With an amazing career behind and before him, Stephen James, M.D., is a unique psychiatrist who quite naturally approaches his practice from a solid place of personal inner healing in combination with an earnest desire to inspire the same in his patients. His story is different than most; he actually had a career in business and a successful practice as an anesthesiologist before becoming a psychiatrist.
As a young undergraduate in a private Santa Barbara institution, Steve loved being a collegiate soccer player and reveled in the joys of newfound independence. He was also eager to please his parents and family, so accordingly he declared a pre-med major with an eye to becoming a medical doctor. However, as so many young adults discover, Steve found submitting to the expectations of others in academia was ultimately trying on the spirit as well as his enthusiasm. While at some level he intuited his fate might lie in the eventual practice of medicine, his academic performance (and his interest in it) was not sufficiently conducive to subsequent enrollment in medical school. Therefore, he made a decision to capitalize instead on his business acumen and changed his undergraduate majors to business and philosophy. After graduation, Steve began working at a financial institution as a banker.
It didn’t take long for Steve to realize he was ill-suited for a career in finance. With his inquisitive spirit and scientific talents remaining basically untapped, Steve found himself unchallenged and unhappy. At this point in his life the idea of becoming a doctor once again took root but with one big difference–this time he had planted the seed. The drive to succeed and become a medical professional was this time the result of his own designs and decisions. And, as time progressed, he became increasingly committed to his ultimate career destination. In fact, he willingly moved back into his parents home and went back to college to complete his pre-med course requirements as well as achieve a sufficiently high GPA. With not a sacrifice spared, he did both in record time. While waiting to be accepted into medical school, Steve held various positions in hospitals. While at work he was always seeking out his niche, the one specialty area which would one day become his professional home. He found that in anesthesiology. Once in med school he pursued it vigorously; eventually becoming a prominent anesthesiologist.
At the pinnacle of his career however, Steve became increasingly aware of a chronic medical condition which could possibly thwart his ability to provide excellent care to patients in the future. Ever-respectful of the limitations of the human body, he moved forward and expanded his expertise to the realm of psychiatry.
Today Steve is a psychiatrist at Memorial Hospital located in Gulfport, Mississippi. His story is one of discovery; of taking life’s challenges and transforming them into tools for success and better understanding. While flourishing career-wise, he also enjoys traveling to New Orleans as well as exploring the Coast of Mississippi. The richness of southern living is far from being lost on him; he avidly delights in the unique and colorful indigenous festivals, local flavors and diversified music events. In fact, the entirety of his lifestyle frequently inspires him to take pause and remark gratefully that a career as a psychiatrist can be personally empowering as well as vocationally satisfying. His tone is one of understanding and encouragement to those considering a career in the field. Quite notably, the rivers of his sentiment run deep; perhaps because they have withstood the tests of both time and extensive experience.
Dr. James, can you tell us a bit about how you eventually decided to become a doctor?
I was a little different from other people. I started out at Westmont College as a pre-med major. The problem at that point was I was having so much fun playing soccer and hanging out with friends that I was kind of a “B” student. Also, I was doing what others thought I should do with my life and not what I really wanted to do. So at a point during that time, I shifted gears and ended up being a business major and a philosophy major and went into banking. Unfortunately, it bored the heck out of me; and that’s when I really started to think about medicine. But for me it was a bit different because I already had a certain GPA. So I went and spoke with an old girlfriend’s father who was a doctor. I had to figure out if I could get the GPA I needed and if I could support myself to go back to school and finish up my pre-med classes. And what it really came down to in the end for me was that I thought, this was something I really wanted to do. I decided to give it 2 years (once I’d finished all the prerequisites) to get into med school, and if that didn’t work I’d have to take a different path. I didn’t ever want to say to myself that this was something I wish I would have done. I ended up getting in the first year after applying.
Was there anything in your childhood that led to your interest in medicine?
Not in my childhood, no. But I always knew I was very good in science and math, and that tends to lend itself to medicine. Plus, I was always really interested in the sciences. The key really was, that I had decided what I wanted to do for myself at that point; I wasn’t doing something to make anyone else happy. But the passion that grew in me really didn’t start until after I had my B.S.
So you finished your bachelor’s degree and then decided to become a doctor?
Yes. And I had to complete all of my prerequisites before applying for medical school. I had to move in with my parents to afford it. I went to UC Irvine for pre-med classes. I basically did 4 years of sciences in one year. I took organic chemistry, physics and 2 years of biology in one year.
What happened after you finished?
Since I didn’t think I was going to get into med school that year I got wait-listed in a ton of programs, maybe 10-15. Then I was accepted to Northwestern in Chicago for med school.
