Halfway through his first year in medical school, Parker Murray, DO, fell apart.
Homesick, depressed and overwhelmed, the Utah native collapsed on his bed one weekend.
“I cried like two days straight,” he said. “I felt like I was drowning and struggled to pull myself together to breathe.”
That Monday, he returned to his classes at the University of North Texas Health Science Center Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine feeling anxious and depressed. When a friend said he looked like he needed help, he was quick to respond: “I do.”
Dr. Murray had never sought counseling before, but through therapy, he came to understand why he had experienced a disabling panic attack and what he could do to cope with the depression that triggered it.
A voice for student mental health
Dr. Murray could have stayed silent about his experience. Instead, he became a voice for mental health for students across the campus.
Dr. Murray graduated this month from UNTHSC-TCOM. During his four years as a medical student, he tried to open up the conversation on mental health and emotional wellness.
He understands all too well the pressure his classmates are up against. Medical school is notoriously stressful with long hours and little sleep. On top of the stress, the stigma of mental illness often keeps students from seeking help.
Yet, 27 percent of medical students have depression and 11 percent report suicidal thoughts, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Compared to the general population, medical students are two to five times more likely to have depression.
To address these issues, Dr. Murray organized the advocacy group Mentality Initiative to Nurture Doctors or MIND.
It’s ok to not be ok
Every year, MIND comes out with a new t-shirt focused on the slogan “It’s ok to not be ok.” The group distributes motivational badge cards listing the phone numbers of mental health services.
Dr. Murray’s goal was to change the campus culture surrounding mental wellness. He started a blog called “Humans of TCOM” and began writing about his own experience with depression.
“When I came to TCOM, I felt like I was on top of the world,” he said. “But I was lonely and depressed.”
Through counseling, he realized he never dealt with the death of his father a few years earlier. Like many medical students, he was extremely driven to succeed and put a lot of pressure on himself.
“I was focused on perfectionism and doing everything right,” he said. “I believe that contributed to my anxiety and feeling like I was always falling short.”
Going public with his feelings was difficult, given the stigma that still surrounds mental health struggles. Soon after he posted on the blog, other students began sharing their stories and supporting each other. Dr. Murray also created a short video to get the message of vulnerability out to students.
During Dr. Murray’s time at UNTHSC-TCOM, he demonstrated what it looked like to be brave, and he invited others to be brave right alongside him, said Emily Mire, PhD, UNTHSC’s director of care and civility.
Empowering others to seek help
“His willingness to share his story created a space for other students to feel safe and feel empowered to seek help,” she said. “MIND has been able to set the stage for a lot of tough conversations around mental health, and it has been really powerful to see students supporting other students in such a meaningful way.”
Hoping to stop the stigma, he was upfront about his experience when applying for residencies. This summer he will start his residency in ob-gyn at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Southern California.
While a TCOM student, he took his message to national audiences through the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents (COSGP).
But what he is most proud of is organizing MIND and reaching out to help others.
“At this point in my life, I have never felt more optimistic about the future,” he said. “I am very much at peace now.”