At a recent British Medical Association meeting (BMA), the members called for a review of mental health support offered to students, after stories of students’ unmet need were brought to their attention. They called for more research into the types of issues with mental health that medical students face, more training for those who deal with students so that they can offer better support and extended opening hours for student health services so that those who are studying medicine are better able to access them when on shift work.
Medical students’ mental health and that of other university students has been under the spotlight, following a rise in rates of student suicide. There is currently limited data on student suicide, but rates published for the first time in 2018, suggested that 95 students had taken their lives up to July 2017. These students were at university, but there were no figures that included students at higher learning colleges. Reports have also been published that suggest that five times more students are disclosing mental health problems than a decade ago.
The pressures on medical students are no less intense. Combining a wide range of studies with practical experience, often at unsocial hours can come at a price. The BMA’s concerns are valid, but students are more aware of mental health issues, as they have been covered more widely in the media. Universities are being urged to make services more available to help their students.
Symptoms of mental health issues for students, may include: feeling more anxious or agitated than you usually do, feeling low or losing interest in life and losing motivation to do anything.
Other symptoms may include: weight gain or weight loss, working too hard, becoming withdrawn or isolated from fellow students. They may also stop caring about their appearance or taking care of personal hygiene, stop attending lectures or be having trouble sleeping.
If you are aware that you or someone you know has started showing some of these symptoms, then approach sympathetically. It is important to talk to someone, choosing someone you trust, such as a counsellor, friend, tutor or doctor. It is possible for mild mental health problems to be resolved through talking with someone sympathetic.
Visit university counselling services, which is a free and confidential counselling service, accessed through the university. They are usually staffed with professionally qualified counsellors and psychotherapists. Services are usually listed on a university’s website, under counselling services. The university may also have a mental health advisor to help students access the help they need. Depending on the severity of the illness, students may also be offered access to help in the form of reasonable adjustments, which may include extra exam time, coursework extensions and specialist support. Student unions can also offer help, offering peer-to-peer support, which is not professional, but may help.
If the symptoms are not clearing up, or are getting more severe, then it is best to make an appointment with your GP, who can offer prescribed medication or specialist referral. Continuity of care between university GPs and family GPs is important. A mental health adviser can help to support this communication. As well as medication, therapy and counselling, including cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT may be offered to help. Some services allow students to refer themselves.
Some students may use alcohol or drugs in order to help themselves relax and feel better. Although this may help in the short-term, there have been studies that show that people can feel worse, longer term, and that some drugs such as cannabis can double the risk of developing a more serious mental health illness such as schizophrenia, as can other hallucinogenic drugs.
If you are aware that your mental health is not what it should be, or is deteriorating, then speak to someone you trust as a first port of call.