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The Real Poop

"Hey, doc—you gotta help me!"

"What's the matter?"

"I keep having these recurring nightmares! It starts out when I'm sitting in a chair on my back porch, just rocking back and forth peacefully, enjoying the sunshine. Suddenly, I realize I haven't had breakfast yet and I get really excited about it. So I start to get up, but suddenly a screw pops out of my chair and the whole thing falls apart, sending me crashing to the ground. Then I wake up sweating!"

"I see…. Well, I think it's pretty obvious what the problem is."

"What? Tell me!"

"Clearly, you've got a screw loose, you're off your rocker, and you're cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs."

Quack. Headshrinker. Just plain "shrink." There are a number of slang terms for psychiatrists, none of which are all that flattering. In some circles, they have an undeserved reputation for being charlatans—people who call themselves "doctors" and spout all kinds of psychological nonsense, then prescribe an overabundance of meds. However, the days of assigning no value whatsoever to the work of a psychiatrist are pretty much behind us now. Those who practice the profession are finally beginning to get the amount of respect and consideration that they are due. Even if psychiatrists are still one of a comic strip writer's favorite characters.

Psychiatrists are doctors of the mind. It may sound kind of New Age-y, but we promise—their work is based entirely on scientific fact and analyses. Sure, there's some interpretation at play, but we (mankind) know an awful lot now about how our brains work—what parts of them malfunction when we’re down in the dumps, how they repress painful memories, and why they sometimes forget where we left our car keys. A psychiatrist's job is to assess each client on a case-by-case basis, determine the root of the problem—be it mental, emotional, or behavioral—and settle upon the proper course of action to see that the problem is corrected…or at least that its deleterious effects are minimized.

A psychiatrist is similar to a psychologist—in fact, the major difference between the two of them is that a psychiatrist can prescribe medication, whereas a psychologist can only recommend that you "get more 'me' time." Of course, medication is always a last resort—if a psychiatrist can get a patient back in ship-shape shape just by talking through their issues and sorting them out verbally, then wonderful. But when nothing else seems to work…it's "take two of these and call me in the morning."

There a lot of jokes made at the expense of psychiatrists, but if you're one of the afflicted—well, it's not that funny. Psychiatrists identify and then deal with mental illnesses of various shapes and sizes. This can include everything from mild cases of depression (which is a real thing, and not just when you've "had a bad day") to paranoid schizophrenia.

Here are some of the other dealios they may encounter:

Bipolar disorder – This one's a serious and prevalent mood disorder. If someone is hopped up on happy pills one moment and has a murderous look in their eye the next, there is a chance they are bipolar. People have begun to use the term to describe anyone with mood swings, which is honestly an offense to those with a serious problem. Not to mention an offense to anyone who is referred to as such while "getting a monthly visit from a friend."

Anxiety disorder – Being nervous about an upcoming test or performing the lead in the high school play is one thing. Having an anxiety disorder is quite a different beast. For sufferers, the anxiety they experience can be crippling, as well as nearly constant, and can greatly lessen the quality of life.

Obsessive compulsive disorder – Here’s another condition that is frequently stereotyped and made light of on television and in the movies. Yes, people who have to flip the light switch on and off a certain number of times while not stepping on any cracks in the sidewalk may have OCD, but the term is thrown around a bit too carelessly. Just because you like your work area to be neat, you do not have OCD. "Neat freak" is not a mental disorder.

Someone stop that psycho!

Schizophrenia – Schizophrenics have to deal with a distorted vision of reality. They can suffer from delusions and hallucinations, and the disorder can mess with their speech and thought processes. Once again, there are common misconceptions about this one—a "schizo" (shudder, what an awful word) is not someone with distinctly different personalities. That would be multiple personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder (DID). Might make for some riveting movie characters, but it is more often than not exaggerated or misrepresented.

These examples don't even scratch the surface, however—there are sleep disorders, eating disorders, sexual disorders, developmental disorders, and more. While the manifestation of many of these conditions may be physical in nature, they are always rooted in mental or emotional trauma or distress.

As you might imagine, it takes a very long time to learn all there is to know about the many intricacies of hundreds of different mental disorders…which is why you can expect to put in a lot of time preparing for this career. They don't call you "doctor" for nothin'.

Do you feel other people's pain? Do you have an intuitive sense for how to help others overcome their personal difficulties? Do you desperately want to be a doctor, but you pass out at the first sight of blood?

If so, then psychiatry might be the gig for you—if you can survive the n years of med and grad school you need to be let into The Club.