People of the U: Dr. Osman Athar
Published on Monday, March 21, 2022
By: Gary Pettus, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Osman Athar can speak four languages, not counting the language of psychiatry. But psychiatry did not always speak to him.
“For me, there was a stigma about it, about mental illness,” said Athar, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UMMC. “But, in my third year of medical school, I did my clerkship in psychiatry.
“That was my first rotation, psychiatry; and it was love at first sight.”
Athar has translated that passion into the vocabulary of the classroom, the dialect of the clinic, so eloquently that he has captured the admiration and recognition of his colleagues.
Although he joined the Medical Center just 18 months ago, he was recently chosen by faculty members as the winner of the Trailblazer of the Year Award for Excellence in Medical Student Education, an honor reserved for an outstanding teacher who represents the “best-of-the-best.”
And, for the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, in 2021, he was named Clinical Teacher of the Year.
“I love to teach,” Athar said. “I’m honored by these awards. I feel a lot of gratitude, a lot of love from the university; it’s already like a family for me.”
As for his biological family, his mom is a neurologist, his dad, a radiologist. The physicians, now semi-retired, were brought up in India and Pakistan.
“They are both very humble; they just focus on helping people the best they can,” Athar said. “They helped me focus on the values of the culture I came from: respecting family, respecting your elders. Being honest. All of these things have helped me in my career.”
Athar’s career as an assistant professor began in Mississippi, as did his life. He was born and brought up in Jackson; his parents had moved to Mississippi after coming to America and working in Chicago.
“They enjoyed their work,” Athar said, “so I considered becoming a physician for that reason. They’re happy I became a physician.”
Still, he had also considered becoming an architect, and even an English teacher. As an English major at Rice University in Houston, Texas, he dove into literature, and, to this day, hardly ever comes up for air.
Today, he also reads philosophy and studies theology as well as languages. While living in Texas, he learned to speak Spanish, a language he added to a lineup including English, Arabic and Urdu, which is gratifying to use, he says, whenever he visits Pakistan.
The worlds of architects and English teachers lost out, though, when Athar enrolled at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.
“I really started to see the beauty of medicine in medical school,” he said. “I realized that, with the knowledge I gained, I would be able to really help others, so I stuck with it.”
The beauty of psychiatry struck him later. “During that rotation my third year, I heard people’s stories; I realized how severe mental illness can be and how neglected the population is,” he said. “It was seeing people so stigmatized by mental illness, but also seeing them get better with medication or psychotherapy. It was really rewarding.
“I’m doing a research project on this. I would like psychiatrists to focus more on evaluating stigma, on a state-by-state basis, and how to reduce it.” Mississippi, ranked 47th among the states, has one of the nation’s lowest rates of access to mental health care.
“I believe that people who are less familiar with mental illness view it as a weakness,” Athar said, “rather than as a biological process – just as with the stigma I had about it. I have to remember what I was like in my early 20’s before my own education about it.”
Many of the mentally ill patients Athar interviewed in Texas could speak Spanish only; that’s why and how he learned it as well.
He brought this level of dedication with him when he returned to Mississippi, joining the Medical Center in September of 2020. It wasn’t long before he was directing a clerkship for medical students in their third year – the same year he, as a student, had been won over by psychiatry.
Choosing Athar to run the Medical Neuroscience and Behavior course for M3s came easy for Dr. Scott Rodgers.
“Very early on in his time with us, as a teacher, he was getting a great response from residents and medical students,” said Rodgers, chair of psychiatry and human behavior who will become associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the end of the month.
“He is also an extremely talented psychiatrist. He is intelligent, he has integrity; he is an honest, compassionate, caring person.”
Athar took over the clerkship from Dr. Ian Paul, who recommended his successor.
“Dr. Athar is doing a great job, because he’s creative, enthusiastic and, perhaps as important as anything else, he’s kind to his students,” said Paul, professor and director of medical student education in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.
“And that can be difficult in a clinical setting, where it’s often hectic and high-intensity. It can be easy to snap at students at those times, but that’s not in his nature.”
Paul, who has a PhD, had run the clerkship since 2015, improving, among other things, the quality of teaching, as noted by graduating medical students in their exit surveys, Rodgers said.
“Dr. Athar is continuing, and building on, the success that Dr. Paul had. Dr. Athar’s training in direct clinical care was something we needed in a clerkship director. And he has done a number of things to make the clerkship better, to the point that he has received this very prestigious [Trailblazer] award.”
Athar’s commitment to relieving the stigma of mental illness is “one of the most important things you can do,” Paul said. "There are a lot of communities where, rather than admit they have a problem with their mental health, people would rather die; sometimes they do.
“Dr. Athar and I are trying to get more students to understand that, in the practice of medicine, mental health is health. If you diagnose a patient with diabetes, you don’t say, 'you just have to find a way to live with it.’ It’s about making mental health a priority.
“People like Dr. Athar are the role models who can persuade students that going into psychiatry is something they might want to do. The award he received shows his commitment to teaching and his drive to be as good as he can possibly be at his job.”
But there is an emotional cost for those who practice psychiatry, and Athar pays it from time to time, he said. His antidote is to take his mind off the strain by running, exercising, gardening.
“But the rewards of psychiatry and teaching are so much greater than the challenges,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see young people, to be able to shape them, to teach people about mental illness, to give back to Mississippi, which is my home.
“I feel so lucky to be able to have this job.”