A medical student with anxiety and depression

A strange thing happens on your first day of med school.  Yesterday, you may have joked with old friends about upping your Paxil dose, but starting today, you are expected to be professional. And professional is suddenly a word that prevents you from being open with your new friends, a word that hints admitting to any real struggle could be a career-ending mistake.

I want to tell you that it isn’t, but the truth is, I’m writing this post under a pseudonym because it might be.  I’m a second year medical student who has struggled with the one-two punch of anxiety and depression, though it’s now well-controlled with medication.

I recently decided that keeping my anxiety disorder a secret was no longer worth the effort, and have been overwhelmed with the number of medical students who have since confided their own struggles to me: depression, alcoholism, anxiety, a suicide attempt, eating disorders.  Every one of them fears being “found out”, and several fear seeking professional help could jeopardize their future medical license.

I avoided treatment at the beginning of med school for those same reasons. Admitting to “mental illness” seemed like admitting to failure – after all, who would ever want to see a physician who had struggled with anxiety?  Who would ever want to talk to a psychiatrist who had experienced depression?

More and more, I’m realizing the answer to those questions is, “I would.” And I believe more people would agree with me if they knew how many amazing physicians have struggled with these problems themselves. Physicians aren’t super-human, and it doesn’t serve our patients, our community, or ourselves to pretend otherwise.

Perhaps the ultimate problem is one of terminology.  After all, “illness” implies “instability” – a trait that no patient should desire in a healthcare provider.  But the truth is, you’re ill when you’re in a hospital.  You’re ill when you feel your life is so out of control that you slip into substance abuse.  And I was ill when I felt every day was so overwhelming that all I could do was stay in bed just to keep the panic at bay.

But just as we don’t continue to call people ‘ill’ when a pill successfully controls their blood pressure, or when seeing a physical therapist alleviates their back pain, it’s inaccurate to think of ourselves as “mentally ill” when we’re successfully living our lives with the help of medication or therapy.

We’ve recognized that we’ve been ill, that it’s not something that we can ever declare total victory over – we have to work on it.  But that doesn’t make us mentally ill.  Although treatment may begin with admitting to ‘mental illness’, that doesn’t mean healthcare professionals should fear it – treatment ends somewhere else entirely.

We’re mentally interesting.

We’re mentally interesting people in medical school, hospitals, clinics, and all sorts of other great places in life.

And spread the word:  I think we’re great.

“Action Potential” is a medical student who blogs at the self-titled site, Action Potential.

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  • http://www.practitionersolutions.com Niamh van Meines

    Action Potential,
    Mental illness is a social / medical construct. You don’t need the label & it seems, you and your colleagues are pretty functional. Try focusing on your coping mechanisms and build a repertoire of tools to use when the going gets tough. An example would be 1. don’t take yourself so seriously. 2. allow time in the schedule to socialize and enjoy yourself 3. work on confidence building activities 4. Exercise to feel better 5. Listen to music you like. etc…..the list is endless. Commit to succeeding! I look forward to seeing you care for patients in the future and have the ability to connect and identify with their struggles….makes you a better doctor.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks – my anxiety is extremely well-controlled with medication, though!  (Tried most everything before that.) Everyone’s different – but I just think it’s crucial that other medical students know that they’re not alone.  

      • http://www.practitionersolutions.com Niamh van Meines

        You are right…..there are certain characteristics unique to members of the profession too that are shared and can be a source of support….but doesn’t mean that there is a “problem” out there. Thanks for writing your article.

  • Jill Green

    I’m very mentally interesting too. I’ve been mentally interesting for over 30 years. No matter what people say, the stigma of mental illness persists and it really stinks. I work as both a nurse and a school teacher and have seen first hand what “professionals” say behind closed doors.

  • Anonymous

    I am so sorry you have to go through this. I applaud your honesty in disclosing who you really are. Actually, what you have been given is a tremendous gift that will allow you to better understand your patients and to deliver marvelous health care.

    Working in behaviorall health, I sometimes forget the stigma that’s associated with accessing mental health—after all, if my tooth hurts, I’m not embarrassed to go to the dentist for help. I wish you continued success on your journey.