An Unconventional Path to Practicing Psychiatry
On her daily walk to the emergency room where she works in Manhattan, Dr. Kendra Campbell takes pictures of things that inspire her along the way.
Sometimes it’s a rusty pay phone, wires disconnected and receiver hanging askew. Sometimes it’s an abandoned Barbie doll, plastic hair matted with dirt. Sometimes it’s the rose-patterned skeleton of a sofa, cushions long gone and picked through for loose change.
Dr. Campbell passes by plenty of conventionally photogenic things, too—daffodils, murals, a glimpse of a pink-rimmed sunrise. But Dr. Campbell prefers the overlooked and discarded.
“I like finding beauty in things that you wouldn’t necessarily think are beautiful,” Dr. Campbell says.
It’s an outlook she brings to her job as Assistant Director of the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP) at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Many of the patients she sees are homeless, mistreated, or otherwise neglected—in addition to struggling with their mental health.
They’re by no means easy to work with. But that’s exactly why Dr. Campbell finds it so rewarding.
“What I like about being a psychiatrist in the emergency room is that you see people at their breaking points,” says Dr. Campbell. “I have this unique opportunity to make a profound impact on their lives. And that is a very precious, fulfilling thing.”
From Technician to Physician
Dr. Campbell grew up on a dairy farm in Luray, Virginia, where she was surrounded by animals and learned compassion for all living things—people included. She earned her degree in psychology at George Mason University in Virginia, and worked as a technician in a psychiatric hospital after graduation.
With an eye towards entering the medical field, Dr. Campbell switched jobs after a few years to do research with the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). But it wasn’t what she’d hoped it would be.
“I was spending all my time with data instead of people,” Dr. Campbell says, “and it occurred to me that I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life.”
That’s when she knew she wanted to be back in the hospital—not as a technician, but as a physician.
Thanks to her years at AAMC, she was intimately familiar with the U.S. medical education system. Instead of applying to U.S. medical schools, though, she chose to apply to Ross University School of Medicine on the Caribbean island of Dominica. She had always wanted to live abroad and decided this was the perfect opportunity.
“I loved it,” Dr. Campbell says of her time in Dominica. “It was definitely challenging at times, but everyone was supportive, and all in all it was an extremely positive experience.”
Dr. Campbell completed her residency in psychiatry at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. Then, she entered a dual fellowship program at Columbia University in public and emergency psychiatry, taking on her current role at the conclusion of the fellowship.
“I definitely found the right place for me,” she says. “I love what I’m doing.”
Treating the Whole Person
In the emergency room, Dr. Campbell sees dozens of patients in various stages of crisis. Although her approach varies depending on the situation, she tells every patient two things: You are normal, and there is hope.
This kind of reassurance is critical in psychiatry, where there are still pockets of stigma surrounding mental illness that act as a barrier to people getting the care they need.
“I tell my patients, ‘It’s okay. You are not strange, you are not crazy, you are not any of those things. You’re a normal person dealing with life,’” says Dr. Campbell. “And the second thing I tell them is that there is hope, you can get better. You don’t have to feel like this.”
Dr. Campbell takes a holistic approach to treating her patients, especially as their mental health issues are often intertwined with other factors, such as environment, family, and life circumstances. In this way, although she is called to see patients because of their psychiatric issues, Dr. Campbell also focuses on the other forms of dysfunction that plague her patients, and which serve as underlying causes.
“If you don’t look at the big picture of the patient as a total human being, then I think you really fail them,” says Dr. Campbell. “So I try to incorporate that into the work I do with my patients.”
For example, she recently started a program in the emergency room in which volunteers work with patients to do art projects, using clay and other art supplies. Interested patients will have the opportunity to contribute their work to a group art exhibit.
“The art they create, it’s just breathtaking,” says Dr. Campbell. “And it’s a way for them to share their stories and be heard.”
Social support is also a critical factor in patient wellness. And, as Dr. Campbell notes, that support doesn’t always have to be human.
“There are lots of studies that show all the positive impact pets can have on their owners’ physical and psychological well-being,” says Dr. Campbell. Benefits include decreasing loneliness, providing a sense of purpose and increasing self-confidence, according to the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI). For these reasons and more, animal-assisted therapy is increasingly being used as a strategy in treating depression1.
All in all, it’s about helping someone in a way that works for them.
“Just giving someone a pill isn’t going to fix them,” says Dr. Campbell. “I encourage patients to use everything at their disposal to get better—I don’t just focus on medications.”
On Feeling Unconventional
Dr. Campbell records her experiences in medicine on her blog at DoctorPsychobabble.com. Thanks to the blog’s popularity, over the years she’s received thousands of emails from aspiring medical students with whom her words have resonated.
Her inbox fills up with all sorts of questions, from medical school to residency to psychiatry. Still, one common theme tends to emerge: Should I go to medical school?
“I hear from many people who tell me they feel unconventional as a potential med student. Maybe they’re older, or they don’t have the highest GPA, or they’ve had a career in something else,” says Dr. Campbell. “They say, ‘I’ve been thinking about medical school—how do I decide if I should go?’”
She recommends getting as much experience as possible to test the waters and make sure it’s what you really want to do. “I can’t make that decision for anyone. But I am a chronic optimist and I believe in following your dreams,” she says. “If that’s your dream and you have the passion, go for it. At least try it. So many people live with regrets, and if you start the journey, at least you’ll know if it’s for you.”
As for Dr. Campbell, she knows it’s for her.
“Now I’m doing what I feel like I always wanted to do,” she says. “And I couldn’t have done it without Ross.”