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Confronting Mental Health Issues and Advocating for Change

August 10, 2020

To just say that mental health and the effects of stress and anxiety have a direct impact on academic success would be an understatement. Mental health issues have never be in a brighter spotlight than they are right now—both for medical students, as well as for the general public. Many who have never experienced serious stress and anxiety previously are suddenly in the middle of something that feels completely foreign and unexpected.

According to the CDC, 1 in 5 Americans experience mental health issues every year.  Yet, we continue to talk about it in hushed tones, quietly labeling those who are struggling as weak or inferior. This stigma is very real and the feeling of being judged or deemed unfit is often what prevents people from addressing their problems or getting help. In a profession where, in order to even gain admittance to its educational institution, you have to prove you are the “best of the best,” the perception of weakness can only compound anxiety.

Even though physicians face more scrutiny when disclosing mental health issues or treatment to licensing boards, we need to help ourselves and work together to break the stigma.

Mental health issues can permeate every aspect of our lives—from how well we sleep, to the health of our relationships, to how we perform on COMLEX-USA. But these issues are also present in more subtle ways, like mood swings, changes in eating habits, our ability to push ourselves intellectually, take chances, and feel emotions. These discreet changes can compound over time, leading to more serious issues, so it is important to recognize them as they surface, acknowledge their importance, and put a plan in place to address them.

Tune-in and listen.  You can’t fix something you don’t know about. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to what your brain and body are trying to tell you as you push yourself towards your goal of becoming a DO. We’re not suggesting anything elaborate, just a quick, daily Q&A with the most important person in your life (you). How are you feeling? How’s your brain? Sleep well? Ready to take on the day? Now listen to your answers. Does anything seem off?

Now that you’ve successfully inventoried your headspace, your sleep, eating patterns, and your personal relationships, we can talk about what triggers your stress and anxiety. Everything can be going along fine and all of a sudden, emotional whiplash is upon you. But why? What happened that disturbed your mental homeostasis and how can you improve your understanding of the issue so you can better master your response the next time?

Find your solution. Unproductive worries and rehearsing disaster can build up like cobwebs in your mind and be hard to shake out, but you can train yourself to experience those recurring thoughts in a different way. Implementing emotional well-being practices can help restore and protect you—both mentally and physically.

Practiced Meditation can assist you in letting go of those distracting thoughts, giving them less power over you. And while yoga, deep breathing exercises, repetitive physical activity, and open communication are all effective as well, continuing to do the things that you love—those that bring you joy and relaxation are just as important.

In choosing to pursue osteopathic medicine, you’re no stranger to stress and personal sacrifice, but there ARE limits. While stress can be a crucial element in keeping you motivated and on track towards achieving your DO goals, extending yourself past your limits helps no one, especially not your future patients. You can’t provide quality care to others if you aren’t able to provide quality care to yourself. Burnout is real. Know your limits and be confident when you chose to strategically say no.

Help reduce the stigma. Becoming an advocate for others who are also struggling, even while you’re working to manage your own mental health and anxiety issues, can be extraordinarily rewarding and even help deepen your own self-awareness and understanding. Become a more active and engaged member of your own support system of friends and family or find strength in numbers by joining or starting a group at your COM or as part of your Residency Program to help fight the stigma of mental health issues.

Raising awareness about mental health and reducing the stigma associated with it continues to be incredibly important, as is promoting help-seeking behaviors and emotional well-being practices. Your mind, body, and spirit takes care of your patient’s mind, body, and spirit. To do that successfully, you need to find a mental balance for yourself first.

Be strong during a crisis, be adamant in the calm, and stay firm in the storm.

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