Emotional burnout, depression, anxiety: doctors assign patients these labels, but they often resist claiming them for themselves. It’s no wonder, if they begin their training as students in an atmosphere where they are publicly reprimanded for not getting an answer right, then are shunned as professionals if they make a mistake. If they are immersed in a culture of embarrassment and shaming, doctors may hide their struggles for fear of appearing weak.
Things may be changing, though slowly. In a recent National Public Radio story, a future doctor opened the conversation about mental health with new candor. The article focused on Giselle, a medical student who had struggled for years with depression, anxiety and suicide attempts. She wanted to be able to speak on her medical application about her personal struggles with mental health, but she was afraid that revealing this information could derail her career.
So, how does a doctor admit personal struggles with mental health without being stigmatized, or worse? Is it safe for physicians-to-be to mention their own mental health challenges in medical school applications, or in conversations with other students and faculty once they get there?
James Smith, M.D., FACS, a NEOMED clinical faculty member has strong opinions on these topics, having hidden his own struggles until he had a nervous breakdown four years ago. To heal, he temporarily stepped away from his surgical practice. After some convincing, he spent a short time in hospitalized care.
In a recent conversation, Dr. Smith said that his own situation was brought to a head when over a period of time, he lost eight colleagues to suicide. The surgeon has served on this medical mission trip since 2003 and was dismayed to learn that he had taken the place of a physician who had killed himself. At that moment, says Dr. Smith, “I knew something needed to be done. I wanted to find a way to address the dark issues of medicine.”
Dr. Smith began to write a blog that addressed the issues of physician suicide and related topics. He didn’t expect many responses, but today has received close to 4,000 from readers and other medical professionals.
For young medical students who may be struggling, he suggests beginning with basic strategies such as eating well, getting enough sleep and trying mindfulness meditation, such as yoga or tai chi, to consciously take a break from worries. If the stress becomes too much to bear, he recommends consulting the institution’s counseling services or a primary care doctor.
“In order to decrease the stigma, academic leaders need to show students the available care when they first come to medical school,” said Dr. Smith. “They need to know there is help available and that it is non-judgmental.”
At NEOMED, students learn about available counseling services at orientation. The Center for Student Wellness and Counseling Services provides all NEOMED students with free and confidential counseling services for stress, depression, sexual assault, time management, suicidal thoughts and a range of other concerns.
Counseling Services: counseling @neomed.edu
Julie Powell- The Center for Student Wellness and Counseling Services
If you urgently need to speak with a counselor after regular office hours, call 216.903.7873 and leave a message, including your full name and phone number. Please allow 15 minutes for a counselor to return your call.
Alternatively, call 911 or campus police 330.325.5911.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255 or go to the nearest emergency room.