My Experience – Medical Student Depression

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One of the happiest days of my life was hearing that I got into medical school. It had been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. My father played a big role in my desire to become a physician. Seeing him live a life of service to others inspired me from a young age. Watching him put on his white coat with the stethoscope around his neck was like looking at a superhero don his cape. Hearing him share stories of how medical care saved patient lives mesmerized me. To me, medicine was the perfect blend of miracle and science. Throughout high school and undergrad, I geared my education to prepare me for medical school. Taking a science heavy workload was tough, but I managed to perform well in my undergrad years. I felt my college education had prepared me to be highly successful in medical school. However, I was sadly mistaken.  

My First Semester at Medical School

My first semester of medical school was one of the most difficult times in my life. I had to adjust to living away from home, adapt to the breakneck pace of the classes, and constantly tweak my study habits to find a consistent and effective method. I was accepted into Ross University School of Medicine. Ross’s main campus is located on the Caribbean island of Dominica, but the damage caused by Hurricane Maria prompted Ross to set up a temporary campus in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was thoroughly impressed at how Ross, in the span of a few months, turned an empty office complex into a thriving, vibrant medical school campus, complete with essentials such as group study rooms and even a state-of-the-art cadaver lab. I was feeling optimistic and looking forward to starting my medical education. All that naive enthusiasm was utterly obliterated within the first two weeks of the semester. I was finding it difficult to keep up with the ridiculously mercurial pace of my classes. Many of my mentors described medical school as “trying to drink from a fire hydrant”. And frankly, I was drowning. Before I knew it, I fell behind and struggled immensely to study all the material that would be tested on the first exam. The fear of not being prepared struck me and I entered full panic mode. There were only two days left until the exam and I came up with insanely impossible, unrealistic study schedules to try and catch up. I sacrificed my sleep, often getting less than three hours per night. It was unhealthy and self-destructive, but I truly felt I had no other choice. All the while, I wasn’t feeling any better about my exam preparation; nothing was sticking. Everything was flying by my brain and I found it near impossible to retain any information. My heart seemed like it would beat out of my chest, and constantly drinking coffee at the rate of a hooked addict wasn’t helping.  

The Exam

Before I knew it, the morning of the exam had arrived. I hadn’t slept the night before. The bags under my eyes had bags of their own and my study space looked more like a dumpster; soda bottles and food wrappers as far as the eye can see. I felt extremely lethargic and could barely keep my eyes open. My excess caffeine intake gave me the jitters and my hands shook from pure anxiety as I entered the exam room. I found it hard to focus during the exam. My mind kept racing, dreading what would happen if I failed. I misread questions and sloppily selected wrong answers. I didn’t know if it was the fatigue causing my impaired performance or if I was really that stupid and incompetent. Regardless, it was a terrible time.  

The Aftermath

The grades came out later that day and I felt my mind go numb when I saw my score. I didn’t just fail, I failed miserably. Immediately I began to question myself. Maybe I am that stupid. Maybe I don’t deserve to become a doctor, I mean what kind of doctor scores that low on an exam. These thoughts continued to plague my mind for several weeks. I lost appetite and lost interest in the things I normally enjoyed. But worst of all, I lost my passion for medicine. A cloud of dark melancholy hovered over me. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t interact much with others. I kept to myself and wallowed in my pit of misery. For the first time in my life, I became depressed. I didn’t know what to do anymore. This whole journey started to feel meaningless and overwhelming feelings of inadequacy engulfed me. My mind was in a really dark place and I didn’t think I would ever get out.  

Hope is Not Lost

But one Thursday night, through luck, fate, divine intervention, whatever you want to call it, I received a call from one my closest friends who was in his second semester of medical school. He vented to me about how he failed one of his practicals and I shared my story of my failed exam. We connected over our shared experiences and soon enough, we began to uplift and encourage each other. “Don’t worry dude, you’ll kick ass on the next one. Keep your head up”, I remember saying to him. He echoed similar sentiments and we spent the rest of the time catching up on life. After that conversation, I felt the dread start to fade away. For the first time in weeks I felt a strangely familiar feeling: joy. I realized at that moment what I was doing wrong: I kept to myself. I drowned myself in grief and despair instead of reaching out to people for support. I decided to set appointments with the counseling office at Ross. I actively watched YouTube videos of doctors sharing their personal experiences of difficult times in medical school and residency. I tried to take pieces of advice they gave and incorporate them into my own life. Simultaneously, I began to become a more effective student. I found a study method that worked for me and i stuck to it. My efficiencies increased and my exam scores gradually improved as well. To anyone who may be experiencing similar feelings as I did, I have one thing to say to you: you are not alone. We as medical students face two unique struggles; the first is that regarding the exams and studying we encounter on a daily basis. The second struggle is often intangible; it’s the mental battle we wage within ourselves. Reach out to others. Don’t tackle this battle by yourself. It is rather ironic that we aspire to be physicians and care for others, but we neglect to take care of ourselves. It can be easy to fall into feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Realize that one failed exam or one failed semester isn’t the end of the road. These are just obstacles in our path to become successful physicians. We all face different struggles and handle them differently. The key is to reach out for support. There are resources out there for students. Everything from motivational YouTube videos to counselors is available at the click of a button or a phone call away. I hope that you all can take something meaningful away from this and I wish you nothing but success in medical school and in your endeavors to become physicians. Onward!
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