Impostor syndrome in med school is rife. This fear of being a fraud and inability to recognise our achievements, paired with the workload and inherent stressors of dealing with illness/suffering/death from a young age, make us vulnerable to mental health issues. I think a major barrier to overcoming this is the lack of open narratives about mental illness in medical professionals. There is such an element of shame attached to it, which is ironic because we wouldn’t make these judgements of our patients. I have decided to share my narrative in the hope that this will start a conversation about mental health and wellbeing in medical students and junior doctors.
I moved interstate to study medicine, away from family and friends. Part way through first year, I developed chronic pain which was eventually diagnosed as endometriosis. I thought I was coping with juggling med school, living in a foreign city, and managing multiple medical appointments for a new diagnosis of a chronic disease. I ignored the signs of depression for a long time. I didn’t tell my friends or family. I kept smiling and laughing, but I felt as though my world had been white-washed; the details that used to make life beautiful were now cloudy, indistinct. It wasn’t until I found myself staring out the window, numb and watching a bird in a tree thinking, “what’s the point?” that I realised I needed help. After some hard work and medication, I became well again and was able to find joy in the world around me once more. Naively, I thought that was it and didn’t continue to actively manage my mental health. After all, life was good now. However, mental illness returned again during third year in the form of anxiety. Again, I didn’t pay mindful attention to my emotional state and dismissed my lability as “just stress”. It wasn’t until I burst into tears in the car because I couldn’t bear the thought of going into hospital that I realised I had been having panic attacks. I was catastrophising about the state of my physical health, and my worthiness in the face of barrier exams. I was paralysed with fear that I would not be good enough as a doctor, then I felt incredibly guilty about feeling this way. It was a horrible cycle of unhelpful thinking. This time, I invested in my wellbeing and got a mental health care plan with my GP.
Whilst it’s a continuous process, I feel I have finally reached a place where I am honest about and comfortable with my mental health. This acceptance has brought me an enormous amount of peace. It’s okay to not be okay. We’re only human, and we cannot hope to care for our patients if we cannot first care for ourselves. The ability to be vulnerable is a strength, not a weakness; we shouldn’t try to protect against feeling, but instead allow ourselves to feel openly in order to lead a more adaptive and authentic life.
Annika Berglund, University of Melbourne, MD4 (2017)