Dealing With Depression in Medical School
Published on May 5, 2021. Updated on May 6, 2021.
Medical school is about learning to care for others in the best way possible. But what happens when it becomes difficult to care for yourself? Today on the blog, third-year medical student Mónica Contreras Leal shares her experience with depression during medical school: how she learned to cope and eventually, to overcome.
We all know that going into medicine implies a lot of stress and hard work. As students and future healthcare professionals, we are trained to be prepared to deal with whatever life throws at us and go above and beyond for our patient's health. But we are never taught to care for ourselves, to dedicate some time to relax.
What does it mean to never take a break? Why is mental health a priority in every field and a MUST in all students? How do you deal with a stigma? I’d like to share my personal story and hope that this blog is helpful and inspiring.
My first years in medical school
During my first years in medical school, I never took any time for myself. I was so focused on studying and being this perfect medical student that I slowly became uninterested in what I was studying. I started oversleeping and not arriving to class. I failed a lot of exams, but I still pulled all-nighters every time I had a chance. I was crying every day and wishing I was dead. I even visualized how and when I was going to commit suicide.
One day, my mom took me to a psychiatrist, and boy am I thankful that she did. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression during my second year of medical school (I was 21). I actually had no idea of what this disease was or what it meant. I thought that the oversleeping, over-eating, distancing from my friends was just what everybody went through in medical school because it was so demanding.
Dealing with chronic fatigue
One of the key points in dealing with depression is the chronic fatigue you experience. I was always mentally drained and unable to do the simplest tasks, like showering or just reading. I started making a very strict schedule to follow so that I could finish all of my things.
Every day before bed, I would make a to-do list of everything I had to do—including meals, showering, breaks, clases, and exercise.
Yes, there were days when I wasn’t able to even get out of bed. Those days, I would lay in bed, journal why I was feeling this way, and just enjoy my day. I didn’t think of all of the things that I had to do—which would trigger my anxiety—but rather, I let everything go and gave myself a break.
I think those days where I gave myself a break were the epitome of what I did to really overcome my chronic fatigue. Trying to motivate myself with loads of work only made my anxiety worse, so giving yourself a day or two to unwind is really amazing.
Weed out any negativity—don’t focus on what you can or can’t do. Look at every day as a blank canvas: What you did or didn’t do yesterday is in the past and can’t be changed. Give yourself positive affirmations in the mirror, and just before getting out of bed, write five things you are grateful for.
Overcoming the stigma
I was really scared of telling my own family about my depression. In México, people with mental health issues are viewed as attention seekers, crazy, or drama queens—so talking openly about this was really hard for me.
Since then, I go to therapy every week, which has helped me overcome the stigma that surrounds people with mental health issues. I learned that everybody needs help in some way, that I am not the only one that is dealing with this, and that I should not only fixate on the negative of my depression—I should use it to help others.
I know sometimes you feel lost and alone—especially in medical school where the amount studied isn’t always reflected on the grades—but I am here to tell you that grades are not everything. You are not alone. Be grateful for what you have and admire your baby steps. Try to be optimistic and never give into the stigma. Visualize every day as a blank canvas and enjoy the little things, even if it is that you smelled something amazing or that you went on a walk today. It does get better. This is just a “road bump,” and I know it seems impossible at first, but talk it out, write it out, exercise, and never forget that you are much more important than your midterms, your grades. And try to give yourself a break every now and then.
Healthcare students are people, too—we can also have breakdowns. Taking a break is not bad. It is actually better for everyone who is going under a lot of stress and suffering from anxiety to just take a deep breath and decide to slow down—this will help to be more productive and stay focused.
Mónica is a 3rd year MD at Universidad Anáhuac campus Querétaro. Born and raised in Querétaro, México. She loves discovering beautiful places, photography, her two dogs—Bailey and Peanut—and watching movies. Mónica would like to pursue a career in Ophthalmology or in Pediatric Cardiology. A fun fact about her is that she can say the alphabet backwards.
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