Medical students consistently have higher rates of mental health issues compared to the general population – including stress, distress, burnout, anxiety, depression. We enter university with the same levels of psychological wellbeing as the general population, but during the course of medical school our risks go up significantly. We asked sixth-year medical student Will Mitchell to discuss the strategies he has used to maintain his physical and mental wellbeing over his time in med school. Here's his advice...
I have been asked to describe my own experiences of juggling medical school, while eating the degustation of life on the side. So here I am, sat in my Patagonia fleece (buy Patagonia – profits go to buying protected rainforest reserves in South America) with my derelict hair falling out of its bun, donning Peter Alexander’s and knee-high ugg boots, to do just that! I need to preface this piece with a disclaimer – I am by no means someone who’s found a ‘gold-standard’ method; I’m a young-pup (albeit toilet-trained), a whippersnapper with a ‘rusty-bronze-standard’ balance at the best of time; but for me, always thinking about and changing my balance of priorities is important. It’s particularly important when studying a degree with hefty contact hours, like medicine – our time away from University is more precious than for other privileged children in Adelaide, because it’s much scarcer.
For me, lists are a good anchor. I write them with HB pencils (or 2B pencils, if you’ve got an alpha-male/female complex) in a small lined notebook. Regardless of my level of distraction, lists steer me back towards where I’d like to go. I use domains which are important for me at the time, to encourage me to dedicate time towards a good balance of experiences; but I’m constantly revisiting and adjusting the domains, and what falls under each of them. The domains at the moment are Spiritual, Academic, Relationships and Country Bumpkin.
For me, Spiritual priorities include reading books, travelling, getting involved in teaching and mentoring, and being an informed ‘global citizen’ who supports the human rights of those people who aren’t in the position to be able to support them themselves (support means financially, to Amnesty/UNHCR (there are so many other worthy ones), through discussion, signing petitions/going to rallies, and staying informed).
Academic is my commitment to medicine, and university. Whether we like it or not, medicine (if we choose to pursue it after university) will be an enormous part of our lives. We need to enjoy it. Being good at something, and taking pride in what we’re doing, fuels that enjoyment – so I think it’s important to take it seriously throughout all of medical school. The default altruistic component of medicine makes it spiritual for me, as well.
Relationships are something that I’ve found hard to always maintain; it’s taken me a few years to learn to really value keeping people who mean a lot to me close. I often find myself without having seen or spoken with my buddies in Australia or overseas, with my immediate and extended family, or with my work colleagues for long periods of time. It’s easy to get swept away I’m whatever I’m doing at any point, without prioritising these people. But when I’m prioritised by them, and reminded of how wholesome it is to have a good flock of people around me, it can be a reminder for me to prioritise them more heavily, too. I particularly admire people who work more hectic hours who manage to keep close relationships with so many people.
Country Bumpkin is everything that gets me dirty – working on our farm, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, camping, bike riding, and swimming. It’s good, old-fashioned fun, using our bodies – our big thoraxes, strong back muscles and opposable thumbs – in the way they were made to be used!!
My lists are fluid, they’re always changing as I revisit them throughout different stages, and I find it really tough to always get the balance right. Like practice for anything, too, I need to revisit them and re-orient myself often to get them right – lest they become good lists which aren’t ever followed. At the end of the day, I judge my own success by what I’ve actually been doing, rather than what I say I’m going to be doing, which also helps bring me back down to earth every now and then.