Mental health: we need action, not just awareness

by Marina Politis

In the midst of the COVID pandemic it is important culture is improved for medical students to keep depression at bay

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 4 March 2021
In the midst of the COVID pandemic it is important culture is improved for medical students to keep depression at bay

As we continue to live through the coronavirus pandemic, with newspapers and timelines filled with updates surrounding lockdowns, vaccination and potential new strains, a second silent pandemic lurks in the background.

With the proportion of individuals showing symptoms of depression having almost doubled since the start of the pandemic, the population’s mental health is suffering.

Student mental health has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, with many isolated from their usual support networks and facing increased uncertainty about the future.

The National Union of Students has found that 52% of students felt their mental health had been negatively affected by COVID-19, yet only 20% of these have sought support, and the listening support charity Nightline has reported an unusually high volume of calls.

These statistics must be addressed with meaningful action by stakeholders, rather than mere awareness campaigns. Students are already acutely aware that they are not okay.

The student mental health crisis is not a new issue. Before the pandemic, one-third of those studying medicine already suffered from depression, and one in 10 had experienced suicidal thoughts.

This highlights that medical students are not exempt from mental illness. While we may queue up on our first day of medical school for our hepatitis B vaccinations, there is no immunisation that provides resistance against mental health problems.

Some may argue that mental health is trivial in the face of a pandemic, but the opposite is true. Between 2007 and 2016, student suicide rates increased by 56%, and we must act urgently to ensure that these numbers do not continue to rise.

It is more important now than ever, that we lobby for a desperately needed change in culture, and optimise the support available for medical students across the UK.

Throughout the pandemic, we have heard many hero narratives about healthcare professionals. These perpetuate a romanticised view of what being a doctor or medical student is like, encourage us to compare ourselves to an ideal that doesn’t exist, and can stop those struggling from reaching out.

We must stop preaching this toxic form of resilience, and normalise not just talking about mental health, but also mental illness. We need to discuss the wide spectrum of conditions that students can experience, beyond the mild depression, anxiety and stress that tend to dominate the conversation.

Alongside these conversations, we must ensure that calls to ‘talk to someone’ are backed up by policy and decision makers investing in robust support services. To ask someone to reach out, with nothing but hollow self-help strategies and endless waiting lists behind this, is not fair. We cannot shift the responsibility from universities and government onto the individuals who are struggling.

To accommodate students who are unable to access a 9 to 5 service, due to their placement requirements, universities must ensure that flexible and convenient student health services exist and that appropriate accommodations are made to enable students to prioritise their mental health.

There is also a need for culturally competent services which can cater to specific groups of students, such as students of colour, the LGBTQIA+ community, disabled students and other traditionally marginalised groups.

Importantly, much as we need increased student counselling and wellbeing services, we also need systemic change, not hollow sentiments asking individuals to look after themselves in a system that does not look after them.

So, this university mental health day, please hold back on the therapy dogs and mandatory welfare lectures. Instead, invest in counselling services and adequate studying and working conditions.

When student suicide is on the rise, a conversation that doesn’t go beyond sleep hygiene, eating five-a-day or mindfulness simply isn’t good enough.

The BMA medical students committee is calling for more research into the types of mental health issues experienced by medical students, and improvements and standardisation in services available to them.

Marina Politis is a student at the University of Glasgow. She is also the deputy chair of the BMA medical students committee for welfare