Medical students keep quiet about depression because of fear of stigma

Not only are a considerable proportion of medical students depressed, those who are believe they’ll lose the respect of their peers and their tutors if they speak out, according to new research in published in Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study of 505 medical students in Michigan found that more than one in 10 (14.3%) of them were depressed, almost three times as many as in the general population of the United States (prevalence 5.4%).

More than half of those who were depressed felt that telling a counselor would be risky and that fellow medical students would respect their opinions less if they knew (53.3% and 56.0%, respectively), whereas far fewer of their non-depressed peers held these views (16.7% and 23.7%).

The authors of this research invited all 769 medical students enrolled at the University of Michigan Medical School in September-November 2009 to do an anonymous internet survey on depression and their attitudes to the disease.

Women were more likely than men to have moderate to severe depression (18.0% vs 9.0%), and students who were depressed were nearly eight times more likely to have considered leaving medical school than had those with minimal depression (43.1% vs 5.6%). As many as 68% of those with depression had seriously considered committing suicide, although the overall number of students with “suicidal ideation” was small (22/505 (4.4%)).

Medical school is mentally and academically demanding, so it’s not surprising that rates of depression, burnout, and suicide are higher in medical students than in the general population. Yet despite no doubt being familiar with mental health issues given their training, medical students with depression are notoriously bad at seeking treatment. In this study, for example, approximately 70-80% of students with moderate to severe depression had not received a diagnosis or treatment for depression.

As well as worrying about what their tutors and peers thought of them, medical students with moderate to severe depression were more likely than those not depressed to think that asking for help would mean their coping skills were inadequate (61.7% vs 33.5%). They also felt that others would consider them unable to handle their medical school responsibilities (83.1% vs 55.1%).

It wasn’t just the students who were depressed who believed stigmas associated with the disease: those without depression were more likely to think that depressed medical students would be a danger to patients (25.7% vs 13.6%).

The fact that so many medical students seem to hold negative views of depression is rather worrying, not least because one study found that 30% of first year and second year medical students with depression cited stigma as a barrier to seeking treatment. It does seem counter-intuitive that this group exposed to health messages pretty much non-stop thanks to their course of study seems to sign up to negative stigmas surrounding depression.

The authors suggest that rather than the emphasis on academic excellence and professionalism scaring medical students out of reporting depression, medical education programmes could be tweaked so that students perceive looking after the mental health of themselves and their peers as a key aspect of being an outstanding doctor.
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Schwenk T, Davis L, & Wimsatt L (2010) Depression, Stigma, and Suicidal Ideation in Medical Students. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 304 (11): 1181-1190. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2010.1300

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