All psychiatrists treat emotional and mental disorders, but social psychiatrists specialize in the treatment of disorders that spring at least partly from social causes; they look at the interpersonal and cultural aspects of psychiatry. These professionals combine medical training with training in fields like social anthropology, social psychology, sociology and related disciplines. Social psychiatry provides a contrast with mainstream biopsychiatry, with the latter focusing more upon medications, neurology and genetics than sociological factors.
Social psychiatrists examine their patients in the context of the larger social order of which they’re a part. All of us, to an extent, are a product of the society we’re raised in, and our health and well-being are affected by the success we have in fitting into our social constructs. Something as commonplace as losing a job has been known to cause people to fall into a deep depression or even commit suicide. A person’s self-esteem and sense of purpose are deeply tied into their social status, and social psychiatrists take all these social factors into account when diagnosing and counseling patients.
Social psychiatrists sometimes aid patients with mental handicaps or drug addiction in getting and keeping a job, and help them overcome any problems that might spring up in the job.
Social psychiatry has made extensive use of group psychotherapy and therapeutic communities, where patients learn to interact in wholesome ways as part of the treatment plan. These group activities can also strengthen patients by making them feel like part of a support group of equals with a common purpose. Group activities can also expose prejudices and allow people the chance to work through these prejudices.
There are four basic types of group therapy: activity, support, psychodynamic, and problem-solving/psychoeducational.
Activity groups are engaged in a focused activity or work; in many cases, the patients spend entire days together doing various activities and then talking about these experiences later in a group session. These activities should be basic activities that help develop social skills and address hidden anxieties, like cooking, exercising, artwork, etc.
Activity groups often involve the most vulnerable and disturbed patients, so strong leadership is required from a psychiatrist or other group leader.
Support groups generally involve patients with chronic mental illness or a terminal illness. Here, substantial progress is unrealistic, so the idea is to maintain a stable situation with few downturns or controversies. Focused leadership isn’t needed for these groups, because the focus should be on the present needs of the participants.
Psychodynamic groups aim to bring about lasting personality changes through non-direct free association. The psychiatrist needs to let loose the reins, leading the group only in subtle ways, which tends to cause anxiety in the patients until they establish the rules for the group. The passive stance of the therapist allows the unconscious dynamics among the group members to generate transformative conflict and potential growth. These groups are most dynamic when composed of diverse personalities, though there are many patients who aren’t suited for this type of therapy.
Problem-solving and Psychoeducational groups are composed of people with similar problems and clearly defined aims, like anger management groups or drug abuse groups. These groups share their experiences and provide support for each other, while the leader tries to educate them in proven methods of overcoming the common problem.
Work settings for this occupation can be quite diverse and can vary from day-to-day. Some social psychiatrists work for governmental or nonprofit agencies, while others work in various types of mental health care agencies or drug abuse centers. Still others form their own private practice or work for a private company. Some work for a combination of any of the above.
Psychiatry candidates must get a bachelor’s degree (normally in biology) and get good enough grades to qualify them for medical school. The pre-med coursework generally includes chemistry, anatomy, physics and psychology.
Medical school normally requires an additional four years of schooling, though some psychiatrists enter a combined bachelor/medical school program that allows them to cut some of the time for over-all schooling. Coursework includes general medical courses as well as courses in psychology and psychiatry.
After graduating med school, a psychiatrist normally undergoes a residency period of 3-5 years, gaining hands-on experience in psychiatry under the supervision of an experienced psychiatrist.
Licensing and/or Certification
Psychiatrists must get a medical license as a physician and also gain certification as a psychiatrist from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. They must also get a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to be able to administer pharmaceuticals.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Psychiatrists must be excellent communicators and sympathetic listeners, and they must be patient with the idiosyncrasies and disabilities of patients who might be mentally or emotionally challenged. They must be able to remain calm and detached in times of high stress and unpleasantness.
Opportunities for Advancement
Because psychiatrists earn a very high pay rate, there aren’t too many opportunities for advancement, other than becoming an administrator or getting hired for a high governmental position. Those with a private practice can expand their practice by gaining higher-paying clientele or by learning new skills.