According to a survey of the United Kingdom’s population of medical students, the prevalence of mental illness among doctors-in-training is higher than average.
One in seven medical students has considered suicide during their years of higher education and one in three has experienced a mental health problem of some type. This is higher than the general population, in which 17% think about committing suicide over the course of a lifetime, and one in four suffer from a mental health problem each year. One in four medical students reported binge drinking once a week compared to about 18% of young adults in general.
Twishaa Sheth, chair of the BMA’s students’ welfare committee, commented:
The number of students reporting mental illness or considering suicide is shocking. What is more concerning is the lack of independent support available for students.
More than 10% said that they had taken an illegal drug at least once, reports Charlie Cooper of the Independent. 8% had sought some sort of legal high and another 8% had taken some sort of drug to help them study for exams. 16% reported that they smoke.
The most common diagnoses among med students, depression and anxiety, hint at the high stress levels they are forced to deal with.
Yasmin Tayag of Inverse quotes Dr. Patricia Hizo-Abes, a physician affiliated with hospitals linked to the University of Western Ontario, who describes the stresses:
To get into med school, you have to be in top of your class. You get there and all of a sudden you’re average or below average. You’re in an entire class of overachievers. You’re constantly being evaluated and you’re constantly at work. There’s nothing in between. You’re always being observed. … The worst part is, nobody talks about it. But the entire system needs an overhaul.
The study was conducted by the journal Student BMJ (British Medical Association), and collected responses from over a thousand students — two percent of the UK’s entire medical student population.
Matthew Billingley, editor of the journal, agreed that the stress of the profession and its training take a toll on students:
Only six in ten applications manage to get a place at medical school, and students often have a relentless timetable of exams as well as having to balance the emotional strain of seeing sick patients and uphold high professional standards.
Furthermore, of those who experienced a mental health problem, 80% said their university’s mental health help was “poor” or only “moderately adequate,” according to Susan Scutti of Medical Daily. The Medical Schools Countil (MSC) recently released guidelines for mental health care for med students, emphasizing the need for students to feel confident and not stigmatized when seeking psychiatric help.
Chair of the MSC, Iain Cameron, said that medical professionals in training need to be supported better:
Medical schools take the mental wellbeing of their students seriously. The Student BMJ survey highlights key issues and similar concerns have been raised previously.
It is crucial that students who have concerns about their health are able to make this known so that they can be provided with the necessary advice and support.
Some programs aren’t doing much to address this need: one student reported that tutors and consultants in their program referred to depression and other mental illnesses as a “weakness,” stating that it “isn’t a real illness,” reports Laine Bergeson of Discovery News. However, other programs are finding solutions, like Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine, which offers required resilience and mindfulness classes.