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Medical Students Keep Depression Under Wraps

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media, September 23, 2010

For many medical school students, going through the educational process is a grind, and exceedingly difficult. But once they overcome hurdles in the fourth year, they are ready to go on to new levels, with their dream of practice becoming an evolving reality.

For students who are depressed, however, the potential difficulties of medical school are not only exacerbated, but also often put under wraps. Students may not want to talk about the extreme pain or sadness, or even concede the presence of their depression, because doing so reveals some cracks in their armor, meaning they aren't supermen, or superwomen, after all.

If you are a budding superman, why exposing yourself to Kryptonite?

That's what University of Michigan medical school researchers have found, saying that medical students who are depressed often don't bother confronting the situation. And the researchers say that medical students battling depression also fight a nagging stigma toward depression and concede a belief that colleagues and instructors have little use for it. So they stash their collective mental anxieties in a closet. As a result, they don't seek treatment when they should.

As Thomas L. Schwenk, MD, chairman of the University of Michigan family medicine department, sees it, something is very wrong with this picture, especially since it relates to the world of doctors, who are in the healing business, but too often not the business in healing themselves. Schwenk was the main author of the study, "Depression, Stigma, and Suicidal Ideation in Medical Students," in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which showed that 53.5% of medical students who reported high levels of depressive symptoms were worried that revealing their illness would be risky to their potential careers. In addition, about 62% who were depressed said they believed asking for help would mean their coping skills were not what they should be. The study's co-authors were Lindsay Davis, B.S. and Leslie A. Wimsatt, Ph.D. all of U-M Medical School.

Students feared they would be "viewed as less than adequate, that they would be viewed as less able to handle their responsibilities by faculty members, and that telling a counselor about depression would be risky," the study states.

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