“The Reality of having a Mental Health Issue as a Medical Student”
A guest post by: “DepressedMedStudent”
The thought of a doctor or medical student being ill themselves is something that none of us like to consider. In some ways, this makes sense. It almost dehumanizes us, making it seem as though we are infallible to illness or making mistakes. The latter bit here is key – mistakes. Everyone, doctors and patients alike, like to think that ‘mistake’ is a term that doesn’t appear in our dictionary. Only by taking away this human element can we think that.
But what about when we do get ill?
I would say that if anything, this mentality is more harmful than beneficial. Sure, it helps dehumanize us but in the worst case scenario, it may lead to not seeking help when we need it (which is rather ironic when you think about it). For many, the thought of being mentally ill is a sign of ‘weakness’ rather than as a sign of actually being ill.
I am that medical student. The medical student who suffers from mental illness. The medical student who was admitted into a psychiatric ward. And it taught me some lessons, both painful and good, about being mentally ill in the medical field.
Lesson 1: The stigma exists – even amongst ourselves.
My admission to a psychiatric unit couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was approaching the end of my first year at medical school with exams literally just over a week away and bam, I was a patient. It wasn’t the fact that I had exams coming up quickly that upset me the most, however. What did upset me most was the reaction of the friends who I thought I had made at medical school.
Like me, they were all medical students. Surely, I thought at the time, out of all people they would be the first to understand what mental illness was. Surely, they would be the first to rush to my aid to make sure things were ok. How wrong I was! Within hours of finding out, most attempted to distance themselves from me.
Of course, this group of people were only a tiny proportion of medical students but any number is still unacceptable in my eyes. It made me ask – if we can’t be there for each other in times of need such as these, how can we hope to be there and understanding for our patients?
Lesson 2 – It is difficult to find where you ‘belong.’
Being a patient as a medical student or doctor presents many unique challenges. The biggest one I found was the sense of not knowing where exactly we belong. Let me explain.
I have already mentioned that nobody likes to think of their doctors as being able to become ill. Because of this, many of the other patients admitted seemed to feel exceptionally surprised when they found out I was a medical student – as a patient, rather than on an educational rotation. With mental illness, many patients were very mistrusting of their doctors or medical team and it wasn’t uncommon for them to want to distance themselves from me. And knowing their perspective, I can completely understand why.
At the same time, however, we as a medical profession are often unwilling to accept our colleagues who are ill, especially those who are mentally ill. I have already mentioned the example of some of my ‘friends’, but it quickly became evident after spending time with some of the medical team who were caring for me as well. “Medicine only gets harder – how can you expect to continue if you are ill?” or “You are in a very privileged position, why are you close to throwing it away?” were comments that were frequently made by some of my doctors, nurses, you name it.
So, we are not accepted as patients it seems, and nor are we accepted as ‘proper’ doctors or medical students. Is it helpful to our recovery? Absolutely not – it only makes it harder.
Lesson 3 – Despite all the negativity, there are rays of light.
As I am reading this back, I quickly realize how negative I have made some of the medical community seem. I would just like to reiterate once again that the negative attitudes I saw likely only come from a minority. In the state of mental illness, however, it is difficult not to dwell upon these. But there were moments of light.
The first was that I found how accepting my medical school was of mental health issues. The biggest piece of advice I can give to any of my fellow medical students in a similar position is to not be afraid to ask for help should you need it. My medical school allowed me to take time off to go to much needed appointments with my psychiatrists and arranged for a tutor to regularly make sure I’m caught up with the class. The head of the medical school himself even made it clear to me he sees no issue with me continuing and finishing.
Then, of course, there are the teachers themselves. Although it is hard when many fellow medical students seem to be wary of mental illness, it is clear that the lecturers talking about mental health issues – very much try to drill the point home that mental illness is very much ‘real.’ This, I hope, will change the attitudes of many toward mental health issues.
It is encouraging for our patients of the future.
The biggest lesson.
I am pleased to say that the biggest lesson for me was a positive one.
When I was eventually discharged from psychiatric hospital, I had just days to go before my exams. Somehow, I managed to pass them first time. To me, this showed to the people who doubted those with mental illness can become doctors were incorrect.
Mental health issues are much more common amongst medical students than we think. Each one of those students are constantly fighting a battle to overcome their illness, while still trying to learn how to better the lives of others around them too. With continued support, we can all overcome them together and hopefully become better doctors in the process.
“DepressedMedStudent” is a medical student who writes about issues with mental illness at his blog The Depressed Medical Student and can be reached via Twitter at @usycool1.
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