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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