Mental health issues in med school – How common are they?

November 5, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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Students prepare to see an operation at the hospital during their medical work experience with Gap Medics Medical school may be an exciting period in a person’s life. But it can also be a stressful time, which can cause mental health issues. According to Mayo Clinic, about 25 percent of medical students experience some type of mental health problem while they are in med school. While medical students may start out with similar mental health profiles as their peers, as they progress through med school they are more likely to show signs of mental distress.





Types of mental issues facing med students

There are different types of mental health issues, which may develop for medical students including the following:


 Most people have moments of worry and anxiety occasionally. But an anxiety disorder involves an overwhelming sense of worry or fear. It usually occurs often and is an excessive reaction to the situation.


 Clinical depression is a profound sense of sadness or hopelessness, which interferes with a person’s ability to function normally.

Substance abuse

 Substance abuse involves an overindulgence and dependence on a substance, such as drugs or alcohol. 


Causes of mental health issues in medical school

There are several reasons why medical students may develop mental health issues during school. Life changes bring stress. Even when changes are considered positive, they can lead to feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Going to medical school may bring several changes at one time. Not only may you have a challenging school schedule, but you may be living in a new city, meeting new people and leaving friends and family behind. Too many life changes at one time can lead to feelings of anxiety.

Issues sometimes develop in medical school due to a student’s schedule. Not only is there classroom lectures, labs and reading, but there are also clinical rotation and licensing exams to prepare for. Add a lack of sleep to the mix, and you can see how a med student’s schedule can get pretty busy. Everyone needs time to relax, unwind and recharge. Students who don’t take that time may find themselves depleted and worn-out. 

Medical school is expensive, time-consuming and a big commitment. The fear of not succeeding can lead to anxiety. In addition, some students may at some point realize medical school is not for them, which can lead to conflicting emotions and depression.

It is normal to occasionally feel stressed or overwhelmed. But when negative emotions are occurring more frequently, or mental health issues are interfering with regular activities, there is a problem. Students need to seek help to prevent issues from becoming worse. 


Lifelong problems can develop

Mental health issues can become serious in medical school and even set a person up for a lifetime of problems. Continued mental health issues can lead to relationship problems, drug use and even suicide. In fact, doctors have a higher rate of suicide than the general public, according to studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

There are several theories why doctors may have higher rates of suicide than the general public. For example, a physician’s workload and busy schedule may lead to social isolation. Simply put, if a doctor is too busy with work, they do not have the time to spend with family and friends.

Some researchers theorize that people who decide to become doctors have traits that may make them vulnerable to mental health issues. For instance, some doctors may be perfectionists and be very competitive. Always striving to be perfect and be on top, can lead to distress when mistakes are made.

Physicians who do develop signs of mental health issues are also often reluctant to get help. They may feel it is a sign of weakness to seek help or they are afraid of the stigma, which unfortunately is sometimes related to a mental health diagnosis. 


Seeking help

It is clear; medical students who are having trouble dealing with the pressure of med school or some other issues should not be reluctant to get help. Dealing with problems early on can prevent more serious issues from developing.

So how do you know when you need help? There are several signs and symptoms which suggest you may need some assistance to deal with psychological or emotional issues. For example, if you have a loss of interest in activities you enjoyed or have started withdrawing from family and friends it may be a sign of depression. Having problems sleeping, such as sleeping excessively or having trouble sleeping may also indicate a problem. Changes in appetite, a lack of energy, and feelings of hopelessness, sadness or worry, can all be symptoms of depression or anxiety. The inability to concentrate and turning to drugs or alcohol to cope are also signs you may have a problem.

If you start to have any of the above symptoms, don’t be afraid to reach out and get help. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. It is actually the opposite. There are several resources for medical students who may be having emotional problems. The student health services at your medical school is a good place to start.

Medical schools are required by law to provide students with access to mental health services by providers who are not associated with their academic career. Services are also confidential. Contact student health services or the dean of student services at your school for information.

The type of treatment that will be prescribed depends on the problem and your preference. Individual therapy or group counseling may be helpful to teach students ways to cope with stress. Relaxation techniques to deal with anxiety may also be discussed. Depending on the extent of the problem, medication or drug and alcohol treatment may be recommended. The important thing to keep in mind is treatment is available. 

Medical school can be rigorous and challenging. But it can also be a positive experience filled with opportunities for personal and professional growth. If mental health concerns do arise, recognizing the need for support and seeking help without hesitation can lead to better coping skills and a bright future.