Dr Oliver Lord
Dealing with stress during your studies can be stressful in itself, but help and support are available to students who are feeling the strain on their mental health
Medical school is a great adventure - the first leg of your journey towards a long and fulfilling career. As with all adventures there will be ups as well as downs, and all students are likely to experience stress at one time or another. Your free time can come under increasing pressure from the need to prepare for exams, and you may have financial, housing or social concerns. It's also common to have worries about clinical and professional issues during your studies.
In the past, dealing with this anxiety has been assumed to be part of the process of becoming a doctor, a rite of passage, something to be accepted and ignored along with extensive hours and sleepless nights. It's a sad fact, however, that doctors have high rates of stress-related mental health conditions.
Balancing the books?
There's more to medical school than textbooks and revision guides, and ensuring you balance your studies with a healthy social life is a good way to help relieve stress. But there are problems with clinging too closely to the adage of 'work hard, play hard'.
For example, because alcohol can inhibit anxiety there is a danger that it can be used as a crutch to manage the emotions arising from stressful experiences. Only the individual concerned can know if this is the case, but the misuse of alcohol or other substances - legal or otherwise - will not solve the underlying problem.
Medical students are not immune to mental health issues
Unfortunately the highs offered by such substances come at a price, and can often include other mental side effects such as anger, paranoia or low mood. Although the individual may not identify the link between the drug and their mental state, there is the added factor that the possession and use of a controlled substance is a criminal offence, and its use may call in to question a student's fitness to practise.
Medical students are not immune to mental health issues. The most common are depression and anxiety disorders, and thankfully these are treatable and usually respond better with early intervention.
It's a common myth that having or disclosing a condition will automatically harm your career prospects. The GMC would only refuse registration if it was felt your condition would put patients at risk, and if you seek support and follow the advice given there is no reason to assume that a fitness to practise issue would be raised.
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Where to turn
Any personal difficulties you face can affect your studies, and even though stress is common among students it doesn't mean it should be ignored. Simply denying your worries usually means they won't get resolved, but you do have options in how you manage them. Remember that your peers can often provide emotional or practical support, although some problems may be beyond their experience.
If you're feeling low or anxious, or you're worried about substance misuse, there is confidential and professional help available. This is provided by most medical schools, but there are also significant resources accessible through your GP.
The GMC has produced a guide to supporting medical students with mental health conditions. This gives detailed guidance to medical schools, student health centres and students themselves, with the intention of reducing the stigma of mental health conditions and promoting good mental health.
The MDU also offers a range of guidance and advice to students - see our website for more information.
Dr Oliver Lord
Prior to joining the MDU in 2013 Oliver was a consultant psychiatrist working for the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland crisis resolution and home treatment team. At the MDU Oliver is an adviser in a specialist advisory team with an interest in disciplinary matters and provides regular talks to members on medico-legal issues.
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