Harriet Kinahan: Stepping off the treadmill—the reality of taking a year out of medical school

Harriet Kinahan describes why taking a year out of medical school will help her protect her wellbeing and become a better doctor 

“I’ll be seen as a failure,” was my first thought when my medical school’s pastoral team suggested I take a year out of my studies. I could not face the fact that I had well and truly burnt out.

I am a typical medical student with regards to my path into medicine. I had not stepped off the treadmill of education since the age of 4, going straight from sixth form to university and doing an intercalated masters between my third and fourth year. Taking a year out of medical school was not how I saw my future panning out.

Prior to my decision I was in regular contact with my medical school’s pastoral team, having a history of anxiety, stress, and perfectionism. The combination of these and the increasing pressures of medical school led to my burnout, something that is becoming an ever increasing problem among medical students and doctors. 

Until you have experienced burnout, I think it is a difficult thing to understand. Despite burnout becoming an increasingly familiar topic of conversation and research among qualified healthcare professionals, I would argue that from my own experience and recent research, burnout is not addressed as commonly, or to the same extent, among medical students. While I had known people who had taken a year out of medical school, I did not necessarily attribute this to potential burnout. I did not know that interrupting my studies for this reason was even a potential option. 

Taking a year out was not an easy decision, and it is not one I made lightly. I felt as though all my other options, such as counselling, cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressant medication, or attempting to implement a healthier work-life balance, had been exhausted or would only continue to be effective alongside taking a year away from medicine. I was so caught up in my placement, and revision, and exams, and trying to be the perfect all-rounder that along the way I had lost sight of me. I lost sight of what I enjoyed; I lost sight of the fact that, as sad as it sounds, there is more to life than medicine.

For me, taking a year out was the best option. I needed time to work through these issues, using techniques I had learnt about during my time on placement and previous counselling sessions. I needed time to find the right counsellor I could work with. I needed time to implement changes; to change my thought pattern and my behaviours and learn new coping strategies. I had tried and struggled, not failed, to do this alongside my degree. I never seemed to have the time or the space in my head, so I knew this year out would give me the chance to focus, without being able to distract myself or avoid these issues.

My number one priority for this year was to relax. I spent my first month doing absolutely nothing, which is something I found extremely difficult, as even during holidays I had never fully switched off. After this, however, I knew I needed to find something to both earn money and keep myself sane. I love coffee, so naturally I gravitated towards a job in a coffee shop where I have been able to learn new skills, such as the notoriously difficult latte art. I have also volunteered within a clinical setting as both an optical assistant for Vision Care for Homeless People, and as a first aider with St John Ambulance.

Despite being able to acknowledge I made the right decision; it is difficult to watch all your friends passing their final exams and graduating as doctors. While you are bursting with pride for them, as you have seen and understand how hard they have worked, it is also difficult to know that you could have been in their position. But then you must reflect, and take time to think that if that had been me, and if I had managed to pass my finals and graduate, how would my mental health have fared?

Now I am nearing the end of my year out, I know that I am not a failure. I may not have taken a traditional route through medicine, but I am no less of a person, no less of a medical student, and I will definitely not be seen as any less of a doctor because it took me slightly longer than my peers to qualify. While staying in medicine this year would have meant reaching the finish line when I had expected to, it would have also meant reaching it before I was ready. I know now that taking this time to work on myself will help me become a better doctor for my future patients.

Harriet Kinahan is a medical student at the University of Manchester. Twitter @HarrietKinahan

Competing interests: None