Medical students and psychiatry


I have the unfortunate task of trying to teach medical students about psychiatry. I say “unfortunate,” as most of them find psychiatry a difficult art to understand, and they seem reluctant to classify psychiatry as a branch of medicine.

medical school students Wavebreakmedia/Thinkstock

In my efforts to keep things simple, I tell that them psychiatry is one of the most difficult branches of medicine as there are very few objective measures we can rely on to make sense of people’s behavior. Regrettably, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual only seems to confuse them more. So, I remind them that, in medicine, 90%-95% of diagnoses can be obtained from doing a good history, and, if we are lucky a drug level will show drugs in the system, a CT scan without contrast will show cerebral atrophy, or there will be a lab result that will be abnormal and point to a diagnosis. But mostly what they will be seeing is unusual behavior they are unable to classify.

So I try to make psychiatric diagnosis more manageable for them by telling them there are essentially five overarching categories of psychiatric illness: identifiable brain damage, psychosis, affective disorders, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders. Under the brain damage category, I include the short- and long-term effects of drugs, major neurocognitive disorders (called dementia before DSM-5), cerebrovascular infarcts, traumatic brain injury, and neurodevelopmental disorders. For their exams and, if they are interested in psychiatry, I tell them to study the DSM. I explain to them that when I was in medical school my dermatology professor told us that if we could recognize the 10 most common dermatologic disorders, we would be able to recognize 90% of the skin disorders we would see. It is similar in psychiatry – thus, my five categories.

However, because I do not want them thinking that only schizophrenia causes psychosis, I let them know that at least 40 different factors cause people to be psychotic indicated by auditory hallucinations. Those 40 factors are: 1) acute alcohol intoxication, 2) alcohol withdrawal, 3) alcoholism, 4) Alzheimer’s disease, 5) benzodiazepine withdrawal, 6) cocaine abuse and addiction, 7) chemical poisoning, 8) dehydration, 9) delirium, 10) dissociative disorders, 11) electrolyte imbalances, 12) encephalopathy of various forms, 13) ecstasy, 14) extreme fatigue, 15) falling asleep, 16) fetal alcohol exposure, 17) grief, 18) hallucinogen use, 19) heroin abuse and dependence, 20) high fever, 21) hyperglycemia, 22) hypoglycemia, 23) intellectual disability, 24) lupus, 25) major depression, 26) mania, 27) methamphetamine use, 28) Parkinson’s disease, 29) phencyclidine, 30) postictal states, 31) posttraumatic stress disorder, 32) schizoid or schizotypal personality disorder, 33) schizophrenia, 34) sleep deprivation, 35) sleep paralysis, 36) solvent abuse, 37) traumatic brain injury, 38) temporal lobe epilepsy, 39) uremia. Lastly, I ask them about No. 40 – “normal” (For example, have you ever been walking down the street and thought you heard someone calling your name, but when you turned around no one was there?). Of course, there are many more causes of psychosis, but keeping it simple makes the principle easier to remember.

Dr. Carl C. Bell, staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s surgical-medical/psychiatric inpatient unit, and clinical professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago

Dr. Carl C. Bell

Regarding affective disorders, I point out to them, as I did in a previous column, that there is a huge difference between major depressive disorders, unhappiness, or sadness, grief, and demoralization. Regarding anxiety disorders, I let the medical students know that, like personality disorders, there is a lot of comorbidity. Yet, if they can distinguish brain damage, psychosis, and affective disorders from anxiety and personality disorders, that will be good enough.

In keeping with trying to help medical students not make assumptions, I always ask them what’s wrong with people who wash their hands 30 times a day. Invariably, the answer is obsessive-compulsive disorder. So, next I ask: Isn’t it possible that the person who washes his hands 30 times a day is a surgeon – or perhaps a patient with schizophrenia who thinks that Martians are beaming germs to his hands?

I guess I raise this issue because I am concerned with the future of psychiatry, and I think that my approach to medical school education provides a framework that can help students learn how to think about and provide care for psychiatric patients.

Dr. Bell is a staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s Medical/Surgical-Psychiatry Inpatient Unit in Chicago, clinical psychiatrist emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, former president/CEO of the Community Mental Health Council, and former director of the Institute for Juvenile Research (birthplace of child psychiatry), also in Chicago. If you have tricks of the medical school teaching trade that you would like to share, email Dr. Bell at

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