Patrice Baptiste: Mental health issues among medical students

patrice_baptisteI was extremely saddened when I read the Student BMJ’s article on a survey of 1122 medical students, 343 of whom were suffering with mental health issues. Several astounding figures captured my attention. Firstly, 80% of the 343 students stated that the support they received was poor, if they received any support at all. 167 out of the 1122 students admitted to contemplating suicide during their time at medical school.

Let’s just stop for a second—suicide?! I cast my mind back to when I was at medical school; it was not that long ago. I remember the intensity of it. I sacrificed a large amount of time with my family and friends in order to revise for what seemed like a never ending barrage of assessments and exams. Of course I had several moments when I wanted to quit, when I wanted to walk away and give up on my dream, but I did not due to the constant support and encouragement I had from those around me. A small fraction of the 300 plus students in my year could have been suffering with mental health issues and contemplating suicide. Though the statistics are small these figures still represent people; students who are pursuing their dream, who want to better themselves, and help others.

What I find unacceptable is the support or lack thereof the students expressed via the survey. Why is this? It is not news that mental health issues in the medical profession are stigmatised, with students and doctors reluctant to seek help because of the potential impact on their career prospects. It is 2015, and still mental health is seen as something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden. You are automatically seen as “weak” if you are suffering with depression or anxiety for example. “Getting on with it” is the answer, not seeking help, not taking a break from work (or studies), just “get on with it,” which is a remark made about one student who completed the survey.

Figures regarding smoking and drug use were also revealed with 15.8% of the 1122 students admitting to smoking, 25% engaging in binge drinking, and 10.9% using illegal drugs. Legal highs and drugs to help aid revision were tried by 8.3%. What shocks me is the number of students who feel that they need to use drugs to cope with the stress of medical school. Obviously not all students who use the above are doing so to alleviate stress or to cope with mental health issues but a proportion of the students are and this, I find, is very worrying. If there are issues now what will happen to them in the future when they become doctors, being moved across hospitals and regions, working long shifts, having to cope with the emotional demands of talking to patients and relatives?

More needs to be done. An important point highlighted in the survey was that students were unclear about who they should seek help from. There needs to be clear roles for staff members providing support, which should be established across all medical schools. Integrating lectures or workshops about self care, as well as talks about the support systems students can receive inside and outside of their medical school, would be incredibly useful. By doing my own research I found a number of support systems for healthcare professionals including students. The GMC provides essential guidance for medical schools in supporting students with mental health issues. The BMA also provides support in the form of counselling. The “Support for Doctors” and the “Doctors Support Network” provide a lot of help for healthcare professionals with mental health issues, which includes articles, interviews, and case studies that discuss mental health issues.

I think it is so important that mental health is talked about. Discussing mental health conditions such as depression will help provide awareness and support for those managing mental health conditions on a daily basis. Hopefully, in time the stigma attached to this topic will be eliminated, allowing for a healthier environment for students and doctors.

Patrice Baptiste completed the foundation programme this August and is currently taking a year out of training. 

Competing interests: None declared.