Recognizing Symptoms of Stress and Depression in Medical Students (and How to Help)

Omer Rott
Published on Apr 24, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

It's vital that we have each other's backs during the COVID-19 pandemic—but how do you do this while practicing social distancing? Osmosis Medical Education Fellow and medical student Omer Rott shares his advice on managing stress and signs to look out for.

Beginning medical school means starting many new things. Here in the Czech Republic, you start medical school immediately after high school. This means adjusting to living on your own for the first time, building a new social circle, and juggling a demanding schedule with completely different school requirements. This is a lot to deal with even without having a pandemic on the loose!

As a medical student, you have to make time for all of the usual things life throws at you while dealing with a workload that takes up an enormous amount of time. Stress, anxiety, and depression are common among students generally—so is it any wonder that a study conducted in the USA found that medical students are more likely to experience burnout and symptoms of depression during their studies?

If someone is experiencing mental health issues, the first people who might notice are their fellow classmates. This represents a common dilemma in medical school: when it’s hard to take care of yourself, how do you find the time to look out for others? 

There’s a good chance that someone in your class is struggling to deal with the pressure of medical school, especially with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on medical schools and other institutions. In this blog post I hope to provide you with some basic tips on how to notice when a fellow student may be dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression, and what you might do to help.

Signs your classmate may be struggling

Changes in behaviour

Everyone has different behavior and characteristics. These behaviours might change over time, but no one completely changes overnight unless there’s something wrong. Severe stress and anxiety—which often occurs during examination times and is especially common in medical students—can cause a change in one's behaviour. These “abnormal changes” can be very noticeable, especially if you’re seeing them in someone you spend a lot of time with. 

You may notice a change in a person’s mood: they might seem “down”, withdrawn, and much less talkative than they were before. They might carry themselves differently: smiling less or slouching when they walk. 

Social media behaviors can be an indicator too. The person might post an unusual picture or caption on Instagram, share an ominous quote on Twitter, or change the frequency at which they’d normally text you with updates. It might be easier to notice these things nowadays since people are more likely to be on social media. A student that reaches out less and less and avoids online meetings such as online lectures and hangouts, might be a student struggling with stress.

Keep in mind that some of these changes are common occurrences around examination time even during normal circumstances. The person you’re worried about may just be focusing on their studies, or having an off day. Please keep these things in mind before jumping to conclusions about the overall state of their mental health! On the other hand, reaching out to checkup on someone isn’t out of the ordinary during these times, just don’t forget to keep social distancing while doing so!

Osmosis illustration of someone looking stressed during a conference call.

Lack of motivation

Exam season is that time of the semester when you should be giving 110% to pass your exams so you can enjoy that well-earned semester break. However, it’s also the time when stress and depression are most likely to occur, and they often manifest as a lack of motivation to study, hang out, eat, or do, well, anything. 

Another sign of lack of motivation is sleeping too much or too little. This can be harder to notice, but some signs may be drinking unhealthy amounts of coffee, or complaints about being tired constantly, and being unable to sleep

Negative sentiments 

As a future doctor, it’s essential that you’re able to remain attentive during conversations; this skill can sometimes lead to a clue that will help you make a clinical diagnosis. As a medical student—and as a good friend in general!—paying close attention to what someone is saying may help you determine if they’re trying to ask for help. 

You might hear a fellow student saying things like, “I don’t think I’m good enough”, “I can’t make myself study anymore”, or, “This is hopeless...” Statements like these often indicate temporary frustration, but if you hear these things again and again, it may very well be a subtle cry for help. 

Ways to help a classmate in need

Open communication

You’d be surprised at how helpful checking in with a quick phone call or a text message can be for someone experiencing stress and depression. These things might seem small, but they can be proof that someone out there is looking out for you, cares about you, and will be there for you until things are okay. 

You can text friends during a study break, or even better, during a walk outside! You can create a support group during stressful times at school, where you can all keep an eye on each other, and keep spirits high with memes and daily pick-me-ups, like motivational quotes. My friends and I started a weekly online meet up to catch up and keep each other motivated during these difficult times, there are so many online platforms nowadays just pick one and give it a go!

Osmosis illustration of someone checking in with a friend.

Sharing mindfulness practices

Mindfulness means paying attention to your body, thoughts, and emotions, and experiencing them without judgment. Taking things as they are now, makes it easier to focus, study, and find enjoyment in small things moving forward. 

Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular among students (at least in my faculty) especially during the pandemic because it’s a short and simple way to relax and stay calm with everything going on. In addition, maybe the most important aspect of mindfulness (most important for us budget-conscious students!) it is free. A simple mediation session can take no more than 5–10 minutes, and it can be done almost anywhere, even right before an exam. The best thing is that it can be done either alone or with friends! 

Try to introduce mindfulness and mediation to your classmates by either guiding them in their first session, meditating along with them, or simply sharing our weekly mindfulness sessions found on YouTube. Don’t forget to check out our future LIVE events here.

Osmosis illustration of an online mindfulness session.

Suggest professional help

Last but by no means least, therapy. As medical students, we should never stigmatize therapy. Sometimes it’s the right and best choice to talk to a professional, whether it’s through university counseling services or by reaching out directly to a psychologist. 

If you think your friend would benefit from such a meeting, try to suggest therapy just as gently and respectfully as you would suggest it to a patient of yours. More often than not, it’s the right call. 

About Omer

Omer Rott is a third year medical student at Masaryk University in Brno, located in the Czech Republic. He is interested in Pediatrics. In his free time, Omer enjoys reading, baking, photography, and playing board games with his friends. 

Try Osmosis today! Access your free trial and find out why millions of clinicians and caregivers love learning with us.