As doctors we are notorious for sometimes failing to look after our own health. But staying well is important for both you and your patients, so it’s really important to get into good habits while you’re at medical school. Not only will this help take care of your own wellbeing, you’ll also avoid putting patients at risk.
GMC guidance is clear that you should not try and assess your own health, or rely on another student’s or colleague’s assessment.
It’s important to seek independent and objective advice about your own health. Register with a GP and ask for advice from your doctor or occupational health department at university, or both, if you are worried about your health. This includes mental health as well as physical.
Medicine is a stressful career, and this can begin at medical school. Good advice for dealing with stress is to get help early and be open about the issues you’re experiencing.
Keeping quiet, or ignoring the problem yourself, can cause things to escalate and lead to more serious issues with your mental health. Many doctors go through issues with depression and anxiety. And while it’s not always widely acknowledged, plenty of clinicians experience drug or alcohol dependency as a result of mental health issues.
Society’s attitude towards mental health is changing, and we’re becoming far more aware and understanding of our need to be open about it. There’s no reason this should be any different for doctors.
Fawad was a second-year medical student on a graduate course. He had already completed an English degree at Cambridge and had always really excelled academically.
Fawad found the first year at medical school different. He struggled to adapt to the more scientific way of approaching his studies and had difficulty making friends.
In the lead-up to the summer exams, he found himself becoming increasingly unhappy and withdrawn. He visited his GP who diagnosed him with depression and referred him for cognitive behavioural therapy.
As Fawad’s mental health became harder to manage, he began to drink more regularly. This escalated quickly, and his attendance at lectures and tutorials started to drop. His pastoral tutor asked Fawad to meet with him, but he missed several appointments.
Towards the end of the first semester, he was called to attend a formal interview with the dean of the medical school. When Fawad arrived there were noticeable signs that he had been drinking that day, which he explained by saying he’d been at the pub with friends.
As a result of ongoing concerns, formal fitness to practise procedures were instigated at the medical school. We were able to show that Fawad’s poor attendance and perceived attitude problems related to an underlying health issue. Fawad acknowledged that was struggling with depression and alcohol use, and the medical school allowed him to take a break from his studies and provided him with help and support through occupational health.
Health issues can arise at any time in your medical career, from the early days at university to the final years of clinical work. It is always important to seek help, the sooner the better.
Sometimes things can get out of hand, and occasionally formal investigations or procedures will be the first occasion that health issues come to light. Even at this stage, as the above scenario shows, getting appropriate advice and support can help to get your health and career back on track.
If you need advice or support on any of the issues raised in this post our dedicated student support and advice line is here for you on 0800 952 0442.