Ever since I wrote about how going for therapy was my biggest gift to myself*, I’ve met with a few medical students to talk about the topic of mental health. Many of them were worried about their ability to make it through med school with their illness. Many were worried about the viability of a career in medicine with depression.
When I was a student, there was a rumour that students with mental illness would be excluded from the course. We were informed by our senior students, and they by theirs, and thus the rumour was propagated.
This may well have been one of the biggest reasons, besides financial accessibility, that I took so long to get help for my depression. (In case you’re still wondering, the rumour is false, as rumours are wont to be.)
The reality is that depressed medical students are often high functioning in nature. It’s the reason they get away without help for so long. It’s the reason their colleagues will say, “But we never knew.”
I got through most of medical school without therapy or medication. But I didn’t get through it happily, and I wish I had found help earlier. I’m still not sure if my brain has recovered from the years of deprivation.
Now that I am more open about my mental illness, I have met more doctors – young and old – who are open about theirs. We don’t advertise it, but if it comes up, we don’t shy away from it. So I can confidently tell my young friends that yes, you can be a depressed doctor. But try to be a depressed doctor in remission.
For medical students (and doctors!) with mental illness, I recommend finding a treatment team sooner rather than later.
Find a good psychiatrist – even if, for financial reasons, it means you find a government psychiatrist. Or maybe a really good family physician. If they suggest medication, take them religiously. Don’t be the stereotypical non-compliant doctor-patient. And, as hard as it may be, try to accept your role as a patient when you step into your psychiatrist’s office. Maintain involvement in your own treatment, but put some trust in the expertise of your doctor.
I don’t advocate pharmacological therapy on its own to my patients, and so I don’t recommend it to my friends. Therapy is another costly but valuable part of managing mental illness, and one I have found to be invaluable. Once you are a doctor, you’ll be able to afford it. As a student, you may need to pull some strings, put your name on a waiting list, or open up to your parents for funding.
As a doctor with depression, I have days that I can’t get myself out of bed. I have relapses. I have colleagues I trust, but I have days that I second-guess that trust, and days that I feel alone. I have days that I can’t connect with my patients, and days where the connection is too intense and I just want to cry.
I have not yet had days where my patient-care was compromised. But I am always on the lookout. And I know that my psychiatrist and therapist will step in if they think that is the case. This is also why I told my HoD – not for sympathy, but because it is important for her to know. Just as we know about our colleague with diabetes, in case he has a hypo and collapses at work.
I also know that I will never sign up for shift-based work like in the ER, because I don’t think my neurochemistry will be able to handle that. Being on call is hard enough. Some of my colleagues accept multiple shifts in a weekend so that they can have a greater total of uninterrupted weekends. I know that I can’t do this, because I know that my mood takes a dip.
Managing mental illness as a doctor has been challenging. Sometimes I stumble. Sometimes I fall. Sometimes I lie in the dust awhile before I get up. Sometimes, someone helps me up. But the more I strengthen my support systems, the less frequent the falls become.
We are not cookie-cutters. I cannot say that some doctors/medical students will not decide to leave the profession because they feel it is incompatible with their illness. But that is a decision that should only be made after careful thought. Probably also a decision that should not be made while experiencing a major episode.
Whatever you decide, don’t be driven by internalised stigma. And remember: you are not as alone as you feel.
*Strangely enough, the post in question has disappeared from my blog. A few of my posts mysteriously disappeared a few months ago. Quite annoying.