People with mental illness around the world continue to suffer from stigmatization and limited care. Previous studies utilizing self-report questionnaires indicate that many medical students regard clinical work with psychiatric patients as unappealing, while the professionalism literature has documented a general decline in students' capacity for empathy over the course of medical school. Through in-depth interviews, this study attempts to better understand the formation of medical students' perceptions of psychiatry and the implications of that process for a more general understanding of the impact of emotionally-laden experiences on medical students' capacity for empathy. Forty-seven fourth-year medical students who had expressed interest or performed well in psychiatry were asked a series of questions to elicit their perceptions of the field of psychiatry. Interview transcripts were systematically coded using content analysis and principles of grounded theory. Stigma, stereotypes, and stressfully intense emotional reactions seemed to adversely affect the students' expected satisfaction from and willingness to care for the mentally ill, despite enjoying psychiatry's intellectual content and the opportunity to develop in-depth relationships with patients. Teaching faculty need to directly address the stigma and stereotypes that surround mental illness and actively help medical students cope with the stress that they report experiencing during their psychiatry clerkship in order to improve the recognition and treatment of psychiatric illness by newly graduating physicians. More generally, the relationships that we identify among stress, stigmatization, and stereotyping along an empathic spectrum suggest that increased attention should be paid to the stress that empathy can entail. This perspective may allow for the creation of similarly targeted interventions throughout the medical school curriculum to counteract the decline in empathy, the so-called "hardening of the heart," associated with physician-training worldwide.