Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Being a medical student with depression

Coping with depression whilst trying to get through medical school is hard. Really hard. It's a constant battle with myself to get out of bed early in the mornings for placement, or to motivate myself to do some studying when all I want to do is crawl up into a ball and sleep for hours on end. The fatigue is especially difficult to manage around exam time, when I am trying to concentrate all day but need to have a mid-afternoon nap that sometimes becomes a 4 hour sleep. And when I take a day off for my mental health I can suffer even more - my thoughts become more negative and guilty, blaming me for being a 'bad medical student' and taking up someone else's place in medical school.

Many people may find it hard to believe that medical students can suffer with depression. We seem to have the perfect life - a good future, an interesting occupation and often a great social circle around us, along with the opportunities to travel and experience things that other people may not. Why would we need to be depressed? Well the fact is that around 20% of medical students will suffer with depression, which has shown to be higher than the general population - common enough that the GMC has even wrote guidance on 'supporting medical students with mental health conditions'.

The most obvious cause for this high incidence in mental health problems is stress. Medicine is a demanding occupation and can cause people to become mentally ill due to burn-out and hours upon hours of work. However many careers are just as stressful, but individuals in these jobs do not seem to suffer with depression as often. Interestingly, it has been shown that depressed medical students are more likely to have had pre-medical school episodes of depression and that medicine almost seems to unintentionally select predisposed students. In addition, various studies looking at the characteristics of doctors have shown that attributes such as self-criticism, pessimism, self-doubt and feelings of inferiority are generally fairly high in the medical profession, which can all cause low self-worth and depression. Perhaps it is less about the actual job and more about the people than originally thought; I know that my depression is not caused by my degree and has been around since I was about 15 years old - in fact medicine really helps my mental health by giving me something to focus on.

On the other hand, it has been demonstrated that those that have suffered with mental health problems may be better carers for patients suffering with similar illnesses, including investigating more into suicidal thoughts. I definitely feel more equipped for talking to mentally unwell patients and think I would know when they needed more urgent help - I think I will be so much more empathetic in the future due to my own experiences. I definitely would never tell somebody to 'pull themselves together', like one doctor did with me last year!

There is still so much stigma around depression, even in the medical world where it is much more understood. Before opening up about my own mental health problems I believed that my university would see me as unfit to practise or too weak to carry on with medicine, when actually they have been overwhelmingly supportive. It is so much more professional to own up to the fact that you're suffering and seek help when you need it, rather than suffer in silence and progressively get worse, and medical schools really understand this. Read my post on how to inform your university about your mental health if you're interested - please get help if you need it.

Those working for the healthcare industry are expected to be strong and resilient, when really we are just like any other 'normal' person and can be just as affected by negative circumstances. We don't have super powers - we can't just turn off our emotions or be emotionally stable in every situation. Medical students suffer with depression, and that's okay. I think that we will all be better doctors because of it.
I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
                - Thomas Edison

PS Please donate towards my sponsored skydive for Mind here, or text MIHV99 £1 to 70070 - thank you for your support!


  1. This is a great post - and you're right, why shouldn't depression happen to medical students? In fact, no one is immune from mental illness. It doesn't matter if you're the queen, homeless or a medical student, it could happen to anyone. I think by reducing stigma (just like you're doing), more people will realise this xxx

    Sam // Samantha Betteridge

    1. Thanks Sam - exactly, anyone can suffer with their mental health, no matter their situation. I really hope so! xxx

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  9. My university has been anything but supportive

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