Many of us ponder the age old question: “why am I here?” For some, the answer to this question is not often easy to come by; however, Dr. Barbara J. Justice found focus in life quite early. Maintaining a steadfast belief that she would utilize her talents to benefit others, Dr. Justice finds validation in her involvement in the mental health care field — an avenue that allows her to make a notable difference in the lives of others. For the past 34 years, Dr. Justice has drawn on her expertise of general, forensic and psychodynamic psychiatry, and psychopharmacology. She is currently an acting psychiatrist in the forensics department of Barbara J. Justice, MD. At the private medical practice, she provides psychopharmacology for adults, children and adolescents, and assesses and treats patients. She also handles workers’ compensation and civil cases, and counsels defendants who plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
The field of health care is broad and constantly changing. The most relevant knowledge Dr. Justice has gained over the years is that no one is perfect — even doctors. “I know where my strengths are,” she says. “When I don’t know, I call upon a colleague.” Comfortable with the fact that she is not, by any means, all knowing, Dr. Justice makes it a point to learn as much as she possibly can about her field. She holds certifications from both the American Board of Forensic Psychiatry, and the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. She notes that she initially began her journey into health care by earning a bachelor’s degree from The City University of New York and completing training in surgical oncology at the Howard University Cancer Center. In 1977, she earned her medical degree from the same prestigious and comprehensive research university. She continued her education by completing training in surgery and a fellowship in endoscopy at the Columbia University Medical Center, and broadened her knowledge of the health care field by studying forensic psychiatry and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Since her commencement from medical school, Dr. Justice has enjoyed a fruitful 34-year career, which she attributes to her faith and effort to constantly improve.
Dr. Justice considers herself blessed with intellectual and personal attributes that are best used in the healing art of helping others. Backed by an extensive education, she feels her desire to assist those in need grows stronger with every passing year. In addition to maintaining her various skills, she updates herself on the field through her affiliations with the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, The National Medical Association, the American Board of Forensic Psychiatry, and the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Inc.
Conversation with Barbara J. Justice, MD, ABPN, ABFP
WORLDWIDE PUBLISHING: On what topic(s) do you consider yourself to be an expert?
Barbara J. Justice: I am a general physiatrist and a forensic psychiatrist with specialties in psychodynamic psychotherapy and psychopharmacology.
What characteristics help to separate you from others in your field?
I have been very fortunate in that when I focused on a career goal and worked diligently, doors would open for me. Along the way, I have received a great deal of support from those who were already masters in different areas of healing. I have had very good mentors. I am tenacious and a fighter.
What motivates you?
Ever since I was young I felt that I was gifted with a good mind, and that any talents I had should be used to benefit others. That was the validation of my life. Many people search for focus [in] their lives, but for me I made a decision that this would be the validation of why I was living and why I was here. Therefore, I took whatever potential talents I had, maximized them, and put them to service for my community.
What lessons have you learned as a professional in your field for the past 34 years?
You can never be perfect. The best thing that a physician can do is to know their limits and understand what their strengths are. You should know when to consult with colleagues because the field of health is very broad and you can’t know everything.
What short-term and long-term career goals are you currently pursuing?
My short-term goal is to continue doing what I’m doing for at least a total of 10 years, and my long-term goal is to move back to the East Coast and continue a psychiatric practice there.
What is the most difficult obstacle or challenge you have faced in pursuit of your goals?
The field of surgery was difficult to get into because it was not a field envisioned to encompass women at the time. It was a male-oriented field. The program I went into was a pyramid program with 75 people. The people I was competing against were those from other countries who were trying to obtain credentials in the United States. Most of them were doctors who worked as surgeons in their home countries and were trained there. Some of them owned hospitals and were directors of hospitals. The program at Harlem Hospital had never had an African-American woman complete the program. The atmosphere was very hostile and I did have a good mentor who helped me, but my colleagues and peers made it very difficult. But I did it — I made it through.
What is the most significant issue facing your profession today?
The prejudices in our society against the mentally ill. It’s the lack of understanding of the illness, which therefore creates a prejudice against treatment. I think those prejudices influence many other things that happen, including access to care, the stigmatization that comes with obtaining care, and the fact that families are discouraged from obtaining care for their loved ones or believe that treatment is not needed. What happens is those attitudes seep into and influence legislature, who make decisions about legal matters concerning the mentally ill. It affects insurance companies and the ease of which they provide access to treatment.
Any part of the body can go wrong. I tell people that if the neuroreceptors in your brain are just not balanced well, and we can balance them with medication, how is that different [from] when the neuroreceptors in your pancreas are [not] working properly and a doctor helps to balance them? To me, there is no difference. We have certainly come a long way and treatment is valid.
What are some questions that an individual interested in your services can ask to ensure a more productive relationship?
They should ask about my philosophy of treatment and my approach. I do have guidelines and I tend to be more medically oriented than others in my field due to my background. I do like to at least have the history of the patient and access to other providers.
Did you ever consider pursuing a different career path or another profession? If yes, how did you end up working in your current field?
I applied to both surgery and psychiatry school when I graduated from medical school and I got accepted to both. I decided to start in surgery because I thought it was an ideal place for a young person. But I knew that I did not want to do it as I aged. I wanted to do something that was less physical and more mental.
What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your profession?
My ability to help someone and have them feel that I’ve helped them. When someone comes up to me and tells me that they really feel better and thank me for helping them — that is rewarding.
What is your favorite or least favorite work-related task to do and why?
My favorite task is sitting down with the patients. Everyone’s story is so interesting. My least favorite tasks are paperwork and dealing with the insurance companies. It wasn’t like this when I went into medical school.
What advice can you offer fellow members or others aspiring to work in your industry?
Augment the basic psychiatric training we receive as residents with studies in other areas that will help to enrich them, such as talk therapy. Continue to study, either formally or informally, in other areas as required throughout your career. You need to constantly stay abreast of the new and the old.
What changes have you observed in your industry/field since you started?
The field of medicine has changed dramatically and is dictated largely by the insurance companies. It is not always in the best interest of the patients. The cost of health care has risen astronomically, which is also a concern. Also, the lack of independence for doctors about being able to make the correct recommendations for their patients.