Grethel Perez hadn’t even finished elementary school when her parents began talking with her about careers she might explore.
“We emigrated from Cuba when I was five. My parents were immigrants and moved to the United States so I could have a better future,” she says. “My father said, ‘You know what would be a great career? Being a doctor!’”
By middle school, Grethel agreed with her father, motivated in part by her family’s own experiences relating to limited access to health care and barriers for individuals without health insurance and who don’t speak English well. Now a fourth-year student in DMU’s osteopathic medicine program, she is applying for residency programs in psychiatry, a specialty that has a shortage of providers.
“During my psychiatry rotation in my third year, that was where everything changed for me. That was the first rotation I was really excited about,” she says. “My preceptor showed me it’s a great field. One of the things he told me was to consider whether I could picture myself reading and learning about topics in psychiatry for the rest of my life, and I can.”
Grethel says the stigma attached to mental illness is especially high among Spanish-speaking people. She also found there’s a stigma attached to the specialty itself, due to negative misperceptions about working with patients with mental health issues. But in her psychiatry rotations, including at Washington University, building relationships with patients greatly appealed to her. So do opportunities to learn about human behavior and help patients enjoy fulfilling lives.
“The whole mental health thing sounds scary to people. But it isn’t that there’s something wrong with the individual; they just need help,” she says. “When I talk to a patient, especially when they’re at their worst, I want to be as kind and nonjudgmental as I can be so they know I’m safe and supporting them.”
She also likes the “challenge” of establishing trusting relationships with patients that allow her to work with them on a treatment plan.
“At Washington University, they were very big on autonomy. The preceptor asks you, ‘What do you want to do for this patient?’ You’re called the shots as a fourth-year student, which is such a weird feeling, but it does give you confidence,” she says.
At this point, Grethel plans to complete a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry. But she likes that the specialty will give her the flexibility to practice inpatient, outpatient and adult psychiatry as well. One of her third-year rotations was in outpatient telehealth care, which also has applications in mental health practice.
“It was a very unique rotation because everything was done by Zoom and over the phone,” she says. “It was a great experience.”
Looking back on her time so far as a DMU student, she says she’d advise first- and second-year students to “just breathe – put your head down and keep on going.” For all students, whether in didactic years or on rotations, her advice is not to be afraid to lean on others.
“Reaching out to others who have gone through what you’re going through is so helpful,” she says. “One of the aspects that’s great about DMU is that we all lean on each other. We have resources to fall back on. And that’s what gets us through.”