Thirty percent of medical students have received treatment for a mental health condition and 15 percent have considered suicide - alarming statistics, say experts.
"The number of students reporting mental illness or considering suicide is shocking," Twishaa Sheth, chair of the British Medical Association's student welfare committee, told Student BMJ.
The new analysis of over 1,100 medical students appears in the September issue of the journal.
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What's more, 80 percent of the student participants who experienced mental health issues didn't feel like they received adequate support. In addition, nearly 16 percent said they smoked, one quarter said they engaged in binge drinking every week, and almost 11 percent said they had taken illegal drugs more than once.
"What is most concerning is that over 80 percent who have experienced mental distress have found the support they received only moderate or (they) received none at all," Debbie Cohen, senior medical research fellow at the University of Cardiff, told the journal.
Medical students might be suffering at higher-than-expected rates because of a perfect storm of stressors: a competitive educational environment, intense course loads, an unceasing exam schedule and the emotional stress of caring for sick patients, writes Student BMJ editor Matthew Billingsley.
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They may also face stigma from within the field, which keeps them from seeking treatment.
One of the students who participated in the survey told researchers that tutors and consultants had referred to mental illness as a "weakness" and that depression "isn't a real illness."
The new research echoes earlier findings that suggest medical students enter their programs with a similar mental health status as their college classmates, but their mental health deteriorates as they go through school, reports the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The study, conducted by the Mayo Clinic in 2006, also reported that medical students are less likely to ask for help because of the stigma.
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Some medical schools are starting to address the issue, reported the AAMC. Saint Louis University School of Medicine has instituted mandatory resilience and mindfulness classes, and Creighton has adopted a pass/fail grading system and works with teachers to reframe the need for mental health support among students.
Administrators at Vanderbilt are also aware of the need for change.
"It's perfectly okay to come here and study hard and do as well as you can, but it's also okay to take care of yourself," associate dean of student affairs at Vanderbilt Scott Rodgers told the AAMC. "You don't want to lose your humanity by becoming a doctor."