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Shortage of Qualified Psychiatrists Predicted

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses and emotional disorders. Unlike psychologists, they are able to prescribe medications.

It takes a long time to become a psychiatrist. You need to complete four years of post-secondary education, four years of medical school, and then four more years of specialty training! The timing can vary a bit (three years of post-secondary, or five years of specialty training), but you're looking at a good 12 years of post-secondary education.

There are three main areas of work within psychiatry: clinical care, research and teaching.

Clinical care means caring for patients. Psychiatrists work with a patient, developing care plans and prescribing medication if necessary. Research work involves learning more about mental health issues. And those who teach psychiatry often work at university medical schools.

If you're thinking about going into psychiatry, apart from being empathic and caring, you should be comfortable with uncertainty. That's according to Dr. Susan Abbott. She's a psychiatrist in New York. Abbott says there is an art and a science to psychiatry.

"It can involve systems that extend further than the boundaries of the room that you're in with the patient," she says. "You can have a patient involved in a system with their family, with their job, with their school, with their neighborhood, with society, with the law, even with the culture. You have to be sensitive to different cultural differences. So it also helps to think in terms of the bigger picture and other systems."

Dr. Edward Haas is another psychiatrist in New York. He says that psychiatrists should be comfortable with themselves. They should also be able to control their emotions if patients get angry with them.

"They need to be able to tolerate painful emotions in a caring, empathic way, but not let their patient's issues negatively affect the psychiatrist's personal life," he says. "In practice, these are skills that are developed over time."

Psychiatrists don't earn quite as much as some other medical professionals. However, they can still make a very decent living. Plus, many really enjoy their work!

Salaries depend on the number of hours that psychiatrists spend at their practice and the demand at their location, says Abbott. "It can range from $100,000 or under in a year to maybe $300,000," she says.

Breaking it Down: Psychiatric Sub-specialties

Within the field of psychiatry, there are several sub-specialties. Forensic psychiatry deals with the law and psychiatry. Child and adolescent psychiatry focuses on youth, while geriatric psychiatry deals with the elderly. Psychiatrists in all of these sub-specialties are busy these days.

"My experience has been that I've had to turn away patients most of the time," says Abbott. She specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry. "But it's an underserved sub-specialty. There are only about 6,000 child psychiatrists in the U.S., maybe 7,000 by now."

Geriatric psychiatry, in particular, is a field that needs workers. Stanley Yaren is an associate professor of psychiatry at a university. He says there is a shortage of geriatric psychiatrists.

"It's true that this is a growing demographic, and there is a significant shortage of geriatric psychiatrists to meet this need," he says.

Rising Demand

There's a need for psychiatrists of all kinds.

"In general, health care is a pretty stable area no matter what the economy is doing," says Haas. "There's a long training program to become a doctor, and all types of doctors are in short supply."

Jonathan Fleming agrees that the need for psychiatrists is steady. Fleming is associate head of psychiatry at a university. However, he adds that the need for psychiatric care does increase with stressful situations, like a struggling economy.

"Demand is constant," he says. "There is more need than supply. Anything that increases stress -- such as the economy -- will increase the need for psychological support and treatment."

Not long ago, people were predicting a shortage of qualified psychiatrists. That future is now here, so psychiatry may be a good line of work to get into, according to Abbott.

She adds that it could be the slightly lower pay rates that keep people from entering this line of medical work.

Despite the slightly lower pay, many psychiatrists find their work very rewarding.

"It's fascinating," says Abbott about her job. "It's interesting, you get to know your patients, it's never boring, everyone's different, and it's very rewarding when you help them. I very much enjoy my patients."

"I would encourage people who really want to look at medicine as a mix of art and science and philosophy to choose psychiatry," says Soma Ganesan. He's a physician leader at a mental health facility. "I think it would be a great area to get into, and it's a really nice, balanced specialty in medicine. I want to encourage kids to start doing that and thinking about that."

Ganesan says that he feels the need will be high for new psychiatrists for quite some time.

"It takes a long time to fill the needs," he says. "And we identified the gap of psychiatrists' resources about 20 years ago. But we moved so slowly, so I think the need is there for another... 40 or 50 years."

Psychiatry is an exciting career, according to Fleming. He adds that right now is an especially interesting time to be involved in the field.

"Brain imaging techniques are adding to our knowledge about how the brain works," he says. "It's an exciting time for the field with lots of work opportunities and new medications and psychological therapies being developed all the time."


American Psychiatric Association
The world's largest psychiatric organization

American Association of Community Psychiatrists
Advocates for quality psychiatric care in community settings

Association of Women Psychiatrists
A great site for female psychiatrists

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