My interest in mental health grew considerably when I started medical school. I remember being spellbound by a lecture in the first term of my first year on the interface between public health and child mental health, and wondering whether this might be something I’d like to do as a career.
Quickly realising that psychiatry comprised such a small part of our curriculum, I began dedicating my evenings to attending extracurricular talks run by my medical school’s Psychiatry Society. Hearing from clinicians who were so passionate about making a difference to people with mental illness really made me contemplate a career in psychiatry.
I am now a fourth-year medical student, and during the first lockdown last year, I was looking into ways to use my additional free time productively to further my knowledge and experience in psychiatry. I received an email inviting applications to the Psych Star scheme, so I decided to take the plunge and apply.
The Psych Star scheme is a year-long scheme run by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, designed to support medical students with an interest in psychiatry to increase their knowledge and awareness of what the career entails. Students are awarded a bursary and given a mentor to assist them in their career development, as well as being expected to act as an ambassador for psychiatry in return.
I had the privilege of being appointed as one of only 12 Psych Stars in the UK following a competitive application process and interview. The networks I have built and the learning I have accessed as a result of the scheme have been absolutely outstanding, as well as the support I have received from so many inspirational people working in psychiatry. As my time in post is now sadly drawing to a close, I wanted to reflect on what a phenomenal experience it has been and highlight some of my favourite parts of the year.
Connecting with like-minded people
A big highlight of the Psych Star scheme has been the amazing people I have met and worked with. I was very lucky to be assigned a great mentor, Dr Richard Laugharne, who has been an incredible help and supported me to achieve my aims. Richard put me in touch with lots of local psychiatrists who were able to assist me with different requests, such as extra placement opportunities, discussions around mental health first aid training for students, and speakers for university careers events.
I couldn’t have made the most of this year without my fellow Psych Stars. It was fantastic to be part of such a diverse group of like-minded students from all over the UK. Due to the pandemic, we were unfortunately unable to travel to London to meet at the Royal College in person for our welcome and induction evening. We thankfully managed to have meetings online so we could get to know each other, the scheme leads at the College, and the Careers team. Keeping in touch through our regular meetings was really motivating as we got to learn about the different activities that each Psych Star was accessing through the scheme and reflect on our experiences.
All of us thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to write a blog for the InSPIre The Mind Psych Star blog series last year, headed by a reflection from Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. You can read our musings on the future of psychiatry here.
Promoting a career in psychiatry
I think the most important part of my role as a Psych Star has been acting as an ambassador for psychiatry. Although recruitment to psychiatry has improved dramatically over the past few years (67.3% of core training posts were filled in 2017, compared to 99.4% in 2020), we still have a long way to go in attracting people to the specialty.
I have also helped to organise events for our Psychiatry Society, as well as running some teaching sessions myself. Our ‘Divergent Psychiatry’ events series covered a wide variety of topics relating to different disciplines that inform psychiatric practice. Notable events included ‘The Neurobiology of Addiction’ with Professor Anne Lingford-Hughes; ‘Delusion and Spiritual Experience’ with Professor Bill Fulford; and ‘Apps Focused on Epilepsy’ with Dr Rohit Shankar MBE. Our pre- and post-event surveys showed that these events had a positive impact on students’ opinions of psychiatry and their interest in this career path.
The ‘Choose Psychiatry’ campaign run by the Royal College of Psychiatrists has been very successful in promoting a career in psychiatry to students and doctors at varying stages in their training, so I was thrilled to be part of this campaign locally. The Exeter, Plymouth, and Bristol Psychiatry Societies worked with the Choose Psychiatry Peninsula Network to organise an event for medical students and foundation doctors within the South West division.
‘The History of Psychiatry: Told Through the Arts’ aimed to explore the evolution of psychiatry through various art forms such as films and paintings, as well as demonstrate the benefits of art-based therapies for patients with mental illness. Attendees remarked on how insightful the event was, and how interesting it was to learn about psychiatry through a broader, less medical lens.
Attending conferences and the International Congress
As a student from a widening participation (under-represented in higher education) background, the financial aid afforded to me by the Psych Star scheme was invaluable. I had planned to use the majority of my funding to cover conference fees and travel expenses, though the latter didn’t end up being necessary. Being able to attend whichever conferences I liked was instrumental in allowing me to learn more about areas of psychiatry that I’d never even heard of.
The Adolescent Forensic Psychiatry Special Interest Group conference was a prime example of this. Initially believing that this was a very niche area, I registered for the conference purely to find out more about what the specialty actually entailed. I was immediately fascinated by the complexity of the medicolegal issues in this field and the neuroscience underpinning decision making in adolescence, especially in the context of ‘Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility’.
I was also able to further my knowledge in areas I knew I was interested in; I have worked with many individuals with autism in my part-time job and also done a research internship in neurodevelopmental disorders, so I was very excited to attend the Autism Spectrum Disorders Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Update. It was great to explore the research underpinning sex differences in neurodevelopmental disorders, and learn about the assessment and treatment of mental health problems in people with autism spectrum disorders.
Free registration for the International Congress was an enormous benefit of the Psych Star scheme, and attending the virtual 4-day event was definitely a highlight of my year. There was a massive variety of lectures, workshops, and interactive sessions on every specialty and underpinning science in psychiatry. It would be impossible to pick my favourite part of the Congress but some serious contenders would be the sessions on social determinants of health; the genetics of eating disorders; the neurobiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and neurodevelopmental disorders; and suicide, mental capacity, and the law.
The Psych Star scheme also provides subscriptions to the CPD Online and Trainees Online e-learning platforms. With over 200 learning modules and 150 podcasts on CPD Online, I have been spoiled for choice with such a diverse assortment of resources on all aspects of psychiatry. Reviewing the content available on Trainees Online has been excellent revision, as well as introducing me to new concepts.
Receiving free copies of the British Journal of Psychiatry and its sister journals has been a great source of ongoing education for me. Having access to the latest research and advances in psychiatry has really inspired me, as well as improved my scientific reading skills. I particularly enjoyed reading the publications on self-harm and suicide prevention in the most recent edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry. As someone who has undertaken Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), it was intriguing to read about the evidence for safety planning-type interventions for suicide prevention.
Overall, I have had the most exceptional experience throughout my past year as a Psych Star, and I would wholeheartedly recommend any interested student to apply for the scheme. I thought it would be fitting to end this reflection with some career advice we received from our scheme leads at our final Psych Star virtual meeting:
“Look after your patients and your career will look after itself”
“If you’re up all night worrying about a patient, that’s your sign to talk to a senior about it”
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint — enjoy the journey”
“Eat well and invest in some comfy shoes!”