As you may know, I am coming towards the end of my time at medical school, and it has left me reflecting on the past 5 years. In particular, my mental health and how I got through a medical degree whilst suffering with depression.
I'm not going to lie to you, it has been so hard at times - to the point where I have thought about giving up a couple of times, especially earlier on in my degree. But I'm living proof that you can get through it, and I'm actually glad that my degree has been 5 years because I have had time to enjoy it. If it had only have been 3, I would have spent the majority of that feeling quite low and lonely.
Here are some of the things that helped me to get through medical school whilst suffering with a mental health condition:
1) Opening up to my medical school
One of the things that I was really scared about was being thrown out of medical school because I had a mental illness - I thought I would have been seen as unfit to practice. I actually ended up asking my GP for advice on it, and he told me that they couldn't take me off my course due to my mental health, as that would be seen as discrimination. A few days after my overdose, I knew that I needed to open up to someone at my medical school in case I needed time off or support. I spoke to one of the staff from the student support pastoral team, and she was so lovely and helpful. She actually told me that it was much more professional of me to admit to having a problem and needing help than to have kept it hidden, and that mental health problems rarely cause issues with fitness to practice.
After opening up to my medical school, they provided with me with lots of support. If I needed any time off, I only needed to email to ask for it and they would sign me off the same as if I had a physical illness. I had meetings with a member of staff every month or so, and I also had their phone number that I could call if I had any problems. Just knowing that someone was looking out for me was very helpful and helped me see that I was not alone. They also referred me to a counsellor at the university, who was one of the biggest factors into me overcoming my depression.
2) Taking time off when I need it
I wrote a post a couple of years ago about taking mental health sick days, and I still think that they are very important now. On the days that I couldn't stop crying or thinking very negative thoughts, the last thing I needed was to go into placement and come into contact with a patient case that could have triggered me even further. The more sensible option was to stay at home in bed and do the things that I needed to do to make myself feel better: sleep, watch TV, speak to my mum and read a book to take my mind off things. I simply emailed in to hospital and explained that I was feeling depressed, and then filled in an absence form - and the undergraduate staff on placement were very understanding because they were made aware of my situation from the medical school too. Even now, although I wouldn't say I'm depressed, if I have a day where I'm feeling down and haven't slept well so I'm a bit emotional, I will take it off to attend to my needs.
3) Seeking the medical help that I needed
Admitting that I had a problem and that I needed medical help was one of the best things I could have done for my mental health, and also one of the most professional things in the eyes of the medical school. I started taking an antidepressant and also saw a counsellor weekly, and these were two major factors in my recovery. My antidepressant took the edge off things, and allowed me to concentrate on my work better and get out of bed in the mornings for placement. My counsellor helped me to change my way of thinking and made my thoughts become more rational.
4) Realising that I wasn't alone
When I started writing my blog, I had so many other medical students messaging me and telling me about their own experiences with depression or other mental illnesses. This really helped me realise that I wasn't alone in what I was experiencing, and I also hope it helped them too. It made me feel like I was helping people and had a purpose, and concentrating on my blog took my mind away from more destructive thoughts.
5) Relaxing and having fun
One of the most important things for me was not working all of the time. I remember when I was in my 2nd year at medical school that one of the junior doctors said, "there's plenty of time for holidays and fun in medical school. Don't waste it." At that point, I was working all hours of the day and night to get my work done, so I thought she was crazy. However when I went into my 3rd year, my work-life balance was so much better, and I started to take more evenings and weekends off to do things that I enjoyed. In my 1st and 2nd years, I tried to learn everything. When I reached my 3rd year, I realised that this wasn't possible, so I learnt as much as I could of the most important things that I knew would come up in our exams and be relevant on placement - the rest you learn as you go along, or don't particularly need to know.
Even when I was working towards my finals last year, I wouldn't work past a certain time in the evening, and I would always make time for the things that I enjoyed (even if it was just catching up on TV series!). There is a lot to learn in medical school, but if you manage your time well you can also have a lot of fun - that's one of the things that took me the longest to learn, but also something that really helped with my mental health.
Self-love: It costs nothing and you gain everything.