Dr Niall Campbell, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Roehampton who specialises in addiction, talks about how he got started in medicine and how young hopefuls can start their professional careers in the field of psychiatry.
What was it that led you to become a psychiatrist?
I have always known ever since my days at school that I wanted to be a doctor. I was not good at mathematical type sciences, but really enjoyed biological sciences; how the human body and people in general really work.
From the age of 16 I did summer jobs as a nursing auxiliary in a cardiac unit in a local hospital. I really enjoyed talking to the patients, many of whom had just had heart attacks and faced uncertain futures. I felt that I had an empathy with them, I could listen to their stories and even at that age I realised that just talking to them was helpful.
What steps did you take to become a psychiatrist? E.g. education, work experience, work placement.
In 1978 I left Northern Ireland and came to medical school at Charing Cross Hospital, which opened up a whole new world for me.
Having qualified and somewhat lacking in direction I was putting together my own GP training scheme, I found myself doing a 6 month Senior House Officer job in psychiatry at Frimley Park Hospital under a Doctor from Chile. We developed a great relationship and he taught me what a good psychiatrist should be; a good diagnostician, able to listen and provide practical help and hope at a time of crisis.
Why did you choose to specialise in addiction?
From the beginnings of my experience with patients at medical school, I could see how problems with substance abuse can cause so much in the way of physical, mental, and social consequences.
There was often little available in terms of treatment resources and little understanding of these problems. Addictions are often dismissed by physicians, surgeons and general practitioners. I felt that I had something to offer in working in this field.
What does a typical day look like for you working with addiction patients?
My time is divided between inpatients at the Priory Hospital Roehampton and outpatients both at the hospital and in central London.
Three times a week I meet with the Addiction Treatment Team to discuss the inpatients, their progress, problems and what interventions and discharge plans need to be made.
My outpatient work involves assessing new patients, some of whom want to deal with their addiction problem and others who may not have been so keen. I have to try motivational interviewing techniques to encourage the patient to acknowledge the consequences of their addiction and the need to take action as soon as possible.
What’s the most common misconception about what you do?
Many people still think that the Priory only deals with celebrities and the wealthy that have addiction problems. This could not be further from the truth. The majority of our patients are working, some have health insurance, others self-paying who desperately want to fix what’s wrong with them.
The other misconception is that addiction is somehow a choice to be bad, rather than a disease over which patients are powerless.
Could you name three of the most challenging aspects of your role?
- Motivating people who do not recognise the consequences of their addiction and don’t want to change.
- Involving close family members in a positive way in patient’s recovery. We work very hard at the Priory to do this.
- Challenging the widely held stigmas about addiction. I work with media trying to get this message across.
What is the most interesting part of your job?
Never knowing what’s going to turn up! I have been privileged in this job to meet people from all walks of life, from the unemployed and homeless, to the rich and apparently successful, people from every country in the world and people doing jobs and involved in organisations which I had never heard of before.
My work has been an immense privilege.
Do you think there is a type of person suited to becoming a psychiatrist? What key skills do they need?
The absolute key skill to being a good psychiatrist is to be interested and really care about other people. You have got to be curious, empathetic and understanding.
We all have different skills so when you meet a psychiatrist who has the right combination of attributes, it is really quite striking.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to psychology/medical students?
I have been teaching medical students since I qualified as a doctor in 1984.
You really have got to want to be a doctor, to look at the whole person not just see them as a number, a collection of biochemical reactions and cells, but as a living breathing organism with hopes, dreams and aspirations. People are fascinating. How their body, and mind and how the combination of these two work has got to interest you and can be a never ending source of inspiration.
Psychiatry needs doctors who care and want to make a difference to people’s lives.