Missing a Medical School Exam because of Mental Illness – How my Supervisor Reacted
Missing an exam. It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. It’s almost ironic – we hate actually doing an exam but despite that, we hate even thinking about not doing that exam at all.
That’s exactly what happened to me last year, however. I, along with a fellow medical student, was due to give a presentation to a group that would count towards my exam mark. As time passed and my mental health got worse and worse, it slowly became clearer that there was no way I could do the exam. I was simply too ill.
Many people, medical student or not, are very scared of being in this position. It puts lots of questions in people’s heads. How will the medical school react? Will my circumstances be deemed ‘bad’ enough for me to have missed it? Will I be able to continue with medical school if I don’t do this exam?
I have written many posts about medical schools and mental health issues, including a post on how my medical school reacted to my mental health issues. For those of you who have read that post, you’ll probably have a good idea of where this blog post is going. For those who didn’t: essentially, I am very pleased with the positive response I got from my medical school and supervisors. This incident was no exception.
I hope by sharing the positive responses I got, it can help other medical students not be afraid to open up to their medical schools.
Before I go on, let me briefly explain what the nature of my illness was. I was severely depressed. So depressed, in fact, that I was in a psychiatric unit. It was only on my admission there where I realised that I probably wouldn’t be able to give the presentation. I had been admit literally on the Sunday before the week of my presentation. The presentation would be in only three days.
As I mentioned, I was meant to be doing this with a colleague, but we had agreed that we’d only need a couple of days preparation as in the past, this is what worked best for us. I was in a psychiatric unit, however, so there was no way that I could have met up with my colleague to discuss the presentation. Not only that, but the chance of me actually being released on time for my presentation was next to zero.
I felt as though I was in a real dilemma. I had only one option – to email my supervisor of this project.
The email I wrote
Now the next dilemma faced me. How on Earth would I write an email to my supervisor explaining everything? I decided that it would be in my best interests to be honest. After all, honesty is something big that everyone expects from doctors. If I was dishonest and that was found out, I would have just been digging myself a hole.
I decided to think about what the subject of the email should be. “I’m in a Psychiatric Unit”? Nah, that would be a little too dramatic. Eventually, I decided to keep it simple with the subject: “Poster presentation issue.” Looking back on it now, perhaps this was rather vague. I wonder if my supervisor’s first impression on seeing that subject was rolling her eyes, expecting something trivial like I needed an extension because I had badly organised my time. It didn’t matter though.
Eventually, I wrote the email. This is what it said:
I wanted to bring to your attention an issue I have been having in confidence, that has made it difficult for me to proceed with making this presentation. Over the past two months or so, I have been suffering with severe depression and in the past few weeks, have ended up in A&E various times due to complications and am being seen by the home treatment team currently. I have today been admitted to a psychiatric ward in [location] and it’s likely I’ll be here for 72 hours at least, until Wednesday – just a day before we’re scheduled to meet.
The issue I now have is that alongside my A&E visits and now bring admitted here, my work is very behind and I’ve been struggling to make time to meet up with my partner to start this poster presentation. I’ve not told her about my mental health, just said I’ve not been feeling well.
I was therefore wondering if there’s any way that this can be worked around, or if mitigating circumstances exists for this too? I have a letter from my doctor too and am happy to send it if you need it.
I quickly press “Send”.
I didn’t want to change my mind next minute.
Just a few hours later
Within just a few hours, I got a response from my supervisor. I saw the highlighted, unread message and my heart almost started beating before jumping to probable tachycardia. I took a deep breath and opened it. Then I read it. And I relaxed. In fact, I wasn’t just relaxed – I was pleased.
Here is what she said:
I am so sorry to hear this and the priority must be your health.
Have you spoken to your personal tutor? They need to know and will want to help you.
Of course this mitigates for you. It does make it tricky for your partner but I can support them too. Remind me who is your partner?
I think the formal way forward is for you to contact your personal tutor and share your doctor’s letter with them. I will flag up with [course leader] that there is proper mitigation and how we should deal with it.
Meanwhile, I’m glad you’re in a place of safety, please take the time needed to get fully better – this will pass and you will be well. You have great sensitivity and the makings of a really excellent doctor.
With very best wishes
Wow. I was almost speechless. Not only had she said that it was not an issue, but she was actually glad that I was missing the exam for my own health. In fact, she had gone further and said that I had the makings of an excellent doctor! At a time where my self esteem was rock bottom due to depression, with me questioning whether or not I could actually continue at medical school, that was something I very much needed.
I could not have asked for a more positive response. Obviously it didn’t magically ‘cure’ my depression or anything, but it made things much easier to deal with. I wish all tutors or supervisors would react like this. However, many will be just as understanding as mine was – so please don’t be afraid to ask for help should you need it.