OPINION | Medical community must address mental health stigma

Paul Stolin, Contributing Writer

Anxious cartoon student
Tulane Medical School must address issues of mental health. (Gabe Darley)

Most college students pick a field of study that they believe will lead them to fulfillment and happiness. “Health Professions” is the fifth most popular major at Tulane, suggesting that a significant number of Tulane students feel as if they will reach fulfillment and happiness by pursuing professions in the health service industry. 

Since the start of the pandemic, healthcare professionals have played a crucial role in society. Doctors, specifically, have garnered praise for their heroic role over the past year and a half. Physicians have been highly praised for their  precise, reliable and necessary skills that save lives and keep society healthy and safe. 

In most professions, the consequences of poor training or poor application of knowledge results in a loss of profit or loss of employment. However, mistakes in the medical profession can potentially impact one’s health or ability to function as a member of society.

Medical students are aware that their training is different. “I think a lot of the stress that comes from medical school comes from examinations … And that puts on a lot of anxiety and stress. And that’s where a lot of people find that, you know, am I smart enough,” Landon Waite, a second-year medical student at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport, said.

Waite added “I think medical school is a beast in that a lot is expected of you, but the whole stigma about mental health is detrimental to a lot of the medical students, because they’re afraid to admit that they have an issue and that they’re not happy and that they’re not doing well.”

Medical school has always been a stressful endeavor. The recent suicide of Tulane University School of Medicine student Tim Chen sparked overdue conversation about the mental health crisis in medical school. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “[t]wenty-seven percent of medical students around the world report depression or depressive symptoms, and 11 percent experienced suicidal ideation during medical school.” 

It is reasonable to wonder how this data compares to the “regular population.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “estimates of the 12-month prevalence of major depressive episodes among medical students in this study was between 2.2 and 5.2 times higher than that reported in 18- to 25-year-olds and 26- to 49-year-olds in the general population.” Paradoxically, there appears to be an overwhelming amount of stigma around mental health among medical students. 

It is perfectly acceptable for students to enter medical school with dreams of pursuing psychiatry or dreams of developing improved antidepressants and anxiety medication. Yet, many medical students are hesitant to admit that they themselves may need to seek professional psychiatric help

“If I was a well controlled schizophrenic and was in medical school, I would never tell anybody, because a disease like that you are seen as someone who can’t be trusted, and you obviously need to be trusted in medicine, you make a lot of big judgment decisions,” a current internal medicine resident at Tulane, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “And I think chronic mental illness is something that can’t really be cured. So you are marked as someone who has something that affects their judgment forever or potentially will affect their judgment. And that makes you less desirable.” 

The internal medicine resident said he would not personally seek in-school mental health resources. “I don’t know that this is a thing, but I just feel, and I think other people feel that

if their school and the medical community knows that they have a chronic mental illness or mental instability, that they will be a worse doctor or an untrustworthy doctor. So, I think that’s the main problem. It’s like, you get a broken bone, it can heal. If you have major depressive disorder, that’s not going to go away. You are going to have to deal with it forever,” he said. 

It is worth noting that medical schools, including Tulane, have a valuable network of mental health resources that they offer to their medical school students. According to an unnamed student at the school, Tulane’s medical school offers students 12 free counseling services per academic year which many students utilize. However, “there’s nothing explicit that would be a problem for you, but there is definitely a perception that people need to be careful with what’s in their medical record, which I think is largely blown out of proportion,” he said. “I think people should do what they need to do to get through it.”

It is clear that there is a major problem with the maintenance of mental health within medical school culture. To even begin to destigmatize mental health issues in the general population, we must ensure that speaking up about mental health in the medical community and medical schools specifically, ceases to be taboo. 

Gabe Darley