Medical Students And The ‘M’ Word

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Among all the pressures of being a medical student, the biggest challenge can be our own mental well-being.

Most of us probably thought we’d finally made it when we secured a place at medical school, or at least I thought I had. However, it’s becoming more apparent that keeping our place can be even harder.

Friends and family begin assigning us with labels once we’ve achieved a place; we’re now the smart ones, the perfect and the ‘elite’. It’s easy to talk about the benefits of medical school and we’re grateful to be on such a respected course, a course that many people unfortunately fail to get into every year.

So why is it that sometimes we are eager to brush the subject of mental health under the carpet?

While there is a lack of research into medical students suffering from mental health conditions, existing studies do suggest that medical students are occasionally more likely to suffer from depression compared to students on other degree courses.

But does this possibly suggest that medical students are less likely to come forward with any problems regarding their mental health? And why might this be the case?

The healthcare system is built on a cycle of competition. From the minute we click ‘send’ on our UCAS applications, we willingly insert ourselves into a lifelong trajectory. It all starts with the race for a place at medical school. Eventually this evolves into a race for the best possible class ranking at the end of our five year degree. This only further progresses into the race for a spot at our desired hospitals to work as junior doctors. The competitive nature never ends. So is it therefore hard to seek support from our fellow classmates when in reality, they’re also competitors? Does revealing the most intimate parts of our lives only arm them with more ammunition against us?

We’re now the smart ones, the perfect and the ‘elite’

Or do we keep our problems in the dark because of the constant striving for perfection? We might have left secondary school as the brightest and smartest. In a class of A/A* students however, it is incredibly easy to feel ‘average’. So we begin to compare ourselves to each other. We try to outdo each other with more revision and clocking more hours in the lab. The self-doubt inevitably starts to trickle in and we wonder whether we’ve made the right decision in picking a rigorous degree.

However, Tessa Davies, one of the pastoral tutors within the faculty, reiterates that this is perfectly normal,

“Sometimes students try to live up to impossible standards and expectations. And the best thing to do can be to just take a step back and revaluate.”

So how do you spot someone in need of help? Tessa notes that the first sign is normally social withdrawal. There may be periods of prolonged absence from lectures and some may sleep excessively, or not even get enough of it.

The flip-side of this seems to be a ‘large jump’ in the number of students who are willing to talk and ask for help.

As a speaker said in one of my recent lectures: “none of us are superhuman. We all have our kryptonite”. We can’t start a dialogue on mental wellbeing if everyone decides it’s better left taboo. Sometimes the bravest (and maybe the most professional) thing to do is to ask for help.

If you are a Southampton medical school student and feel like you need to talk to someone, you can book an appointment with the pastoral tutor, Tessa Davies by calling: 02380595571. Alternatively, contact your personal tutor or get in touch with anyone within the faculty and help will be provided.

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