May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To honor it, I was very fortunate to a interview Dr. Sunita Mathew who is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist.
A Psychiatrist is a specialized physician within the medical field that diagnoses, prevents and treats mental illnesses. Dr. Mathew specializes in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which generally focuses on children, adolescents and their families.
In our interview, Dr. Mathew provided some interesting insight into her career, career path and her thoughts on the stigmas that still exist surrounding mental health. See our interview below:
Q: How would you describe your medical specialty to a child?
A: I’m a “thinking” type of doctor. I help people who have problems with their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Q: What field(s) of psychiatry do you specialize in? How would you briefly describe it to a child? What kinds of conditions do you treat?
A: I specialize in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. I help kids who have difficulty controlling their emotions or behaviors. I commonly treat depression, anxiety, impulse control disorders, attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder and learning disorders.
Q: How would you describe a ‘mental illness’ ?
A: Mental illness can be an expression of a common emotion that becomes extreme or significant enough to impact or disrupt one’s quality of life.
Q: How would you describe the differences between a psychologist and psychiatrist to a child?
A: A psychologist is a trained professional that can diagnose various emotional and behavioral disorders and treat with specific targeted therapy. A psychiatrist is a trained medical doctor that can diagnose and treat mental illnesses with the option of prescribing medication interventions. The two fields often work together for the best outcomes.
Q: How and why did you choose psychiatry as your chosen field? Do you have a specific memory or event that happened in your life that helped you choose your career path?
A: I started developing an interest in Psychology and how the human mind works in college. In medical school, I had my first exposure to Psychiatry with my required clinical rotations. I just happened by chance to be placed on a rotation that had a lot of exposure to Child and Adolescent Psychiatry along with Adult Psychiatry. In addition to working with the pediatric population, I enjoyed working with the nurses and psychiatrists that chose to dedicate their careers to work with children. Once I was exposed to this specialty, I tried to keep an open mind as I rotated in other specialties but I always came back to Child and Adolescent Psychiatry as my first choice.
Q: Growing up, what were your favorite subject(s)?
A: Math, Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology.
Q: What did you study in college and how / why did you choose it/them? What made you decide to pursue medical school?
A: In college, I was pretty sure I wanted to go to medical school, so I took all the core pre-med course requirements like Chemistry, Physics and Biology. I majored in Psychology and Sociology because I found the subjects very interesting. Both Psychology and Psychiatry were careers that I had considered in college. I decided to pursue medical school because I felt that there were some disorders that could benefit from medication interventions and I wanted to have that option when treating.
Q: Do you feel that your studies in college are helpful to you in your career now? How or why?
A: Yes. I feel that my varied studies gave me a unique perspective. My science background helps me approach a case with analytical and critical thinking and my background in psychology and sociology has given me perspective on human behavior.
Q: When and how did you become interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)?
A: Around middle school is when I started getting interested in doing science experiments and lab reports. In high school, I really enjoyed competing in science fairs.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the most important attributes or characteristics that a psychiatrist must have to be successful?
A: Being non-judgmental, open-minded, empathetic, patient, attentive, and good listening skills are all good attributes to have as a psychiatrist. Sometimes a lot can be said non verbally.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your career?
A: When I see treatment significantly improve my patients’ lives.
Q: What has been the most challenging part of your career?
A: Hearing some of the bad stuff children have gone through. I have met some children who have gone through some unimaginable circumstances in such a short period of their life. That’s hard to process and take home with you.
Q: What is one of your most fun, exciting or even embarrassing memories in your career?
A: When the kids make me laugh! Sometimes finding humor in a stressful situation can make all the difference.
Q: What would your advice be to parents and educators to help their children build confidence and interest in the STEM?
A: Don’t limit your kids if they have an interest, even if you think they might not be able to grasp it. Give them the tools to grasp it.
Q: What do you wish others knew about your profession that is commonly misunderstood?
A: I feel there is a great deal of people still out there that don’t know the difference between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist or therapist. We all have important roles in mental health, but they are different.
Because May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I asked Dr. Mathews some more specific questions regarding her opinions on some topics still surrounding mental health:
Q: What is the biggest stigma around mental health, that you wish would go away in society and what would be your response to it? How can we get rid of this stigma?
A: I feel that a big stigma that prevents people from getting help is the fear of being judged or treated differently. I think when more and more people, particularly in the public eye, share their stories about mental illness it normalizes it and lessens the stigma.
Q: How would you suggest parents explain “Mental Health” to their children?
A: I usually tell my patients that there is mental health and physical health. Sometimes you need to treat your mental health just like you would if you had high blood pressure or diabetes or a broken leg. There is no shame in mental illness, it is not your fault or anything you did.
Q: If someone reading this blog thinks that they, a friend or family member may be struggling with a mental illness, what should / can they do? What should their first step be?
A: Talking it over with their primary care physician can be a good first step. Also, calling their insurance’s behavior/mental health line might be helpful in navigating the system and figuring out where to start. If it’s an emergency where safety is an imminent concern then calling 911 or getting them to the nearest ER is where you need to go.
Q: If you had to ‘prescribe’ one thing to society to help all of us with our mental health or thoughts around mental health, what would it be?
A: Everybody is going through something at some point in their life, being kind and non-judgmental can go a long way in their recovery.
Thank you so much to Dr. Mathew for your time and allowing me to interview you for my blog.
Thank you to one of my avid supporters and readers of my blog (you know who you are!) for helping me get in contact with Dr. Mathew. She is truly impressive.
I hope that you enjoyed this STEM career interview. If you have a specific profession in mind that you would like to learn more about! You can leave me a note here, on my social media pages or email me at email@example.com.
As with some of the other images in this post, the featured image at the top is credited to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.