When I joined the world of health care as a medical student, I was committed to my dream of helping others. However, at the beginning of my second year of medical school, I discovered that I too needed help. I began feeling depressed most of the time. My emotions were dragging me down, and I couldn’t turn them around. The harder I tried, the more I sunk into what felt like a bottomless pit of quicksand.
I knew I needed help before I was buried. But because of the stigma of mental illness, especially among health care professionals and medical students, I did not ask for help. I attempted to soldier on and face the world each day, but every minute felt like torture. I could no longer focus on school. I bottled up my feelings and often cried myself to sleep.
Eventually, my friends noticed something was up. They proactively took steps to help me recover. They checked up on me constantly and asked how they could help. They dragged me to social events and made sure I knew I wasn’t alone.
Strength in numbers
When a person is in the throes of depression, a concerned friend or colleague can make a world of difference. Recognizing that medical students disproportionately suffer from depression, the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents (COSGP) recently established a Mental Health Awareness Task Force. Our goal is to reduce the stigma of mental illness via increased awareness and promotion of mental health in medical students.
So far, the task force has created an interactive awareness presentation for medical students, which we hope to present at every osteopathic medical school. We also have a five-year plan to implement policy and institutional change via research we are conducting on medical student needs and mental health resources. In order to decrease stigma, we plan to publicize stories of physician role models who have or are struggling with mental illness, encourage all osteopathic medical schools to address student mental health in their curriculums, and create a culture where it is not just OK, but encouraged to seek mental health help.
In November, I conducted the interactive awareness presentation with students at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa. After the presentation, many students told me that the prevalence of mental illness among medical students came as a surprise. These students, like I once did, felt alone in their struggles and saw the stigma of mental illness as a barrier preventing them from seeking help. One student told me that the presentation made her feel more comfortable reaching out for help.
Beyond the efforts of this task force, though, I hope that each of us in the osteopathic medical profession will do our part to fight the stigma of mental illness. If you have a colleague or friend who seems to be struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out to him or her. Let’s fight mental illness together.