What does your job involve, in a nutshell?
As a consultant psychiatrist, I am a doctor first and foremost, diagnosing and treating mental health problems. There is a definite distinction between my private and NHS work. Within the private system, I see my role as an ‘emotional fitness trainer’ working with generally high functioning individuals with depression, anxiety or addictions. For the NHS, I lead a mental health rehab service for people who are severely affected by serious mental illness such as Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder or Severe depressive illness.
As an expert witness, I assist the courts by breaking down complex medical issues that relate to my area of expertise, psychiatric injury, which encompasses medical negligence, personal injury and occasionally criminal behaviour associated with mental health.
What is your typical working day and how have you adapted during the lockdown?
During my private practice you would usually find me in a clinic talking to patients. These days people are becoming more comfortable with virtual clinics over Zoom or Skype. On my NHS days, my physical presence at the hospital has increased due to the triple whammy of serious mental illness, threat of coronavirus, and lockdown (invariably bad for mental health).
Expert witness days would see me travelling to London to interview clients, distilling volumes of clinical notes into reports and talking to lawyers. Interviewing clients from home now feels strange. In this line of work, when there is a lot at stake, face to face meetings are often warranted.
Covid-19 has made me far more agile with my working practices. As virtual meetings have gone up, I’ve benefited from reading tips from Steven G. Rogelberg, Ph.D. (a bit of a meeting nerd), to help get results in half the time. My traditional thinking on clinics has been crushed. My catchment area is now the whole of the UK. There is something very rewarding about helping a young woman from an underserved area of Wales overcome depression to return to finish her Masters – all while sitting in your office in Sussex.
What led you to psychiatry in particular?
All of us are shaped by our stories. As a child, I experienced the effects of mental ill-health and addictions among some close family members. I felt the dramatic change once they were able to get the help they needed. Due to shame or lack of understanding, it is hard to get help for mental ill-health, even in this day and age.
My inspiration comes from seeing the life-changing results and generational benefits of good emotional health. When you help a mother with postnatal depression, not only do you help transform how the mother copes, you also help shape the baby’s brain positively, otherwise known as neuroplasticity, and set that child up for life. Talk about loving your work!
Besides the official qualifications, what are the personal skills you need to be a Consultant psychiatrist?
High levels of emotional intelligence and advanced communication skills. Listening carefully to what is being said, as well as not being said. You need to be empathic, but remain objective. If you were judgemental, someone struggling with a serious addiction would not want to talk to you; however you need to be honest about what needs to change with kindness and compassion, then help them make that change. That takes skill.
As for advanced communication skills, with limited time you must build trust and rapport quickly, to reach an understanding of the sometimes very painful issues that need treatment. Unlike any other medical specialty, psychiatry requires you to be a coach, a guide, a medical practitioner and a confidant all at the same time.
What do you think is the most common misconception about your job?
Oh, I could talk a lot on this one. Often, people don’t know the difference between a psychiatrist and a therapist. People mistake you for a life coach even. Psychiatrists are medically trained doctors, who have spent at the very least 13 to 14 years in medical training, with hands-on experience in mental health. I have written a blog post on Everyday Psychiatrist on the common myths about psychiatrists.
What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
‘Keep your head down, it’s not good to draw too much attention to yourself. It could harm your career’ – from a senior colleague when I started questioning some dubious practices and trying to make changes as a relative newcomer. Very well intended advice, but leadership comes with a willingness and responsibility to make some waves when things are not working. My decision to persist helped transform that service and set it on a path of excellence. Looking back I am grateful I didn’t listen.
Who do you look for professional guidance and how have they helped you?
I feel super lucky to have a ‘tribe of mentors’. My motto is to always be guided by the best people you can find. I receive guidance from our superb NHS medical directorate for leadership skills. The NHS is full of unsung heroes who get taken for granted all the time, which I am heartened to see is changing with the response to Covid-19. I have a business mentor for my private practice, Dr. Catherine Spencer-Smith, Sports medicine doctor to Olympians and star Business coach, and two fabulous and highly regarded medico-legal mentors.
What is your go-to workwear style?
My style depends on the occasion. On a daily basis, I prefer easy-to-wear, smart-looking, but friendly options, such as a shirt dress or shift dress with clean lines and a structured jacket. For occasions that demand power dressing, I add a pop of colour or wear a good old-fashioned suit.
When I work from home, comfort and versatility is key. A structured top, or shirt and a blazer, with an easy-going pair of chinos is my go-to. When I finish my virtual meeting, I can take off my jacket so I’m comfy again to continue with paperwork or make a quick lunch and a cup of tea.
How have you balanced your work and home life throughout the Coronavirus lockdown?
I am a mother with a young family, with a demanding profession and a business on the side. Covid-19 hasn’t been easy on our family and we have struggled, just like the rest of the country. Working from home requires robust communication with my other half, so my little one doesn’t come bouncing into the home office! To keep myself sane (funny that, I am a psychiatrist!), we do frequent check-ins, give each other permission to be a little cranky, and allow each other loads of personal space.
A lifesaver for time management for women who juggle lots of balls is American Author Jessica Turner. Following her advice I decided which balls were rubber, and which ones were glass – such as the safety and wellbeing of my family and my patients. I gave myself permission to not worry about a fair few rubber balls. I also realised that some things could be clubbed together – cosmic kids yoga or Tabata to the music of Trolls can combine bonding, exercise and fun into one.
There is nothing like being a BAME doctor in a pandemic to remind you of your mortality and your priorities. My advice to readers is be ruthless about which balls you can not worry about, and which must stay in the air. Mindless ‘busyness’ driven by striving for control and perfection can wreak havoc with your health. Where we feel a lack of control (a feeling you can't escape in a pandemic), the tendency is to try and control everything within your power. Choose carefully what you want to control, particularly your emotional response to a chaotic world.
Devika is a passionate advocate for women’s mental health and specialises in mental health and high performance. You can find out more about her work on her website everydaypsychiatrist.co.uk.
Interview: Lilli Brant
Photographer: Bekky Lonsdale
Accessories: Devika's own
Location: HCA at the Shard, London