To the Medical Students Struggling With Mental Illness in Silence

With 25 percent of medical students being depressed, and only 15 percent of those with depression seeking treatment, it’s easy to feel alone. I, myself, am a medical student who has dealt with anxiety and depression for the past four years. Depression is termed the “open secret” of medicine, and some even believe it to be an essential part of medical training.

This past year, I’ve been completing my clinical rotations at an underserved urban hospital in New York City. The staff is overworked, the patients have several complicated medical and social issues, and the hospital is financially strapped. Even within this high stress environment, I’ve found glimmers of hope and people who have reached out to me with kindness at times when I thought no one cared.

On my obstetrics and gynecology rotation, the panic attacks I had worked so hard to get under control for several years came back. When I walked into the hospital for my 24 hour shift, I couldn’t breathe, I felt my heart pounding, I sobbed uncontrollably and overwhelmingly felt that I just had to get out of there. I was horribly humiliated to have to tell my superiors that I couldn’t function like this and had to go home. I felt weak, like I was a burden on the entire team.

A few days later, my attending physician (senior doctor/course director) took me aside. She told me to focus on my own health first and foremost, and that she understood there is no way to work in an intense work environment without healthy coping mechanisms and support. She told me that “half of us are depressed, and the other half don’t know they’re depressed.” I was astounded that an attending physician, who had no obligation to take a personal interest in me, spoke about mental health with such candor.

The rest of the rotation was challenging, but this attending’s words gave me the courage to go back into therapy and advocate for my own mental health. The words “anxiety” and “depression” weren’t so “Voldemort” sounding anymore.

Now I am at the tail end of my school year and my anxiety and depression are rearing their ugly heads again. This time, I’m not as scared or humiliated to be reaching out for support from my higher-ups, thanks to the encouraging words by the attending that still reverberate in my head.

To the medical students out there who are struggling in silence – we live in a sea of mental illness that no one wants to talk about, out of a misguided sense that talking equals weakness. I myself have fallen prey to this several times. I want you to know, you are not alone by any means. If you see a classmate that seems to be struggling or having an off day, take a moment to talk to them. If you are struggling, take a moment to open up to a trusted friend, family member, or professional mentor. It may bring out a few tears, but tears have the capacity to wash away some of the pain and start the healing process. And what could be more important than healing the healer?

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia

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