Let’s Talk Mental Health

Professional Foundations II recently hosted two panels on mental health issues—one for students and one for faculty. The panelists discussed their struggles and their decisions to get help. Similar themes ran through the stories: Feelings of isolation. Perfectionistic tendencies. Perhaps most important, the courage to seek treatment despite fears of being stigmatized. Kathy Wu, a first-year student in the College of Medicine, contributed this report.

Prabhsimran Batra calls herself the kind of person who has had a “10-year plan” for most of her life. Along with keeping up with the rigors of her first year in the College of Medicine, she also participates in the Health Professions Scholarship Program through the U.S. Army and is a member of the Psychiatry Student Interest Group. The pressure to keep up with her academic plans, friends, and boyfriend resulted in self-imposed isolation because she feared she would be judged for her anxiety.

When Batra entered NEOMED in 2017, she sought guidance from Counseling Services. Her appointments with Jennifer Dougall, Ph.D., director of counseling services, have helped her maintain a positive outlook on medical school and life. While studying for the Human Development and Structure Module 2 Exam, she kept a list of positive events in her life and the things she looked forward to doing after the exam. Batra said that she is lucky to have a supportive group of friends.

Other student panelists shared their stories during the mental health discussion. Allison Guerrieri, a first-year College of Pharmacy student; Nicole Baird, a second-year College of Pharmacy student; and Ritika Gudhe, a first-year College of Medicine student, all discussed their personal mental health journeys through medicine and pharmacy school.

Faculty share their stories

One month later, NEOMED faculty members gathered to share the stories of their mental health struggles. Douglas Gugel-Bryant, Pharm.D., a clinical instructor of pharmacy practice and first-year pharmacy resident at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, recalled having bursts of anxiety during his elementary years and growing up as a perfectionist. Although he struggled with anxiety before attending NEOMED, Dr. Gugel-Bryant said his biggest breakdown happened while in pharmacy school. At that time, he sought help from Counseling Services. He urges the use of professional services because when family or friends are asked for support, they may also have an emotional stake in the matter and could introduce bias.

Dr. Gugel-Bryant credits medicine and counseling with helping him find balance. A stigma toward mental health still exists, he notes. As he puts it, “There is a fear that mental illness can be used against you. It is a very real feeling.”  For this reason, Dr. Gugel-Bryant encourages students to share their struggles with those they trust the most.

Why the box?

Lisa Weiss, M.D., NEOMED associate dean of medical education, regularly treats patients for depression and anxiety. “They’re all illnesses, and they all need to be treated,’’ says Dr. Weiss, “but for some reason, in this country, they’re put in this ‘box’ that no one wants to discuss or talk about. They are different somehow from other medical illnesses. The prevailing attitude is that they are the person’s fault instead of being an actual medical condition, and the person should be able to just get over it.’” 

She understands the conditions, because she copes with them herself. It was a difficult decision for Dr. Weiss to come forward and speak to students about her depression and anxiety for the faculty mental health panel, but she hopes that if students can learn from the experiences of faculty members, they may be courageous enough to seek help for themselves.

Sara Beis, R.Ph., a clinical assistant professor of pharmacy practice, also joined Dr. Gugel-Bryant and Dr. Weiss on the panel to share her own experiences with mental health.

From a student’s perspective, it seems that personal efforts to promote mental wellness in addition to collective efforts to change medical culture will go a long way in decreasing physician and pharmacist burnout. One small but significant change to combat burnout is the removal of Question 22 on the Ohio application for medical licensure—a question that asked whether the applicant had been treated for any psychotic disorders.

In the past, the presence of Question 22 may have deterred physicians from obtaining much-needed help. Mark Munetz, M.D., The Peg's Foundation Endowed Chair in Psychiatry, along with a number of his peers from the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association, advocated for the question’s removal.

“I am grateful to the students and faculty who had the courage to share their stories publicly.  This helps reduce the stigma that remains about mental illness and encourages students (and hopefully faculty) to seek help. It was encouraging, but not surprising, to hear the recurrent theme from both panels, that treatment works,” says Dr. Munetz.

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