A new survey of Student British Medical Journal readers found 30 percent of respondents reported experiencing or receiving treatment for a mental health condition while at medical school. Yet, the majority (80 percent) believed the level of available support was either poor or just moderately adequate.

“'The stigma with mental health issues especially comes into focus when exposed to consultants and tutors who refer to it as a weakness,” Matthew Billingsley, author of the article and editor of Student BMJ, quoted one respondent and then added, “The same respondent had worked with several consultants who had stated that depression ‘isn’t a real illness.’”

While it may be chilling to read that some doctors do not believe in the science they are selling, what is most disturbing is the fact that just under 15 percent of survey respondents revealed they had considered committing suicide at some point during their studies.

Evidence of Pain

To examine the health of medical students, Student BMJ invited its readers to participate in a survey and a total of 1,122 United Kingdom-based students responded. Along with more general questions about health, the survey queried students about smoking, drinking, and drug use.

Just under 16 percent of the respondents reported smoking. This favorably compares to a national average of nearly 19 percent. The medical students also had healthier results than the general population when it came to illegal drugs, Billingsley found. A separate survey published in The Guardian found 31 percent of adults had taken illegal drugs, while far less (about 11 percent) of the medical students confessed to doing the same. Yet slightly more than eight percent of the survey participants admitted to using cognitive-enhancing drugs to help them study. Worse, one-quarter of the survey participants said they were binge drinkers, Billingsley observed, and so the medical students outpaced the national average of 18 percent (among the same basic age range of 16- to 24-year-olds).

“The reasons behind the apparently high rates of mental health problems are complex,” Billingsley noted. “The demands of the course can cause an over-competitive environment that can have a detrimental effect on the health of students.” Along with school intensity, the “stigmatizing attitudes” toward mental illness passed down from senior doctors make it “difficult for students to step forward when they need support,” Billingsley noted.

What is more concerning, though, is a lack of independent support available to the students. Not only are many confused about where to turn for help, they often are scared that if they discuss a problem it will have a detrimental effect on their grades.

“It is not clear to students who the right person to go to is, and if their confidentiality can be assured,” Billingsley said. Forgive the doctor who needs a doctor, but pity the student who needs a psychiatrist.

Source: Billingsley M. More than 80% of medical students with mental health issues feel under supported, says Student BMJ survey. Student BMJ. 2015.