Even twenty years later, I remember well the pervasive despair that engulfed me for much of my first two years of medical school. Even with a personal support system that included my family and several former college roommates and friends who lived in the same city, I struggled to find my bearings, academically and emotionally. Now that I spend much of my time teaching first-year medical students, I have wondered if the learning environment that I and other faculty provide contributes negatively or positively to their well-being.
A 2016 systematic review in JAMA examined the self-reported prevalence of depression, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation in medical students from 43 countries who were surveyed from 1982 to 2015. Longitudinal studies showed that students' mental health worsened significantly after starting medical school, with a median absolute increase in symptoms of 13.5%. On average, 27 percent of students reported depression or depressive symptoms, but only 16 percent of those students sought formal treatment. In contrast to my own experience, which was feeling much happier once I began third-year clerkships, there was no significant difference in depression prevalence between the preclinical and clinical years. Most alarmingly, 11 percent of students in these studies reported having suicidal thoughts during medical school.
A second systematic review examined associations between learning environment interventions and medical student well-being. The evidence base was limited: only 3 of 28 included studies were randomized trials, and most studies were conducted at a single site. Interventions that appeared to be effective in improving students' well-being included pass/fail grading systems, increased time with patients during the preclinical years, mental health programs, wellness programs including mind-body stress reduction skills, and formal advising/mentoring programs. In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Stuart Slavin observed that the educational culture of some medical schools is often an obstacle to implementing these kinds of reforms:
When signals of problems involving student mental health arise, the reaction in medical education has commonly been failure to recognize that the main problem is often with the environment, not the student. The response has often been limited, such as advising students to eat well, exercise, do yoga, meditate, and participate in narrative medicine activities. These approaches ... may distract educators from recognizing that the learning environment is at the core of the problem, and more must be done to improve it.
To be sure, maximizing student well-being is not the only or even the most important goal of medical education. But just as it is possible to create positive practice environments that protect clinicians from burnout, educators can prepare students to practice medicine competently in learning environments that are least likely to harm their mental health.
This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on December 19, 2016.