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What does a Psychiatrist do?

Psychiatrists are specialist physicians, trained to deal with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medication.

Psychiatrists often deal with very complex and chronic mental health cases. To be a psychiatrist, you need to be aware of others and of yourself, and have the capacity to confront the mental illness of others, unpack the reasoning behind it and treat the diagnosis accordingly.


What qualifications do I need?

Psychiatrists in South Africa typically study for about ten years. The first six years is spent on theoretical training to obtain a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery and the other four years in postgraduate studies to obtain a Master of Medicine in Psychiatry degree. In addition, psychiatrists also usually spend one year in student internship and one year in community service. Registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is mandatory for this occupation.

What subjects do I need?

Additional Official Language
Life Sciences
Physical Sciences


Where can I study?

Stellenbosch University
MBChB - Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery
M Med (Psychiatry)

University of KwaZulu-Natal
BMedical Science: Anatomy - Bachelor of Medical Science: Anatomy
BMedical Science: Physiology - Bachelor of Medical Science: Physiology
M Med (Psychiatry)

University of the Free State
MBChB - Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery
M Med (Psychiatry)

Where can I get more info?

South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) - www.sasop.co.za
South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) - www.safmh.org
Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) - www.hpsca.co.za


Interview with a Psychiatrist

Bavi Vythilingum | PSYCHIATRIST | Self employed

Bavi Vythilingum | PSYCHIATRIST | Self employed


Why did you choose psychiatry? 
I like talking to and interacting with a wide variety of people. I like the workings of the brain and understanding how genetics and the environment intersect to create ill health and how we can work with medication and therapy to make people well. I like being at the cutting edge of medicine.

Please explain what you do
I am a medical doctor that has specialist training in working with people who have mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar mood disorder and schizophrenia. I use medication and therapy to treat these conditions.

What training did you do?
I did a 6-year medical degree at the University of Natal (now UKZN), and then a 4-year specialist degree in psychiatry at the University of Stellenbosch.

Describe a typical day
I start with ward work (seeing patients admitted to the clinic) from around 7:15am until around 8:45am. I then start consulting with my outpatients until about 4:30pm, when I do admin and paperwork until about 5:30/6pm.

What do you enjoy most about it?
I love the interaction with lots of different people and that it’s meaningful interaction. I really get to know people – I have seen some of my patients finish school, go through varsity and start work, others get married and have kids. 

Any hurdles? 
I had my first child while I was studying and then had three small children while I was in the early stages of my career. It was difficult juggling the needs of my family and the demands of a career. 

What’s been the highlight of your career?
I set up the Women’s Mental Health Clinic at Groote Schuur Hospital – the first joint obstetric/psychiatric clinic providing services to women with mental illness in the public sector. 

Future goals?
I want to write more about mental health and translate research findings into easy-to-read pieces for the average person.

Experience vs formal training? 
Experience is very important – you have to know how to read people, as every patient is different. There is a saying in medicine: “patients don’t read textbooks”, meaning patients don’t behave like the textbooks say they should and its experience that allows you to understand the true picture.

Is there a type of personality best suited? 
You have to be persistent, methodical and compassionate, but also thick-skinned – people often take out their frustrations on you and you have to know how to shrug it off.

Advice for someone starting out? 
Try to spend some time working in a state hospital where more experienced colleagues can guide you. Keep current with the literature. 


Interview date: May 2022