Updated: May 21, 2020
By Hannah Royle
I find mental health and studying medicine go hand in hand. It’s an intense, stressful course and trying to look after yourself at the same time is really hard, especially when it comes to mental health. You can feel inadequate, like you shouldn’t be on the course or completely unmotivated to do anything, but it’s important to know you aren’t the only one. A diagnosis of depression in semester 3 was made easier with the support of my friends and family, but sometimes there’s only so much they can do. This is how I managed in undoubtedly the worst semester of the course (as I’m sure everyone will agree).
It sounds obvious, but I can’t stress how important it is to tell people around you what you’re going through. Friends and family know you, and are people you can rely on to help in simple ways; for a chat, doing something you enjoy or just comfort. That being said, don’t underestimate telling your tutors too. It’s important to let them know what’s going on and I’m forever grateful I did. Both my PBL tutor and academic advisor were essential in making me feel like I could manage and continue on the course. Not only did they help in directing me towards support the university had to offer, but they offered me their own advice and reassurance. When you feel so out of control and self-critical, sometimes hearing something as simple as ‘you’re doing so well’ is a massive relief. What really made a difference for me was finally recognising and reaching out for professional help and going to the doctor. There came a point where I couldn’t keep pushing things to the side, and getting medical help was pivotal.
It’s so important to be forgiving with yourself when you’re struggling- sometimes you don’t have the capacity to do what’s expected and that’s okay. There’s always time to catch up, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time (I promise, there is). Sometimes, just showing up to classes and taking in a tiny amount is enough. I made sure to try and do the basics every week, like reading through the anatomy workbook and covering as much of PBL as I could, even if it wasn’t in any detail. Over time, it becomes easier to increase your workload, but start small and remember that just doing something is achievement enough.
A work/life balance is important for medicine full stop, but seeing your friends is so important. Even though I didn’t honestly enjoy it sometimes (and remember, that’s normal too when struggling with mental health), going through the actions helps regain a sense of normalcy. Rather than staying at home and doing nothing, making yourself go places gives you some sense of purpose and more opportunities to feel (even just moments of) happiness. You have to remember you’re a person, and even though it does feel like it a lot, this degree doesn’t define you and doesn’t always have to be the centre of your life.
In terms of exams, I had several tactics to try and make them easier to deal with. I found making a timetable helped me- one of my sources of anxiety was forgetting to do things and falling behind, so just making a simple outline (with lots of flexibility) helped keep me on track but not feel overwhelmed. I also made sure to include time with friends on it and make sure to write down the more exciting plans I had on it, to attempt to make myself feel more motivated. Another thing I did was study with friends, especially for OSCE skills. It makes it feel less stressful and like work to practise with someone, whilst still definitely counting as work.
I know all of these things seem very vague and arguably cheesy, basic advice.
Overcoming a mental health problem in not linear; there are good days and bad days and sometimes you can’t predict which will be which. All I can say is that I wasn’t the first, nor will I be the last to have to balance medicine with my mental health problems, and I hope at least part of this helps.