psychiatryThe general public and medical students often have misconceptions about the role and training of psychiatrists, and a significant minority would feel uncomfortable sitting next to one at a party, according to new research.

Researchers from St George’s University of London asked 103 patients attending a semi-rural GP surgery in England to complete a questionnaire about the work of psychiatrists. A similar questionnaire was given to 94 medical students in their pre-clinical years.

The researchers found that members of the public frequently underestimated the qualifications held by psychiatrists. For example, more than half (54%) of the public did not realise that psychiatrists have a medical degree. Additionally, there was confusion about the differences between psychiatrists and psychologists – 77% thought a psychology degree was needed to be a psychiatrist.

Limited knowledge about psychiatry

Meanwhile there was also limited knowledge within students and the public about psychiatry’s role outside general adult psychiatry. For instance, only 6.3% of students and no members of the public thought a psychiatrist’s role could include treating dementia.

The survey also revealed that a significant minority of students and the public are wary of meeting psychiatrist in social situations, with 26% of medical students and 47% of the public said they would feel uncomfortable sitting next to a psychiatrist at a party. Beliefs about psychiatrists ‘being able to read minds’ were also common and a striking 46% of medical students and 60% of the public thought that psychiatrists ‘know what people are thinking’.

Researcher Dr Alice Lomax, a psychiatrist at St George’s, University of London, said: “Our study clearly shows that knowledge about psychiatry as a profession among the general public – and among pre-clinical medical students – is limited. Misconceptions about psychiatrists’ training and role were common. This can have an impact on people’s help-seeking behaviour, and also on attitudes towards both people with mental illness and those caring for them.
“Psychiatry is in the middle of a recruitment crisis, and we need more people to choose psychiatry as a profession. Our findings could help aid the development of anti-stigma and educational campaigns – aimed at both medical students and the general public – with the hope of improving recruitment into psychiatry and mental health help-seeking behaviours.”