‘I struggle with life because of the stress of medicine’: Junior doctors tell us how being a medic affected their mental health

Three medicine students share their experiences

Between intense selection processes, high-pressure daily situations, and long hours, studying medicine takes its toll. 300 student doctors quit university each year, with The Times reporting on a mental health "epidemic" among medical students.

We spoke to three medicine students about what it's really like, and the effect it has on their mental health.

The pressures of studying medicine can cause mental health to deteriorate

Each of the students we spoke to said studying medicine has had negative effects on their mental health.

Jamie Plumb, a fifth year medic at Cardiff, was diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder after starting uni. He said "studying medicine has played a significant part in my diagnosis being brought about. It is a very intense course and certainly around stressful assessment periods, I sometimes find that my mental health can deteriorate."

Lottie, a third year at Sheffield, says "I've definitely not been feeling like myself. I’ve been struggling with general life because of the stress of medicine and placement and I think it’s because of the constant pressure."

Charlotte, also a third year at Sheffield, added "I have had to attend therapy to learn how to combat these issues but since this time have been much more successful in exams."

What is it about medicine that's particularly stressful?

The unique pressures medical students speak about add an extra layer to the stress students face more generally. The expectations of achievement, workload, and commitment are all more strenuous than those imposed on the normal student, and the work/life balance can be more precarious.

Assessment periods can be times of acute stress – failing carries far harsher consequences for medical students than for others. During his fourth year ISCE assessments – three days of practical assessments with real and simulated patients – Jamie says: "I didn’t sleep properly for two weeks prior to my ISCE due to stress. I became very unwell following my exam and due to a relapse in my mental health, and had to go back to my family home for a week to recover. "

Even outside the periods, there's a continual sense of assessment. Lottie says constantly being on show means "you’re not able to relax properly as you don’t have enough time, and juggling placements with having a social life, exercise and your wellbeing is tough. "

Jamie Plumb,

Jamie Plumb,

Dropping out is common, especially at the start of the course

With over 1,600 medical students failing to complete their degrees in the past five years, it's worth looking at the reasons why.

"Sometimes the stresses of the course become too much for some to handle. Therefore, the safest and most sensible option is to leave for the sake one’s own mental wellbeing," says Jamie.

A common trend seems to be people leaving soon after starting, often "having the wrong idea about what doing medicine involves," says Lottie.

"Within the first few weeks of starting University, some students drop out due to the sheer amount of unexpected pressure of the course," says Jamie.

Placement can also be tough, with students away from their university cities and support networks for weeks on end.

Support is available, but often students just don't know about it

One positive effect of studying medicine on students' mental health is that coping with the pressure can strengthen them. "I have become much more mentally resilient since beginning to study medicine and have learn a number of coping mechanisms," says Charlotte.

Over the seven year course, medics also naturally become close and learn to take care of each other, with Jamie saying medics "look after each other," and that "people are open about their mental health in my year."

On the other hand, this openness can be hurt by the competitive climate. Often, people are reluctant to talk about their mental health issues as they "mistakenly believe that this will in some way reflect upon their ability to be a successful medical student or doctor," adds Charlotte. This reluctance can also manifest more clearly in men, with Jamie saying "I don't think enough men talk about their mental health."

Medics can receive specific services from their universities. Medic Support in Cardiff is a service which Jamie describes as "fantastic and works incredibly hard to keep students on track." In Sheffield, there is a system within the medical school, as well as a MedSoc welfare office.

However, students are often not aware of, or willing to access the help. "Access to this support really needs to be made clearer and easier to access," says Lottie, whilst Jamie says students are often left in the dark, and don't refer themselves.

From speaking to these three students, it seems the combination of these factors – the stress, reluctance by many to seek help, and understated publicity the services receive – go a long way to contributing to the high numbers of medical students failing to complete their degrees.

Yet, underneath this lies a vast number of students adjusting, managing, and keeping a desire to give something back once they graduate.