Dr Mahalingappa is a consultant liaison psychiatrist and clinical teaching fellow at Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, as well as the Secretary of the Association of University Teachers of Psychiatry.
She is one of 25 women to be highlighted as part of a special project that celebrates the stories of 25 amazing women psychiatrists.
Dr Mahalingappa's story
My journey in psychiatry began during my two-week placement in psychiatry in medical school in India. I saw many patients with a range of mental health conditions. This experience had a profound impact on me, making me realise how stressful events in life can significantly affect mental health, and also present as physical symptoms. I also learned that with the right support and help, we could make a big difference to those with mental health conditions. I was keen to understand more, so I decided to do another two weeks of elective placement in psychiatry, which confirmed my decision to choose psychiatry as my professional career. Looking back, I believe that by providing a positive experience in undergraduate psychiatry placements, educators can inspire medical students to choose psychiatry as a career.
I pursued a two-year Diploma in Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), a centre of excellence in mental health and neurosciences in Bangalore in India. I met many inspiring role models and had the best experience of learning psychiatry. During my neurology post at NIMHANS, I was intrigued by the challenges, especially the interface between medicine and psychiatry. This experience sparked my interest in liaison psychiatry.
I moved to the UK in 2004. I thoroughly enjoyed working in psychiatry, but I always had a passion to become a liaison psychiatrist. I find working in this field to be intellectually challenging and rewarding. Some of my seniors cautioned me in 2010 that liaison psychiatry did not have significant future career prospects in the UK. Still, I was determined to pursue this specialty. During my training in the UK, I specifically chose jobs that helped me gain experience relevant to my goal. I enjoy being an ambassador for psychiatry, helping improve the quality of psychiatric services for patients in acute hospitals. I am delighted that from 2010 to 2021, there has been a significant expansion of liaison services across the country. I have been able to make a small contribution in my role as a consultant Liaison Psychiatrist at Royal Derby Hospital and also in my roles on Royal College of Psychiatrists committees as Chair of the Liaison Psychiatry Specialty Advisory Committee, Academic Secretary of the Liaison Psychiatry Faculty, and a Psychiatric Liaison Accreditation Network Accreditation Committee member. Each time during these meetings, I feel inspired and energised through meeting colleagues who share similar interests. I would strongly encourage all those working in psychiatry to explore options for becoming involved with the College.
My other passion is medical education. When working with Professor Femi Oyebode I was inspired by his enthusiasm for teaching medical students. When an Honorary Clinical Lecturer post was advertised, I was the only Core Trainee who applied for this post. I was thrilled and surprised to be selected as an Honorary Clinical Lecturer when I was still a core trainee in Birmingham. I was given the feedback that my passion and commitment towards medical education was evident during the interview, and hence I was appointed. My advice for other juniors is that if you have a passion, please do your best to follow your dreams and try not to worry about the competition.
I subsequently worked as a Clinical Tutor in the Derby Psychiatry Teaching Unit. I was then promoted as a Clinical Teaching Fellow. I am currently working with an inspiring multidisciplinary teaching team, consisting of nurse educators, pharmacists, and lived experience educators. I work very closely with the volunteer expert patients. I have learned that students appreciate learning from someone who has lived experience of mental illness; they provide experiences that have a strong impact on students’ attitudes, and insights which go deeper than what can be provided by professionals, no matter how empathic and committed they may be. Working in Derby with my colleagues has made me realise the importance of co-production with service users and carers and the benefits of working in a highly motivated team. Although our team is small, because of our team's enthusiasm and innovations, we are making a national impact.
I have also volunteered in three charities:
- The British Indian Psychiatric Association (BIPA)
- The Association of University Teachers of Psychiatry (AUTP)
- The Tropical Health Education Trust (THET)
The work I have done for these three charities has helped improve undergraduate and postgraduate psychiatric training both locally and internationally in India and Zambia, assisting trainers abroad.
When I was a trainee, I was involved with BIPA, helping conduct two Train-the-Trainer workshops for educators in India. I also became more interested in global health and volunteering. The Tropical Health Education Trust made an educational link project with NHS trusts in the UK. In 2010 there were only three qualified psychiatrists in Zambia. THET, funded by the Department for International Development (DfID), aimed to support the Master of Medicine Programme in Psychiatry in Zambia to increase the capacity of qualified psychiatrists in Zambia. I visited Zambia as a volunteer to deliver postgraduate training, conducted a quality improvement programme, and supported the development of undergraduate medical student psychiatric teaching.
Those who would like to get involved with a similar initiative can check the Royal College of Psychiatrists Volunteering and International Psychiatry Special Interest Group (VIPSIG) for other similar projects. This experience certainly helped me develop my leadership skills. I learned through my project on improving the management of alcohol withdrawal in inpatient units about how to improve patient outcomes with a very limited amount of resources. I also spent time at the Centre of Excellence for Infectious Disease in Lusaka, where I learned more about psychiatric presentations in patients with HIV and TB. I would encourage my colleagues to consider taking a sabbatical or OOPE (Out of Programme Experience) to get involved in volunteering projects in other countries, as this brings fresh energy when you come back to work in the NHS.
I really want all students to become interested, enthusiastic, and excited to learn psychiatry; that's why I support and applaud #ChoosePsychiatry. I have also worked very hard as the Secretary for AUTP, a charity that aims to promote excellence in undergraduate psychiatric education in the UK and supports those students who may not choose psychiatric careers, but will inevitably encounter patients who will have co-morbid mental health conditions. AUTP organises high-quality medical education Continuing Professional Development events for both educators and students. It also promotes research in medical education and nurtures medical students’ leadership qualities. Do look out for the AUTP guide on virtual placements in Psychiatry, which will help all those involved in psychiatric training. Providing the right mentoring support and opportunities can help medical students become more interested in psychiatry and improves the quality of care during their clinical practice.
It was challenging to move to the UK as a single woman, but my passion for liaison psychiatry and medical education has been a source of inspiration to overcome difficulties in my career. Having mentors is also a key, as they will help us identify blind spots and nurture our strengths. I am thankful to my family, friends, and mentors, especially to Professor SK Chaturvedi, Professor Femi Oyebode, Professor Subodh Dave, Dr Simon Thacker, and Dr Peter Aitken, Dr Mary Wheatcroft, and many others who have inspired and nurtured me on many levels.
I know I made the right choice of psychiatry as my career, as it has given me immense job satisfaction to help people who need the best care. I would strongly encourage medical students to spend more time in psychiatry and explore it as a career option.