There was a lot of talk. Talk which people thought I was not aware of. How could this person be back? Wasn’t this the guy who ended up in psychiatric hospital just before the end of first year exams? The guy who had a bad psychotic breakdown over the summer? Surely if he ended up stressed over a load of exams, he couldn’t be back?
Restarting Medical School after my stay in a psychiatric ward was no easy task. Indeed, I had written about some of my fears about restarting in an earlier blog post of mine literally days before I was due to restart. Patients are admit into psychiatric units for ultimately two reasons: (1) To keep the patient safe while they are in a period of severe mental illness and (2) Where they can, to help improve the mental health of the patient so that they can be discharged and ultimately, be able to get their lives back on track.
It is almost paradoxical to think that this stay in hospital can actually make things worse. Not necessarily because of the fault of the medical team, but because of the stigma associated with mental illness (yes, I know I have used those words about a million times on my blog – but it really frustrates me). In my case, my stay in a psychiatric hospital had led to rumours at my medical school. This was anything but helpful for my mental health, and perhaps not being in a psychiatric ward could have avoided that. I find it quite interesting when I remove my feelings from it. But then the anger comes back.
A few months later, I have completed my first term. I am very much on top of my work, have been able to keep this blog and my Twitter going and have managed to successfully complete my first placement in a hospital. Very few, if any, are now asking the questions they asked behind my back. I am very much looking forward to being able to use the phrase, “I am right back where I want to be.” I don’t feel I can use it right now, but the time is getting closer.
Overcoming the negativity
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for I have talked about it quite a bit already, the most difficult bit in me coming back was my fear of how others would see me. To some, I was just someone who had been bunking off recently.
As medical student-patients, we find ourselves in quite a unique isolating position. On the one hand, many patients themselves are mistrusting of doctors or medical students who end up becoming patients. Indeed, on my admission, many patients and even healthcare staff seemed to be surprised when they learned I was there as a patient and not as a medical student. Then, at the same time, many fellow doctors are not willing to accept that we can get ill too (and certainly not mentally ill), so we feel isolated from them too. It leads to a loss of sense of belonging.
Unfortunately, while we can and should rant and complain about all this stigma, I quickly learnt that for the time being, it is something I have to put up with. The stigma is not right. It is, as my tutor said, “absolute bullshit and should not exist.” But it does. So my first task of the term was to try to ignore everyone and somehow prove to everyone that I could do it.
The truth is, I could not have managed it without all the support that was given to me by many people. From my parents to my tutors, to my friend to all of you reading my blog and Twitter posts. The amount of belief these people put into me was amazing. They say love trumps hate, and now I understand why.
So I put my head down and just worked. I just ignored the negativity. It wasn’t easy – I hid myself in a separate room in lectures for most of it during lectures, literally cried, ranted, shouted in private, paced around my room angrily, missed days of lectures purely because I didn’t want to be around everyone goggling at me like I was some sort of animal at the zoo and did about a million other things.
But I was determined. I was not going to let my mental illness and others’ attitudes towards it prevent me from becoming a doctor.
Trying to change things at Medical School
At the same time, I was disappointed at all the negative attitudes towards mental health at my medical school. I would be lying if I said the majority of the year had a negative attitude towards mental illness. Actually, it was only a handful of students who seemed to take issue with it. Like so many things, however, we tend to remember the negative rather than the positive so it still did hurt a lot.
This, I felt, was unacceptable. So I decided to join many things – I joined the welfare team and helped produce a campaign for mental health awareness amongst medical students, I’ve been having regular meetings with the head of my medical school (who is absolutely amazing) both to discuss how I am doing, and to discuss how the school itself can help improve mental health awareness.
I have no idea if this will end up making a difference or not. Like how I felt when I started my blog, however – if I can help change the negative attitude of even one person, I will feel satisfied.
The clinical placement
For the last three weeks of term, we had a clinical placement and it was here where for the first time in a long, long time, I felt as though I were returning back to my usual self. Not only this, but I had learnt a lot about being a patient in psychiatry and hoped to transfer some skills into helping patients.
The ward rounds were never easy. They are always very long, intellectually challenging and so both physically and emotionally draining. Contrary to what the government or media may thing too, we do end up staying over time – and the doctors do this without once thinking about their wallets. It is a common myth that we make much as doctors – we can make money in much easier ways in other sectors. I’m not complaining in any way, shape or form. Whilst it can be frustrating at times, I feel very privileged in being in such a position. Perhaps I will end up becoming cynical in a few years but we shall see…
Anyway, everyone ended up getting grumpy on ward rounds. This is where I noticed the first ‘return’ of me.
Before my period of mental illness, I had a reputation for always providing a bit of comic relief to people when they needed it. I loved making light of a situation (within limits, of course, and would offer advice or an ear instead of humour when things were serious). My mental illness came and bam, that changed. My confidence was gone and like that, I felt like I was gone. But now, suddenly things were different. Once again, people were laughing a lot at what I was saying (and that was my intention!). I could go forward with it too. Heck, even the consultant managed a smile once!
Before telling me to shut up and get back to work, of course. Oh well. Can’t always in.
I started first term at rock bottom. Nobody, I felt, was there to stand up for me. I had lost a fair bit of myself and was still very bruised and battered from my admission.
But I am getting there. I am beginning to regain shadows of who I once was. I will get there. I hope.