How to Become a School Psychiatrist – Career and Schooling Guide

What is a School Psychiatrist?

School psychiatrists are licensed physicians who specialize in diagnosing and treating mental, emotional and behavioral disorders in children, adolescents and young adults. They promote the mental and emotional health of students in elementary schools, high schools and colleges.

Unlike most psychologists, psychiatrists hold a medical degree and can prescribe and administer prescription pharmaceuticals, making them well-suited for working in school settings, where there is seldom another physician readily available.

School psychiatrists use their expertise in biology, psychology and sociology to work with troubled students and their families. They counsel individual students, families and groups of students in order to help students with a wide variety of problems, whether these problems originate at home, at school or elsewhere.

For example, school psychiatrists are qualified to test and counsel students for the use of alcohol and illicit drugs and are equipped to handle drug overdoses.

School psychiatrists collaborate with an assortment of professionals in order to help their patients cope and mature. School psychiatrists act as an advocate for students, looking out for the best interests of students when dealing with law enforcement agencies, rehabilitation facilities, community services and the courts, and many of them are trained to appear as expert witnesses in court.

School psychiatrists are primary mental health care givers and are equipped to handle a wide variety of issues. They help students learn how to solve problems, handle anger, overcome abuse and gain self-confidence. They can also guide students with learning disabilities. Psychiatrists also advise school officials in handling students and in developing educational programs to help students avoid future problems.

Work Environment

School psychiatrists normally work in a wide variety of settings. Many of them work in multiple schools, and they often have to meet with other professionals outside of a school setting. They often meet with guidance counselors in their offices or with parents in the student’s home, and sometimes have to visit patients in clinics, treatment centers or mental facilities. Some of them also make appearances in court or in correctional institutions.

School psychiatrists tend to have irregular hours, often attending to patients at all hours of the day or night. They also tend to have a large number of patients, some of whom they see irregularly, making it difficult for a school psychiatrist to set up a weekly time schedule of appointments.



Because psychiatrists must attend medical school, their undergraduate studies are geared toward pre-med, with an emphasis upon psychology and the biological and physical sciences, as well as some coursework in the social sciences and humanities.

Upon graduation, candidates apply to med school, which is highly competitive. If not accepted, a candidate might have to attain a master’s degree before gaining acceptance into med school.

Medical school normally lasts four years, though it can take longer. The first half of the program normally concentrates upon biological sciences like anatomy and pathology. The second half features hands-on experience in a variety of medical areas.


After graduating from medical school, most psychiatrists must undergo four or five years of residency training, where they gain hands-on psychiatric experience under the supervision of a licensed psychiatrist.

Psychiatrists are trained for general medical practice, but are specifically trained in evaluating and treating the mental and emotional health of patients. Unlike psychologists, they can prescribe and administer pharmaceutical drugs and medications.

School psychiatrists are also trained in psychotherapy, group counseling, family counseling, drug abuse counseling and child psychology.

Licensing and/or Certification

Psychiatrists must acquire a medical license from a state medical board. They need to become certified as a psychiatrist by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. They must also gain a federal narcotics license through the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to enable them to dispense medication to patients.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

School psychiatrists need to be able to work with people of diverse backgrounds, ages and personalities. They must also assume variety of roles; they must advise school administrators, counsel parents, mentor students and cooperate with diverse professionals from various agencies.

Like all psychiatrists, they must be good listeners who can draw out reticent patients and calm down angry ones, all the while maintaining their composure and professionalism.

School psychiatrists have to be able to communicate effectively with people from all walks of life. They have to hold discussions about their patients regularly with a variety of professionals, like social workers, nurses, administrators, counselors and law enforcement personnel. They also have to counsel patients and their families.

Psychiatrists must be sensitive to the needs of their patients and yet be strong enough to handle stressful situations. They must learn to care for their patients even when faced with ugly displays of the dark sides of those patients.

Opportunities for Advancement

Psychiatrists are well-paid professionals who are already poised near the top of the food chain, so opportunities for advancement can be rare. Some advance into administrative or management positions or become teachers or authors. Those who have their own private practice can learn new skills in order to grow their practice.

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