My name is Andrea Dwek Schain. Medical student, wife, dog lover and former clinically depressed patient. This is the story on how I became a clinical depression survivor.
To me, mental illness is a physiological imbalance of the homeostasis that is our life. Depression and anxiety are forms of imbalance. The conditions which we as human beings need to function at our most optimal aren’t being met, leading to often catastrophic endings.
We have heard the term “depression” being thrown around a lot, but what is depression truly? What does it look like? What does it feel like? The answer to those questions is far from simple, mostly because depression varies from person to person, but there are some classic signs which follow the diagnostic criteria. I suffered from the well-known symptoms, but diagnostically speaking the “one mold fits all” approach does not work for mental illness in general.
How it Started
I was living in a country new to me – not where I grew up. After high school I had decided to move away, to travel, and ultimately pursue medicine. I was living in a beautiful country, but I had no family, no support system and felt alone. I cannot recall which started first, the feelings of intense hopelessness or the overwhelming anxiety – but they both started off insidiously and grew to the point it was difficult to function. Simple daily tasks, even getting out of bed and ready for the day, became incredibly difficult.
I hid these struggles from others for various reasons, but primarily due to shame. Until one day I cracked. I called my mother in tears in the middle of one of my worst panic attacks. I knew I was not ok, and that was my very first step towards recovery. They say the first step is always the hardest, because you have to look inside yourself and admit that something is not right.
A couple weeks later, I started therapy. It wasn’t as scary as I thought. At least now, my misery had a name: clinical depression. Soon after, with the help of medication and a puppy as a therapy dog, I could see my condition improve. But I wasn’t over the hill quite yet.
Witnessing a violent incident, I developed extreme social anxiety and agoraphobia. My wandering mind would visit the thought of how to end such a miserable existence. My family begged me to come back home. After my third year battling depression, anxiety and agoraphobia, I left the country with Coco (my therapy dog) and started a new chapter in my life in my home country.
This was the second biggest step I took towards recovery: changing my physical state to change my mental state.
The Final Step
The third step was finding a reason to live. My thought process was that I cannot be happy, but by becoming a doctor, I can help others, make them happy, and live vicariously through them.
Adequate time to heal is necessary. One cannot rush this process, and it varies for everyone. It took me a year to change my mental state, which was facilitated by shifting life habits, like exercising regularly.
The last and final step is to accept your past self and your present self. To see yourself not as a victim, but as warrior. There is no reason to feel ashamed. In doing so, you can become the best version of yourself, share your story and lessons learned with others, and empower others to overcome their challenges as well.
#SaveOurDoctors is an initiative raising awareness of mental health issues among pre-meds, medical students, and resident physicians. Given the cultural climate and professional pressures, most medical students and physicians who struggle with depression feel trapped, isolated, and forced to keep silent.
After overcoming my own struggles with depression, I shared my story, my experiences, and the lessons learned. I posted about it on my social media accounts. Other medical students began noticing, reaching out privately to me, seeking support and understanding. Every one of them said the same thing to me:
“I feel alone. I haven’t told anyone, not even my parents or my friends. I don’t know what to do. I am scared”
These students need the ability and safety in sharing their struggles, in having a space for people to listen to what they have to say. It is for this reason that we need to raise awareness about this growing issue. How can we take care of patients if we are unable to take care of ourselves? Doctors are people too, and doctors’ lives matter. We must abolish the stigma surrounding mental health in the medical field. Being treated for mental illness is a sign of strength, not weakness. We are not victims, we are survivors.