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The wall of my father’s at-home office was decorated with cartoons cut from the weekly newspaper. One of the oldest ones featured a cartoon of a man lying on a psychiatrist’ couch, lamenting his marriage. The psychiatrist’s reply was meant to be a joke, but it sailed over my head. It seemed to me that being an adult must be constant trouble, if they needed to lie on a couch every week and talk to someone else about their lives. Eventually I realized that psychiatrists weren’t meant to listen and make jokes I didn’t understand, but their job was to help others with their mental and emotional well-being.

I have always enjoyed helping others, whether it be helping my parents at home, being a shoulder to cry on for a friend, or volunteering at school to help younger students safely cross the street. The first job I could envision myself doing as an adult was being a psychiatrist, because that was all they did: help others. They listened, they advised, they supported. It seemed a perfect job for me, as someone who found immense satisfaction in supporting and helping others.

Being unable to help others, meanwhile, always left me feeling uneasy. As though I weren’t living up to my purpose. I experienced this feeling acutely the first time I met a homeless man. He was sitting on a street corner, begging for change, when my mother, my great-aunt and I passed by. We were on our way to an event, and we’d become turned around. The homeless man, hearing our predicament, gave us the right directions. My mother and great-aunt thanked him and left a few coins in his cup. As a child, I had nothing to give him, so I just smiled. He smiled back. As we walked away, the nagging feeling that those few coins weren’t enough to help the man stuck with me. But I had no other ideas on how to help him and no resources of my own to share with him. As I grew older, and saw the widespread homelessness in my city, I knew I could now do more to help. So, I began volunteering at a homeless shelter.

At the homeless shelter, I saw so many others like the man I had been unable to help. And though I wished I could do more, I knew hot meals, some conversation and companionship seemed to go a long way. For people without a home, acts of kindness made a world of difference. With my love of talking to others, I used my words to spread a little more kindness around. I began to feel like an informal psychiatrist, listening and observing and encouraging. As college applications drew near, I began to seriously think about what it would mean to study psychiatry.

I knew I would have to learn what the profession was really about, and unfortunately my dad’s collection of newspaper cartoons couldn’t help me. I had always been interested in mental wellness, both from working at the shelter and my own personal struggles with depression as a teen. I couldn’t shadow a psychiatrist, but I could do the next best thing. I sought treatment from a psychiatrist for my own mental health concerns, and I shared with her my desire to help others as a psychiatrist. While my doctor shared with me some of what it is like to be a psychiatric doctor, I learned through my personal experiences and working with the homeless what it is like to be a patient. Those who suffer from mental health are doing their best to live their lives as well as possible, while dealing with a lack of access to resources, and some of the worst kind of judgment and stigma. They need a listening ear, but they also need care, compassion and resources to help themselves.

To me, being a psychiatrist is like dropping a few coins in a cup. It doesn’t seem like enough, but little by little, those coins start to add up. It is my dream to become a psychiatrist so I can help fill those empty cups. 

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