The next time you see a medical student, give support

“I am so happy I’m not in residency anymore!” he said with a big grin on his face. “I mean, I learned a lot, don’t get me wrong,” he tried to rectify the situation after realizing who he was talking to, “I just remember how tired I was and how I never saw my family.”

This was not the first, nor the last, time I heard something like this. So many physicians have told me how residency was the worst years of their life, that they are so happy they never have to go through it again, and that they pity me. I can’t help but think: How is this supposed to encourage me? In a profession where I feel like I am constantly needing to catch up, constantly on the go, and often times exhausted, how is this supposed to make me feel?

I am currently preparing myself for residency, and while a part of me is very excited to be called “doctor,” to finally have the confidence and ability to truly help my patients, and simply to do what I have dreamed of doing, another part of me is anxious. Unfortunately, that part of me will not let my excitement through. I am worried about my mental health and well being, worried that my relationship with my fiancé will be affected, worried that I will make a mistake and that mistake could be life-threatening. All of these worries have kept me up at night during this transition period.

My sister went through medical school and residency before me, so I leaned on her for support. By the time I was in medical school, she was approaching her last year of pediatric residency. I have to be honest: Even though I saw her exhaustion and struggles throughout medical school and residency, I never thought twice about the effect it may have on my wellbeing. It sounds silly to me now, but I have always been the type to complete a task with all of my focus and effort and then reflect on it.

Ensuring that work doesn’t get in the way of a person’s physical and mental wellbeing is important in any career. However, when an attending or a resident tells me that residency is like “constantly being knocked off a horse and having to get back up again,” or that I “will just get used to never sleeping,” or even that I should “be careful who I am in a relationship with because lots of people break up or get divorced in residency,” I worry. I have asked myself: Am I supported by my family and loved ones? Do I have the willpower and the strength to be tired all the time and still go to family functions, etc.? I appreciate that my superiors are trying to prepare me for what will be a difficult and stressful three years of my life; however, I believe that there are better, more supportive ways to convey the difficulty, excitement, and lessons of residency.

Burnout is the hot topic of medicine right now. Or maybe it has been for a while; I just am hearing more and more about it because I am approaching “prime” burnout time. Residency is notorious for long hours, exhausted physicians, and going beyond a person’s limits. Along with burnout, depression and suicide are huge issues in medicine. Physicians have higher rates of depression and suicide than most professions and not only does that worry me, it makes me sad. I feel sad for those physicians and medical students that don’t have the assistance they need. I feel sad that my profession that I love has such high rates of burn out and suicide. I feel sad that we tell our patients to seek help and provide them with resources, but we fail to do so with our colleagues.

Next time you encounter a medical student, give them support. Let them know that no matter what they have waiting for them in the future, they have gotten this far and you have confidence that they will continue to be successful. Let them know that you are there for advice and questions, not to scare them, but to be honest with them. Next time you encounter a resident, do the same. Encouragement, kindness, and compassion are all characteristics we have and use with patients; why not use them with our colleagues?

Gurbaksh Shergill is a medical resident.

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