The medical school students who reach out for help have often been struggling for some time in isolation. It takes a lot for them to make the call to a therapist. The rigorous schedule demands have become too much. Anxiety and depression are quite common in this population- perhaps even more so than in the general population.
However, many suffer in silence believing that it is a sign of weakness to seek support. And besides when is there time to go to therapy? There is a common belief that medical professionals “should” have it all together and by seeking therapy it means one does not “have it all together”. Our society supports silence and sadly, so does the medical professional programs. Some programs are adapting favorably with more emphasis on wellness and work hour restrictions. However, there remains room for improvement. Unhealthy and ineffective cultural norms are strongly rooted. It should be expected and encouraged that students seek mental health support at the onset of stressors.
Self-Criticism & Silence
It’s a competitive world filled with comparison and pressure my clients tell me. If you are a medical student, you likely were already facing self-critical thoughts and perfectionistic tendencies. Medical school has simply exacerbated them. Your strive for excellence is admirable. However, these impossible standards can no longer be ignored as the breaking point is near. You may even start to doubt your professional choice. This is a crucial moment- silence is strong and often prevails. And besides, your self-critic is familiar and has become a large part of identity- why change it now you may ask yourself. Staying silent and alone will lead to ineffective coping strategies and more damage in the long run (deep down you know).
Changing the story
Perseverance, strength, drive, and excellence will be a part of your story. It’s who you are, along with the other values that are unique to YOU and the reason you chose to this profession. At any point in life, we can re-evaluate the story we are living from. The power is within us to re-write with more truth and unhook from life’s conditioning. Imagine that you are with a patient who is telling you for the first time about their loneliness, grief, anxiety, and you respond with acceptance because you get it. It’s okay to feel angry, sad, lonely. It’s okay to need support in this human life. When you communicate this to others it helps to change the story of what it means to seek mental health support to one of strength and courage.
Another reason that silence is strong are the concerns of privacy and being stereotyped. Some students worry about the potential negative effects on residency placements or future career. This is completely understandable.
You can be a role model for younger students and eventually your patients. When you seek help now, you prevent burnout down the road or at least you can recognize it sooner when it shows up. Medical students need help too. Cultural stoicism must not prevail. When you have a physical injury, it is expected that you go to a physical therapist. What if we normalized psychotherapy in the same way? In this world, can you imagine what the ripple effect to your future patients could be?