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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Mental Health of Medical Students

Mental Health of Medical StudentsAt the beginning of this month the Student BMJ released an article documenting the results of a survey they completed.1 This survey looked at the mental health of medical students attending university in the UK – and what it found was very concerning. Student BMJ surveyed 1122 medical students – they found that 343 of the respondents, ie 30% of the cohort had experienced or received treatment for a mental health condition. In addition a shocking 80% of this group expressed that the level of support available to them was either ‘poor or only moderately inadequate’. 167 of the respondents, just under 15%, revealed that they had considered committing suicide at some point during their studies.

This survey highlights that there is an alarming prevalence of mental health conditions and suicidal ideation amongst medical students – further to this, it is disturbing to find that a majority of the students felt inadequately supported.

As a medical student myself, I am very aware of the environment students find themselves in. Medicine is a competitive degree, with a very intense workload. It is psychologically taxing – dealing with such large volumes of work and preparing for deadlines, whilst attending lectures, seminars, practicals etc. throughout the week, typically from 9 to 5, can induce a lot of stress. In addition to this, we come into contact with death, dying and distress in the clinical environment – we are expected to be professionals, but this is a considerable task for medical students who can be as young as 18 years. Students studying medicine have to undergo an extreme transition between studying for A-levels compared to studying for a medical degree – the workload is much larger, and there is considerably less academic support. Medical students also have to come to terms with the fact that they will have less time to socialise, to see friends and family than other students at university with a less demanding timetable – and this can bring about feelings of frustration and sadness.

Some students find themselves with a great social support system at university – with friends/family who can lend a sympathetic ear – for some people it can be a relief just to tell someone else how they feel. For others however, this form of social support may be absent. It is my opinion that it is the responsibility of the university/academic institution which provides the course to ensure a very high level of pastoral support is easily accessible for medical students. I found the BMJ’s survey distressing. It is saddening to realise that if I, or indeed one of my peers who also study medicine, were to ever find ourselves with mental health issues, that we might be faced with a situation where the support may well be inadequate depending on where we study. Medical schools need to face the facts that a significant percentage of medical students feel unsupported with regards to mental health problems. Medical schools are educating future doctors about the importance of the biopsychosocial model, and de-stigmatizing mental illness – yet they do not promote the importance of discussing and dealing with these problems in an open environment. Medical schools should make it very clear how to attain pastoral support and ensure it is free of any stigma. Indeed universities should also provide information on how to contact other organisations who can provide support – such as general practice, counsellors and Samaritans.

As a medical student at Queen’s University Belfast, I feel supported. During the first week of my medical course, the year group were given a lecture by a mental health professional who explained that the course would place a lot of demands on us, and that it was important for us to look after our own mental health. We were made aware of the support systems at Queens – for all students, for example the University Health Service, the University counselling service and student support leads. At Queens the dialogue surrounding our own mental wellbeing was opened up from the very beginning, and thus I feel that I would be supported if I found myself needing assistance.

I believe that with open dialogue, and clear accessible support, medical students with mental health problems will feel much more supported during their time at university.

References:

  1. Matthew Billingsley (September 2015) 'More than 80% of medical students with mental health issues feel under-supported, says Student BMJ survey', Student BMJ, 23:h452 [Online]. Available at: http://student.bmj.com/student/view-article.html?id=sbmj.h4521(Accessed: 13/09/2015).

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Jordan Bamford

Jordan Bamford is a Second Year Medical Student at Queen's University Belfast

If you would like to contribute to the Blog Zone series, please email an outline of your blog to: jburnside@rcpsych.ac.uk