Psychiatry program helping to fill a void

Monday July 23, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Mental disorders affect about a quarter of all adults in the United States, but because of a dearth of psychiatrists, many people end up on long waiting lists before they can get professional help.

Looking at those numbers in the Berkshires, Dr. Alex Sabo and his colleagues at Berkshire Medical Center decided to make a move.

Four years later, the Pittsfield psychiatry residency program has just graduated its first class, and is working on becoming one of the solutions to a shortage of mental health professionals locally, state wide and nationally.

"We're hoping the residents will meet shortage needs in the commonwealth and in the country," said Sabo, chairman of psychiatry and behavioral science at BMC.

The 2011 Massachusetts Medical Society Physician Workforce study finds the shortage of psychiatrists in the commonwealth "critical," one of only three specialties to receive the dire designation, along with urology and primary care.

"We'll hear all the time from people in the community that there are long waiting lists," said Dr. Liza Donlon, associate residency program director.

The residency program accepts an average of four medical school graduates a year for the four-year residency; 18 people are currently enrolled, many international medical school graduates from as far away as Nepal, Russia and Egypt.

The residents work within BMC's psychiatric department, which has 10 to 15 physicians and as many nurse practitioners, and treats about 12,000 patients, or about 10 percent of Berkshire County.

This June, the doctors who began at the program's inception in July 2008 graduated, one of whom was recently hired to join the BMC department of psychiatry. Another has gone on to specialize in child psychiatry at the University of Vermont, and third was hired as a psychiatrist in North Carolina.

Applications for the program have steadily risen since its inception, from about 300 in 2008 to 900 for the current class of first-years, Donlon said.

These residents, who are considered doctors in training, can be found working at locations including Family Practice Associates in Pitts field or the Brien Center's offices in North Adams. Some have spearheaded suicide prevention efforts by training so-called "gatekeepers," people like elder care professionals, firefighters and corrections officers, to spot signs of suicidal behavior. The residents have also worked to increase the availability of mental health treatment for young people.

"When it comes to child and adolescent psychiatry, this shortage gets more intense in Berkshire County," said 32-year-old Dr. Rizwan Iqbal, a chief resident originally from Pakistan.

The newness of the program has also allowed physicians to correct certain tendencies in American psychiatry, such as too much focus on prescribing drugs to alleviate mental illness, Sabo said. The curriculum at BMC teaches psychopharmacology as well as other psychological and social aspects of the field -- including "being human with another person," Sabo said.

"These are powerful ways psychiatrists heal. That was getting lost from psych training," Sabo said. "So we had a chance to get it right again."

To reach Amanda Korman:,
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