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Dublin: 2 °C Thursday 17 January, 2019
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Depression, stress and emigration: Why medical students need to talk about mental health

A new campaign is aiming to take away the stigma some people feel about discussing issues such as depression and suicide.

shutterstock_302772905 Source: Shutterstock/Guschenkova

COLLEGE COURSES CAN be quite stressful, with large workloads and tight deadlines.

This can be particularly true for medical students.

With this in mind, the Association of Medical Students Ireland (AMSI) wanted to do something to promote positive mental health and remove some of the stigma that can be attached to speaking about it.

The association represents 7,000 medical students across the seven medical schools on the island of Ireland (TCD, UCD, RCSI, NUIG, UCC, UL and QUB).

Kevin McMahon, president of the AMSI and a medical student in NUI Galway, says the association felt compelled to act after an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association said one in four medical students globally experiences depression during the course of their studies, and one in nine experiences suicidal thoughts.

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“This rate is staggeringly high and is absolutely unacceptable, making medical students one of the highest risk groups for a mental illness,” Kevin says.

As a result, the AMSI came up with Our Med Minds, an initiative that was running in universities during the week, with a number of workshops and other events taking place.

Nick Stefanovic, AMSI’s public relations officer, says the results of the international study are “really shocking”, but not altogether surprising given how stressful studying medicine can be.

He notes that everyone has different coping mechanisms and the aim of the campaign is to “make people aware of what support is out there and that it’s okay to talk about mental health”.

Nick tells TheJournal.ie there can be an added stigma attached to medical students or medical professionals talking about their mental health struggles as people might think, “If you’re not able to take care of yourself, how can you ever take care of someone else?”

“You constantly have to put on a professional front – your nice hospital clothes and nice hospital smile, even though you may not be feeling similarly inside.”

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Nick notes a lot of medical students and workers experience burnout.

Clinicians become jaded and completely burnt out. We’re bringing it back to the medical students. We want them to know that it’s okay to talk about stress. That’s something that will manifest again later on in large workloads.

Kevin adds that it’s “widely accepted that physician burnout has grave implications on the care that our patients receive”, stating: ”Recent thinking has shifted towards tracing such burnout back to the medical student stages of doctors’ careers.

“If we can equip our students with the tools to facilitate mental resilience and support seeking at this early stage, we can ultimately train more compassionate and healthier doctors.”

Emigration 

Nick, a medical student in Trinity College, says the heavy workload medical students experience can put some of them off pursuing a career in the sector. He isn’t considering emigrating, but knows many other medical students are.

Emigration rates are up, people are moving to places like Australia because they have better resources and a better work culture. We need to look at work culture here, as well as starting a conversation about mental health.

“I’m quite happy to work in Ireland, my family is here … A lot of students do want to stay in Ireland, it’s our home – but a lot of doctors here are overworked.”

Personal experiences 

As part of Our Med Minds, the seven medical schools which are part of the AMSI are sending a survey about mental health and wellbeing to their students.

Nick explains that people will be asked what they believe medical schools and universities can do to improve mental health supports, with a view to the survey results leading to better resources on campus.

Students have also been submitting personal stories about periods in their lives where their mental health was tested and they needed extra support. A selection of these stories will published on TheJournal.ie later today.

Medical staff morale 

Representatives from the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine (IAEM) and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) recently spoke to TheJournal.ie about the impact of employee shortages and lack of resources on frontline medical staff.

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Anne Burke, the INMO’s Industrial Relations Officer in the west (Galway, Mayo and Roscommon), said staff morale among nurses and midwives is “at an all-time low”.

The effect of this on staff morale is clear. I’ve never witnessed it as low in my life, we witnessed it very, very clearly in the balloting [on industrial action]. You see their heads down, their body language speaks volumes.

Dr Fergal Hickey, the IAEM’s Communications Officer, said action needs to be taken to stop young medical staff emigrating.

We are training people to lose them. They see the alternative – like Australia for example, they have beautiful facilities that are well-staffed and well-resourced. They look at Ireland and see no comparison. We are losing people, they vote with their feet.

“The only thing that will incentivise doctors and nurses to stay in this country are better terms and conditions,” Burke added.

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Read: ‘If this many people were dying in another way, there’d be war over it’

Read: An Irish nurse: ‘I began to hate my job. I questioned my career. There were days when I came home crying’

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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