Fighting the stigma: mental health and medical students

‘Having a mental illness and being a doctor is OK.’ That was the final conclusion of one of the students I interviewed for this Student BMJ article on mental health and medical school, who had been through the mill of break-down and depression and worried silently for months that she would be thrown out of medical school if she admitted her illness.

Sometimes you write a feature that really touches you, and this was one of those. The courage and insight of the students who contacted me to talk frankly about their struggles with mental health were very moving. What struck me was how much unnecessary suffering is caused by the stigma around mental health, even (perhaps especially) among medical professionals and students.

Several students made the point that if you have a physical illness or trauma, like a broken ankle, you’re deluged with sympathy and offered help to juggle medical appointments with your education, to ensure that you have the support and adaptations you need. Depression or anxiety, however, feels like something to be ashamed of and hidden from a disapproving world. While help is often available, people find it very hard to ask for it.

‘We’re meant to be super-human – we’re not meant to get ill,’ said the students. Everyone had worried about being seen as weak because of their illness. But it takes immense courage to persist with a medical degree in the face of mental illness. There’s also great courage in challenging that stigma, especially for those who were prepared to speak openly to a medical magazine about their experiences. These are strong, strong people and I would love to have any of them as my doctor in future.

My thanks to everyone who helped with the feature. Do have a read, especially if you know anyone at medical school who may be struggling with their mental health.

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