The awareness and importance of mental health wellbeing has been increasingly highlighted over recent years. With the medical degree being known for its challenges and stressful periods, and following the effects of the pandemic, it is ever more important that students safeguard their own mental health throughout medical school and as a doctor.
Along with this, it is important to be aware about when, where and how to ask for help. You can click the following links to read the guidance on this by the GMC and the BMA. In this article we will discuss how to safeguard your mental health whilst studying Medicine and explore some of the services available to support students during medical school.
YES, of course it is possible to study Medicine with a diagnosed, or undiagnosed, mental health condition, or if you suffer with poor mental wellbeing. This includes but is not limited to conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, PTSD, schizophrenia, ADHD, and so on. Your mental health should not necessarily stop you from becoming a doctor if this is your chosen career pathway.
However, it is incredibly important to recognise that studying medicine can be very stressful and at times, overwhelming. This doesn't stop at medical school, but throughout your career as a doctor there will be times where you may be exposed to emotional and upsetting situations, have a heavy and stressful workload or work irregular shift patterns that affect your sleep/routine. Such stressful situations can affect or exacerbate someones mental health and possibly cause relapses, so it is important to go in with your eyes wide open and try and stay on top of your health.
If you have a mental health condition and would like to study medicine, then there is absolutely nothing stopping you from doing this and there will be support available to you if you need it. But it is important that you assess whether you feel ready and are in a healthy position to apply for and/or study Medicine.
Before starting medical school, you will have to complete a form disclosing any physical or mental health conditions you have to the occupational health department. This is to assess whether you need additional support during university. They may want further details about how well controlled your condition is as ultimately, they want to make sure you are stable and that you are ‘fit to practice’. If they feel like your condition is not well controlled, they may make suggestions to help you with this or advise that you interrupt the year (take a year out of study) or defer your offer. During medical school, occupational health can support you in accessing the help you need and assist you in continuing with the degree by making adjustments such as organising extenuating circumstances during exams.
If you’re struggling with quite severe symptoms of a mental health condition (e.g. anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bipolar, PTSD etc.,) during your A levels, jumping straight into university without having a plan to tackle this might be detrimental to your health. Therefore, it would be good to discuss this with someone, such as your GP, to see if there are services (counselling or therapy) or medications that may help you. Equally, you might prefer to take a year out and work on your mental health to put yourself in a better position to start Medicine the following year. Receiving help prior to and/or during the medical degree can be extremely useful to support and develop your coping mechanisms, and this becomes especially useful when the stresses of the degree arise.
This is not to say that you absolutely have to reach your end goal of mental health wellbeing before applying for Medicine; recovery is a journey with good and bad days. And whilst the degree can be stressful, it also brings many advantages such as meeting new and supportive people, engaging in a passion of yours and experiencing the feeling of chasing your medical school dream, which may in itself support you in your mental health journey.
As mentioned, it is important to recognise when to ask for help. This can be really challenging as nobody wants to put themselves in a position of vulnerability. However, asking for help can often be one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Here are some reasons you may decide to seek help for situations related to your mental health. Please note this is not an exhaustive list.
It is ESSENTIAL that you seek help if you experience any of the above, or any other mental health changes that you or others are finding worrying, and you don't feel you're able to manage it on your own.
All universities and medical schools tend to be receptive and proactive when discussing mental health conditions and should offer support services. At medical school, your points of contact include:
1. Occupational Health
When starting medical school, you should disclose any mental health conditions you have. From here, they may follow up if they have any additional questions or have any concerns and can assess whether you could potentially benefit from additional support during your time at medical school (e.g.g extenuating circumstances during exams). You can always approach them at any point during medical school if your situation changes or you develop a mental health condition during university.
2. Personal tutors
At medical school, you will be allocated a personal tutor who is often your first port of call when bringing up concerns. They will be able to support you and signpost you to where you can get further help or advice. If your personal tutor isn’t particularly helpful, you can escalate your concerns to your medical school’s senior support team.
3. University and Medical School Wellbeing Support
Your university/medical school website will offer details on the different wellbeing services - e.g. peer support, wellbeing hub, activity days they have available that may be of some help or comfort to you. This is not a substitute for seeking medical help if necessary, but may just help make your experience at university a little bit easier .
4. Student Counselling Programme
All universities should give you the option of self-referring to their counselling programme. You may have access to a short set of free counselling sessions in order to support your mental wellbeing. There may be a waiting list for this as they will likely prioritise based on who needs it more urgently. The service can also signpost you to further help should the short set of sessions not be sufficient.
Thankfully, there are many resources and services available to you that can support you with your mental health There are different options available and this would depend on your circumstance and where you are in your journey.
1. Friends and Family
Talk to the people you love about your struggles- the power of having someone listen, understand and offer comfort or advice is underestimated. They may also signpost you to helpful resources.
2. Seek medical help
If you are noticing a new change to your mental health or mental health deterioration and feel you can’t get it under control, you should speak to a medical professional about this. This can be your GP or your psychiatrist if you are known to one.
3. Mental health Charity Services
Have a look online for charities that offer services from urgent requirements to more general support. Please see some linked below under Additional Resources.
4. Local counselling services
If you feel you may benefit from counselling, you can reach out to your GP and see if they can refer you to local services. In some areas, you may have the option to self-refer so have a look at what is available to you. It is worth knowing that waiting times for these can be several weeks to months.
If you are already seeking therapy, you may mention your concerns and requirement for further help to your existing therapist in a therapy session. If you feel you would benefit from therapy or counselling, you can reach out to your GP who may be able to refer you or look for a private therapist if you are able.
6. Call an emergency service
In an immediate mental health crisis or emergency situation, calling 999 or attending A&E may be the best way to get help. There are also helplines available if you feel you're in an acute mental health crisis.
Hopefully this article has provided you with some reassurance and useful information. Please remember that your health comes first and help is always available. It might seem like the end of the world if you do have to defer your offer or interrupt your studies during medical school, and it is a big deal, but in the grand scheme of things this is a small price to pay for your health.
Author: Carolina Williams
Editor: Dr Latifa Haque
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/students/support-and-wellbeing/wellbeing - UCL’s very helpful student support resources for which there should be an equivalent for other universities too.