Mental Illness and Medicine

By: Andrea

I suffer from mental illness.

There. I said it. The secret’s out.

I’ve been thinking about this moment for quite some time now. I often wondered how I would do it. Would I say it in tutorial? Would it come out during some cushy moment in Pro Comp? Would it slip out in an intimate conversation with a friend, a tutor, or a preceptor? How would people react? What would people say – what would they think of me? Or would it be something I kept safely inside, a burning secret, something that I would never allow myself to reveal?

In case you’re wondering what I “have” (and of course you are for god’s sake, we became medical students for a reason) – it’s dysthymia. Staying true to the meticulous research habits of the McMaster medical student, I will offer a definition from google: “Dysthymia (dis-THIE-me-uh) is a mild but long-term (chronic) form of depression. Symptoms usually last for at least two years, and often for much longer than that. Dysthymia interferes with your ability to function and enjoy life.”

Let’s change this scenario. Imagine if I started this article with:

I have asthma.

Or…(let’s keep this MF4 appropriate)

I have cancer.

Why do these statements roll of the tongue so much easier than, let’s say:

I have bipolar disorder.

Or…

I have schizophrenia.

Well, I don’t have an answer for you, and that’s not what this post is about. I’m sure someone does, and that it involves complex reasons that are way over my head and involve a lot of societal, historical, and other pro-compish factors. What I do know is that it’s clearly much harder to admit to my medical school classmates that I have a mental illness than if I (theoretically) suffered from a physical illness. You would think that revealing a mental illness to a bunch of medically oriented people who are not “supposed” to have biases towards these situations would be easy. But trust me, it’s not.

From the outside, it seemed that everything in my life was going perfectly. I was in medical school, I had wonderful friends, a supportive and loving family, a new fiancé…but somehow along the way, I lost the ability to feel happy. More accurately, I lost the ability to feel anything at all. I didn’t actually feel sad, but nor did I feel happy, or excited, or nervous, or embarrassed. I just felt nothing. I did not enjoy life; I was very negative, and very irritable, much to the detriment of my friends and family. I was still functioning normally, going through the motions, but I was not really living. I felt like an actress in some kind of strange play that was supposed to be my life. For years, I tried to convince myself over and over again that nothing was wrong, that nothing could be wrong, that nothing should be wrong, and that this was just who I was—but alas, eventually I could not ignore the facts any longer. Something was wrong, and I needed help. Luckily my wonderful family doctor helped me figure out what was going on, and has helped me get back to feeling like my old self again.

Some of you may be thinking – how embarrassing. Why don’t you just keep this to yourself? Why out yourself? Why do you think everyone needs to know your personal business? I am not telling you so that you can get to know me better. I am not telling you to offer insight into my behaviors or personality. I am not telling you so that you can feel bad for me.

I chose to write this post so that you, dear classmate, can realize that people with mental illnesses are everywhere. They are not just that nonfunctioning person locked up in the psychiatric unit at St. Joe’s. They are not just that serial killer on the news, or that celebrity in rehab. People with mental illness are your classmates, your friends, and your family members. They are doctors, and lawyers, and teachers. They are homeless people. They are rich people, and poor people. They are both highly functioning members of society, and those who are struggling to wake up in the morning. You may think this message is obvious. But I believe it’s important to communicate this message because the unfortunate reality is, it’s not obvious to everyone, and stigma against those with mental illness is a very real thing.

My point is that as future doctors, we need to give mental illness as much credibility as physical illness. My point is that I wish I didn’t have to be afraid to tell my classmates, teachers and mentors that I have dysthymia. But the fact is, it’s terrifying to reveal that fact, and that we need to remember this for the sake of our patients. My point is that as a person who considers herself quite blunt and honest, I struggled with writing this post – so I can only imagine how hard it is for other people to talk about.

So there—the secret’s out. And I’m glad.

7 responses to “Mental Illness and Medicine

  1. That’s huge of you, and you’re most certainly not alone in medicine, nor in our Class. Your gut feel – glad – is well earned. I hope you have everything you need to stay well.

  2. Awesome entry. Clear and honest about a problem that will affect the vast majority of us at some point in our lives. Thank you for writing it!

  3. i’m really happy i stumbled across this article. i’ve dealt with mental illness since i was a teen and i will be starting med at a canadian med school this fall. funny how i felt okay letting some people in my undergrad program know if necessary, and yet i’m terrified of anyone in med finding out for fear of what they’ll think/what it could do to my ~reputation. i really commend you for speaking out and want you to know to you’ve reminded this soon to be MS1 that disclosing a struggle with mental illness isn’t the worst thing in the world. doctors are also role models, and it takes a huge amount of strength to admit to this struggle. your speaking out is something that needs to be seen as inspiring to your future patients and colleagues, not shameful. all the best.

  4. Such an amazing article. I am not a med student but struggle with the stigma surrounding my own depression. Thank you for providing me with an example of courage to continue my own journey with. I hope you continue to talk about it whenever you can.

  5. Dear Andrea. I am very proud of you for sharing your story. It will help you and help many others as we battle the stigma and misunderstanding around mental health. Eric Windeler, founder The Jack Project

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