How did you choose anthesethisa?
While I was waiting to be accepted to a med school I worked at hospitals. I started out stocking supply carts in the hospital, then I started making sterile trays, then I became a nursing assistant. After finishing my med school prerequisites, I went to work setting up operating rooms at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. I thought I was going to be there awhile, but then I was accepted to medical school. What I did during all the periods when I worked in the hospitals is talked to doctors and asked them what they did and if they liked it. More than not at the time, the ones that were happiest in their jobs were the anesthesiologists. So I was interested in anesthesiology going into med school.
That’s great! You did your homework before going to med school!
Yes, and Northwestern had an interesting program. If you had a specialty that you liked in your freshman year of medical school, they would set you up with a mentor. So I had a mentor who was an anesthesiologist. I’d have to say I wanted to be an anesthesiologist from the beginning.
What about your residency?
Residencies are different depending on the specialty you’re doing. Anesthesiology was a 4 year residency. The first year is basically a “grunt” year; I did internal medicine and then I did 3 years of straight anesthesia.
Why did you leave anesthesiology to become a psychiatrist?
I had some concerns about my ability to continue performing the job due to a long-term medical condition.
Where did you do your psych residency?
At Dartmouth. Then I spent one year in South Portland, Maine, and 2 years at Elliot Hospital in New Hampshire; in 2011 I moved here to Mississippi.
How many hours do you work a week?
It probably averages out to about 50. It’s a lot more adjustable than anesthesiology, where I worked a lot more hours. One of the nice things about psych is that it’s a little like having banker’s hours. I’m on call every 5th weekend and I have to go in and work up anybody that I admit. That includes the child unit, the adolescent unit and the adult unit.
Do you have ample time for family, friends and recreation?
Oh yes! That’s one of the things I love about psychiatry–the hours are just so much better than anesthesiology. I’ve got plenty of time to do what I want to do now. When I worked anesthesia, I was working 70-80 hours a week. Plus in anesthesia, I’d be on call and stay in-house and work all night and then be up all the next day working. Now, when I’m on call I can go do things; I just have to be able to answer the phone and be within driving distance to the hospital. It’s a much better lifestyle than other specialties, but on the downside it doesn’t pay as much as a specialty like anesthesiology.
Why is that?
Medicine tends to pay more (or insurance providers) for procedures than for non-procedure specialities.
Do you have a specialty area in the field of psychiatry?
Not really; but the reason I went into psychiatry is that I became interested in adult survivors of child abuse and traumatic injury. I skew my practice towards that; the only people I see for therapy are adult patients who have had a traumatic history, I don’t do therapy with children or adolescents.
You have such a wonderfully positive attitude! How do you maintain your upbeat approach?
I get up every morning and I read some type of devotional work. In the end, as a psychiatrist, you are only as good as your own health. It’s important for me to grow as a person, look at and learn new things and expand. I do it for my own well being, but ultimately it pays off in my work. I have patients tell me all the time that I’m not like any psychiatrist they’ve ever met, even if they’ve been going to one for years, even decades.
That is a wonderful compliment!
Yes. I have patients tell me that all the time that no matter how many doctors they have seen or for how long, no one has explained things to them as I do. Especially my trauma patients. While I can’t explain why, the reason is because I’ve lived through my own issues and done a lot of work on myself.
Why do you think they find your help unique?
Well, according to them the advice I give is different–it’s grounded. I give them reading materials and other tools to help them. They like that. I always tell them that medication is fine, but in the end our major calling is to try and correct things we can in our core cognitions, automatic behaviors and things in our past that are dark and we don’t want to face. We need to uncover the core that is really causing the damage to our lives.
In terms of psychiatrists and psychotherapists, whom do you admire?
My favorite is Carl Jung. He kinda believed in our dark side and our shadow and the power that can have over us. He also believed in synchronistic events, so he believed in a higher design; that’s why I probably plug into him more than anybody else. But Freud certainly understood the unconscious; he understood traumatic injury as well. But he pretty much set trauma back about 50 years; everybody thinks he’s a genius but he actually probably did more harm to the issue of trauma then help.
What characteristics make for a good psychiatrist?
Really what you want to be, to be a good psychiatrist, is to have a nice balance between the feeling state and the cognitive state. Instincts become important–gut feelings become important, but also what you know intellectually is important as well. The more you can bring all of those to the table, the more diversified you are and the more likely you’ll be to help a patient out.
What gets you excited about your job and why?
Mostly what gets me excited is being able to help someone who is in a lot of pain.
Thank you Dr. Stephen James!