.
Finally, psychiatry is a high-demand field. According to a 2018 report by the physician training group Merritt Hawkins, there are roughly 9 psychiatrists in the United States per 100,000 people. This falls well short of the 15 per 100,000 estimated to be necessary for adequate care.
Now that you know how to become a psychiatrist, are you ready to begin your journey toward a rewarding career in a high-demand medical specialty? Apply for admission to AUC!