I played a lot of sports in high school and I had a couple of injuries which I had to get some surgery for, initially for the injuries themselves and then for complications.
I remember going to the hospital while overseas with my family and did all the tests there. They said I might have had ankylosing spondylitis. For a few days, I awaited the verdict on the immunology ward. I didn’t know what to think. One thing seemed to lead to another and to another issue. In the end I didn’t have ankylosing spondylitis but I’m still battling through rehab. Especially through my medical degree, it’s been a challenge.
Around the time that the complications started I wanted to socially isolate myself. I wouldn’t do stuff that my mates would do like hiking – active stuff. I would make excuses instead of telling them the specifics. I didn’t want to say, I didn’t want to tell them. At the time I had a girlfriend who really helped me and I remember trying to push even her away. I guess because sport was something I was good at, I didn’t want them to see me struggle with it. I felt embarrassed. I was afraid of how people might view me.
It was from this that I realised what patient care really means. You never know exactly what people are going through and they might not tell you. Everyone has their own trials. I saw a lot of good in people during my personal struggle, but I still wish they could understand me without me having to explain it all. So now when people tell me even the smallest problem, I try to understand them more and find out where they are coming from.
What advice would you give your past self, given what you know now?
One thing I’ve learnt is that things can spiral and get very bad, real quickly – like with all my surgeries. When you have a negative way of thinking, it creates traction – a cycle. I would tell my past self that if one thing goes wrong, just take it one step at a time. Things do get better. I think if I had kept that mentality I wouldn’t have been so down in my worst periods.
How do you think improvements can be made teaching mental health to medical students?
I have mixed feelings. Mental health in uni is seen as a problem to be fixed – that as a concept is too easy. They’ll say that it’s a complex, complicated issue but that in itself is simplifying. Of course we get taught about depression and anxiety, and how it’s all multifactorial. It’s textbook stuff, which is what we still need, but there’s another side that is the understanding, the human side. I feel that people don’t really understand until they personally, or someone they’re close to, experiences it firsthand. As medical students we should practice fostering empathy so we never lose sight of the human side of medicine.