Looking after your Mental Health at Medical School
In my two years of Medical School so far, I have managed to have the following happen:
✓ End up severely depressed.
✓ Start experiencing psychotic symptoms.
✓ Had very low attendance at Medical School, which resulted in my Head of Year contacting me.
✓ Been admit in a psychiatric unit.
I am, thankfully, doing much better now. However, I can remember the struggle well. I would never ever want to go through this all again but it has taught me some valuable lessons about how best to look after mental health at Medical School.
Here are some things that help me look after my own mental health. No list is exhaustive, however, and some things may work better for others.
Having interests outside Medicine
Medicine is a cruel degree to anyone who is suffering from mental health issues. There is so much content that to miss even one days worth of lectures can leave you feeling very much behind. Sadly, the course doesn’t pause for when people are going through such difficulties. Instead, the workload keeps building up and it turns into a vicious cycle.
The fact that Medicine is cruel, however, makes it all the more important to have things to do outside Medical School. It is important to take your mind off things before it gets too much and ends up stressing you out, or worse. For me, that was joining cricket in second year. It was a way for me to release my frustrations (being a fast bowler, there was nothing more satisfying than throwing a bouncer that narrowly missed the batsman’s head…ahem).
This is something that I did not do as much in my first year but I really wish I did now. It doesn’t have to be sport either – it can be anything else from drama, reading or even just going on walks.
Having a supportive friendship group within Medical School
It can be difficult for friends who have never experienced poor mental health to appreciate exactly what that means. However, if they really are true friends, they will always try to be there for you. Most of my friends were like this, thankfully, even if I couldn’t see it at the time.
Having friends who will always be there for you through your downs as well as your ups is crucial. It can be helpful to have a rant at them from time to time. If they are Medical Students too then that too can help. Some things we experience at Medical School are things that only Medical Students can relate to. Things like:
- Experiencing death for the first time. Many of my fellow Medical Students were exposed to this in their first year – at the relatively young age of 18.
- Fitness to practice issues.
- The workload of Medical School.
It is surprising how much just ‘letting it out’ can help.
(Trying to) Have a good diet and plenty of sleep
OK, people are going to read the above and laugh. That’s why I put ‘trying to’ in brackets.
It is very difficult as a student to get plenty of sleep and have a good diet. Indeed, we were encouraged on our first clinical placement to do a night shift in the hospital and undoubtedly we will have to do more of these in the future. Things like this does make it very difficult to get enough sleep. Then, we are poor students. Our diets consist mainly of pot noodles.
Essentially, this point is trying to say – look after your physical health. Both physical and mental health undoubtedly have links and damage to one will damage the other. Of course, this is much easier said than done. I think the holidays and sometimes weekends are the best places to catch up on in terms of sleep. Diet can be a bit more tricky – if you live near to home like I do, it can be helpful. Otherwise, be sure to treat yourself from time to time.
Seeing your tutors when things start to seem bad
This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do, but also one of the most important. Your tutors are there to help you. Of course, some will be better than others but it is important that your Medical School are aware of what’s going on. Simply having a mental health issue will NOT automatically mean that your fitness to practice will be questioned. On the contrary, being aware of your own health is something that is important – and to talk about it will be seen as professional.
Not only can your tutors direct you to vital sources of support, but they can also make the Medical School more understanding towards your situation. This can be helpful if you’re missing the odd lecture or tutorial, and can allow you to take time off to look after your mental health in ease. Your tutors themselves will likely be doctors, so should understand. If not – ask to speak to a more senior tutor.
Talking to my tutor was the best thing I could have done.
None of these things will prevent you or cure you from a mental illness. Rather, they can help things from progressing. If things are really bad, see your GP. It may be the case that further treatment is need – be it in the form of therapy or medications.