Mental Health: starting with myself

MEntal Health WHO

Mental health policy and service development (WHO, 2018)

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Ms Tessa Noijons, a fourth year medical student at the University of Utrecht. Ms Noijons is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA). The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

It’s almost 1:00AM. The alarm on my smartphone optimistically tells me that I still have five hours and twenty minutes of sleep left. Which only counts if I fall asleep at this moment, and if my head stops spinning. I just finished my presentation for tomorrow, failed in an attempt to clear my overflowing mailbox and somewhere in between I tried to have a conversation with my flatmates. I skipped going to the gym, didn’t call my boyfriend and went straight to my laptop when I got home from the hospital, where I have my internship.  They are expecting me bright and shiny early in the morning, but I just don’t know how to keep up…

 This shows a little insight in the life of a medical intern. The medical intern: a role that I am still trying to adapt to myself. And what does it matter: one night with five hours of sleep? Shouldn’t students be up for that? Isn’t that just what a student’s life looks like?  But what happens if this turns into a lifestyle, where you skip out on the fun parts of life, the parts of relaxation where you can recharge your battery, and the pleasant parts of interaction with your friends. Whenever the pressure gets too high, we tend to skip our own remedy: the recharging moment.

And this is a real and current problem among medical students. With one in six Dutch medical students in their 5th year have acute burn-out symptoms. Some Dutch students write about this pressure to excel. We have to study, get decent grades and volunteer at scientific projects to get ourselves noticed in a specialty field. And next to this we want to be social, see our friends and meet this ‘instragram worthy social life’.  But this is not something that is limited to Dutch students. US medical students also struggle. In a multi-institutional study it appears that at least half of all medical students may be experiencing a burn-out during their education. And the fact that it states ‘at least’ is frightening to me.

How must we, as future healthcare workers, be able to care for our patients when we can’t even take care of ourselves? If studying to care for others is so demanding, will we be able to deliver good care later on in our career? These are questions that I ask myself frequently. Will I be good enough to help somebody else, if I sometimes struggle to help myself?

We should start with taking more care of ourselves. Students should be able to openly discuss mental health related problems. We should be able to share our doubts and our burdens. Universities need to take responsibility and should actively work on creating an environment for students where these problems can be addressed. Students should be educated about these risks at the beginning of their clinical rotations. Make them aware of the workload and that it is not unusual to feel overwhelmed. But even if universities start this movement: we always have to start with ourselves.

About the author

Tessa Noijons is a fourth year medical student at the University of Utrecht. She just finished her term as the National Officer on Medical Education 2016 – 2017 of IFMSA-NL, which made her responsible for all medical education activities within IFMSA-NL on the national level. She has been active within IFMSA for over four years at a local, national and international level.

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