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 do you become a psychiatrist? The path to any medical specialty begins with an undergraduate degree, generally a bachelor of sciences. Completing an undergraduate education usually takes four years.
Aspiring doctors often major in biology or pre-med, a course of study designed specifically to prepare the student for medical school. However, a wide range of majors may be sufficient, so long as schooling includes the mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics needed to prepare for medical school. Many aspiring psychiatrists major in psychology, although it is not strictly necessary.
Maintaining good grades is important, as medical school enrollment can be very competitive. It may also help to do volunteer work in a clinic or hospital setting, particularly one in which mental health care is administered. This can not only provide valuable experience, but it also looks good on a medical school application and gives psychiatrists in training an opportunity to make sure a career in mental health is right for them.
Psychiatrist schooling continues with enrollment at a quality medical school, such as the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine(AUC). In medical school, the budding psychiatrist will learn all about the human body and its treatment from trained experts.
Medical school education includes in-depth studies of anatomy and physiology, along with such subjects as histology (the study of tissues) and pathology (the study of disease). Such detailed examination of the body may seem excessive for someone aspiring to treat the mind. But this education prepares the psychiatrist to understand the complex connections between mental health and physiology. Extensive knowledge of the body is also required to safely prescribe medication.
After completing four years of medical school, the psychiatrist-to-be graduates with a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) degree. But the graduate is not yet prepared to practice medicine.
The next step in psychiatrist schooling is residency. Residency is a period in which a medical school graduate practices medicine, usually in a hospital or clinic, under the supervision of trained and experienced physicians. How long is psychiatry residency? It generally takes four years.
The first year of residency is sometimes called internship. Interns often do some rotations in general medicine, getting a feel for the doctor-patient experience and acclimating to the hospital or clinic environment. An intern headed into psychiatry will also likely do some rotations in neurology, the treatment of the brain and nervous system.
It is during the remaining three years of residency that the aspiring psychiatrist finally begins to truly specialize. These years will likely be spent working in a psychiatric ward or psychiatric hospital.
The psychiatry resident may gain experience working with patients hospitalized for such serious mental illnesses as schizophrenia, major depression, and psychotic disorders. The resident may also treat outpatients seeking help with a range of conditions, including mood disorders, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
You may be wondering how to become a psychiatrist that is certified to practice. Upon completing four years of residency, a psychiatrist is ready to take a board certification exam, such as that offered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. The psychiatrist requirements are now complete.
MEET A PSYCHIATRIST
Esi Bentsi-Barnes, MD, a 2016 graduate of AUC, is a geriatric psychiatry fellow at Baylor College of Medicine, Dallas, TX. 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 of education to 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 it! 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 one of the many subspecialties of psychiatry, including:
- 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!