What would you do differently if you were to go back to your student days?
As a medical student, I was very young and naïve. I was not the most diligent of medical students but in the end it didn’t really matter. That’s what I would advise my younger self and current students; just keep doing what you want to do and it will come good.
It is good to have a passion for medicine as quickly as you can. In fact I saw a student today who said “I’m really interested in psychology, it’s the rotation I really enjoy getting up to do the stuff in, but I think I’m going to have to keep going with general medicine and general surgery for the next 3 years”. And I thought, no, you don’t. Follow your passion. I was an unusual medical student in the sense that back then psychiatry was very unfashionable. I was interested in it early on and my friends would say “that’s a waste of time”, “you’re going to be looking at ink blots for the rest of your life” and that sort of stuff. But as it’s transpired, I followed what I was really really interested in and it worked out.
It started when we had an inspiring lecture by the late Dr King, in the way he presented the way to take a psychiatric history, what to do with a patient who presented with psychiatric symptoms. It just clicked, I found I could really work with a patient with schizophrenia or depression in my student days. And the sense of being allowed into a person’s life in that total way, trying to understand how they thought; I think it’s a real privilege.
Do you have any advice for current students?
It worries me what we’re seeing with students. Rate of depression, of self harm. I do think the environment is different from when I was a student. It was a whole different era. It was always competitive, to get in and stay in and we’re never going to change that. But now adding the need to exist in a financial sense with HECS, the stress of getting an internship. I guess people freak out about that they won’t get into the hospital they want to be, cut out of the specialty they want to follow.
The advice I would give is that you need to take a longer view, which is more difficult when you’re just a student with 5 years of medical schooling and you don’t feel like you have control over what happens after that. But there are so many opportunities out there and another 30, 40 years ahead as a doctor. There are plenty of years to specialise, to be an expert in something. It’s not about putting that pressure on yourself. Don’t think, “if I don’t get into hospital X, I won’t get to do what I want.”
The other thing is not to be so single mindedly focused on studies that everything else goes by. You only get one opportunity to be 20 or so years old. That time goes very fast and there’s no other time like it when you’re a medical student, all the fun and opportunities that gives you. I’m really proud of what MUMUS and AMSA are doing now about social issues, global health and mental health issues, raising awareness. It gives you a greater sense of wellbeing, well-roundedness. Don’t give up playing that musical instrument, the arts, or the theatre. Keep enjoying diverse activities.
And lastly, definitely keep in touch with your family and friends because they will ground you and keep your perspective. We prolong adolescence with long courses like medicine. We produce this idea in society that by the time you’re 21 you should be living alone, that you don’t need your parents and if you do need them there’s something wrong with you. I would absolutely refute that. I’d say that even if you are a grown up 23 year old or whatever year old, you’re not independent, and really, nobody is. That’s why we have spouses and children and so on – you need people around you. Make a point of catching up with friends and family, it should be a source of comfort and support for you, not an obligation. And you will need support, especially as you go through more complex issues in the workplace. Medicine is a great profession, but do it for the right reason – which is to help people, to alleviate pain and suffering. Take care of yourself and your colleagues and remember to enjoy your life!