Tired, stressed, long hours, high expectations and colleagues you can never quite match up to – this may be a familiar scenario for many medical students. Challenges to self-esteem and self-worth can begin from the very first days of medical school, where bright students suddenly can feel like they no longer stand out after being thrown into a field of other bright students. These challenges, along with bullying, societal expectations of perfection, financial, familial and many other pressures can lead to mental illness.
Medical students have been consistently shown to have higher rates of stress, burnout, anxiety and depression compared to the general population. But we are far from the only group at high risk of mental illness. Vulnerable groups include persons living in poverty, LGBTIQ persons, those exposed to disaster, conflict and other humanitarian emergencies, those exposed to family violence, and those with chronic health conditions.
While these populations are at higher risk, mental illness can affect all people. Mental illness is extremely prevalent worldwide, with mental, neurological and substance abuse disorders responsible for 13% of the total global burden of disease in 2004 (10. The World Economic Forum claims that mental health is the greatest threat to global GDP (2).
Stigmatising attitudes regarding mental illness creates societal barriers, preventing people living with mental illness from seeking help and getting better. Stigma is a degrading or debasing attitude against a person or group due to an attribute, in this case, mental illness. Stigma marginalises and degrades individuals and affects achievement of their potential, including their right to health and happiness. This, in part, creates a human rights gap between those with and without mental illness.
Stigma may lead to discrimination and inequality in terms of rights, including denial of employment, educational and health opportunities (such as health insurance) that would otherwise be granted. Stigma against mental illness can also lead to acceptance of maltreatment, abuse and other unacceptable practices within health services, such as institutionalization for those with mental illness in inhumane conditions, as is seen in some countries around the world.
Stigma is a common and a significant inhibitor in progressing rights for those with mental illness and requires addressing. As medical students and future health practitioners, we can help fight the stigma against mental illness. This will help both ourselves as a population at high risk for developing mental illness, help the wider population, and will help us to become better doctors by challenging our own attitudes about those with mental illness who we will need to treat one day.
In August 2015, the member organisations of the IFMSA approved a Program to help coordinate its activities and address mental illness around the world. As medical students, you can work with your local and national medical organization to develop activities to fight the stigma of mental health. Educational programs, advocating for mental health services for youth, and developing resources regarding mental health self-care are just a few examples of the limitless initiatives you can take to start tackling stigma regarding mental illness.
Mental illness is not specific to any one country, culture or region of the world, but rather it affects medical students and individuals worldwide. World Mental Health Day passed us on the 10th of October 2015, but mental illness does not begin or end there ? now is the time to do your part to fight this hugely impactful disease.
Victoria Berquist, IFMSA Mental Health Program Coordinator
- World Economic Forum, the Harvard School of Public Health. The global economic burden of non-communicable diseases. Geneva, World Economic Forum, 2011
- Bloom, DE, et al. 2011. The Global Economic Burden of Noncommunicable Diseases, World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health, Geneva.