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PCOM student starts mental health program to reduce stigma

Victoria Lawn, DO, created an annual seminar during which medical students discuss mental illness, stigma, wellness and more.


When she graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine last week, Victoria Lawn, DO, left the school with a parting gift: an annual mental health seminar she established for medical students.

In this edited interview, Dr. Lawn explains how the seminar came about, what it entails and how it’s helped medical students.

How did you get the seminar started?

I was on a plane from Germany to New Delhi, and I sat next to a physician who teaches at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He told me about this great program that UCSF’s medical students started to reduce the stigma of mental illness. They hold a lecture and have other medical students who have mental health issues come in and disclose their diagnosis to their peers.

Mental illness in medical students is a problem at schools across the country, as studies from JAMA and the Annals of Internal Medicine have indicated. I recruited students to work with, and we talked to my neuroscience course director. She gave us a three-hour block on the calendar.

PCOM has a Patient Perspectives series, in which real patients come in to talk about their experience living with various diseases such as HIV and ovarian cancer. We decided to model the mental health seminar after Patient Perspectives, but to have our classmates who volunteered serve as the “patients.” We held the first seminar in 2012 and have had it annually since then. More than 100 students have attended the seminar every year.

What happens during the seminar?

During the introduction, I talk about the need for a culture shift in medicine. It needs to be OK for physicians to ask for help. We conduct an online wellness survey of all PCOM students a few weeks before the event. One year, 90% of the respondents said they had been bothered by feelings of anxiety recently. Sharing this information shows students that they’re not alone.

After the introduction, we have the student patients share their stories. Then a faculty member who is a mental health professional speaks. Finally, we break into smaller groups to discuss mental health and stigma.

What advice would you give to medical students on staying mentally healthy?

Burnout peaks in third year when students are starting clinical rotations. It’s important to maintain perspective. Remember why you pursued medicine in the first place and what you bring to the table. You got into medical school for a reason. And you’re here to help patients and make a difference in their lives. Don’t forget that.

One comment

  1. Samuel J Garloff, D.O.

    Thank you Dr. Lawn and congratulations for bringing your ideas to fruition. This type of action/ interaction is needed at all levels of our profession. Please continue your work.

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