Medical school is hard to get to. As a pre-med, you have to study so much more than probably any of your friends pursuing other career paths, so you sacrifice a lot of free time and your social life, working for the GPA and the MCAT score that you hope will get you to medical school. You spend a lot of time stressing out about whether you can get to medical school, which is known for the notoriously difficult admissions process. You spend the time that you’re not studying devoted to extracurricular activities that you hope will give you an edge and help you in the admissions process. Through all this, you develop a lot of resilience and tenacity. You learn how to sit at a lonely desk and study for hours to achieve your goals, and you learn how to persevere through these challenges. Then, you get to medical school, and it’s hard. There’s even more material to be learned and even more sacrifices to be made, because you realize that you’re spending a good chunk of your youth studying for a career that you won’t feel completely settled in for another decade or so.
Because of this, a lot of medical students are Type A, and we’re used to not failing at anything. We’ve worked so hard our whole lives and for the most part, we’re really good at doing things that we were supposed to do and inching closer to our goals step by step. We’re used to pushing aside indulgences and prioritizing studying over a lot of life moments for our future goals. We’re used to persevering through the challenges and not giving up, because all of that is what we think it takes to be a doctor. And along the way, we come to believe that doctors should always put others above themselves because our job is about healing others.
But along the way, do we also come to forget about taking care of ourselves? Are we so used to being “strong” that we forget to ask for help when we need it?
I’ve touched on this before, but I think because of how demanding the path to medicine is, a lot of us forget that we need to take care of ourselves. We find it hard to acknowledge to ourselves when we’re struggling and when we need help. We’re so busy taking care of others that we neglect our own self-care and our own health, both physical and mental. Recently, physician self-care and destigmatizing mental health issues among physicians have been talked about a lot, and I’m so glad that this is the case. I recently read a NEJM article by a physician who writes honestly of his struggles — I encourage you to read the whole article, but this stood out to me: “Instead of stigmatizing physicians who have sought treatment, we need to break down the barriers we’ve erected between our colleagues who are standing on the edge of the cliff and treatment and recovery. Empathy, unity, and understanding can help us shift the cultural framework toward acceptance and support. Mentally healthy physicians are safe, productive, effective physicians.”
Right now, during my grieving process, I rationally realize in my mind that grieving is awful, and there’s no way I can get through this without help, so I’ve sought help. I have therapists (multiple!) and I go to a support group. But even though the rational side of me realizes that these are impossible circumstances, there are still so many more moments where I can’t help but resent that I feel so helpless, weak, and overwhelmed. There are times when I sit in bed in tears, grieving and in so much pain, but then I think to myself that I’m crazy for being so helpless and I should get out of bed and study. These are unhealthy trains of thoughts that I’m working on with my therapists, but it’s hard because I feel like my entire life I’ve trained myself to persevere and keep going even when times get tough that it’s difficult for me to fully acknowledge the impossible situation that I’m in and that right now, it’s okay to be emotional and it’s okay to take it slow. I know that most people can’t fully to the grieving process that I’m going through, but I think a lot of people might relate to the difficulty of letting yourself take things slowly and admitting to yourself that you’re struggling and need help.
I didn’t realize how necessary it was to acknowledge to yourself that you need help until this happened to me, and I didn’t realize how hard it would be. I’m not saying that anything drastic needs to happen for you to reach out for help, because what comprises the struggles of one person isn’t the same as it is for the next person. Even asking for a tutor for a class you might be struggling with is a concept that might be hard for medical students to accept, but I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help, whether academic, psychological, or otherwise. When we’re struggling, we shouldn’t go through things alone, and we all need help from time to time, and that doesn’t diminish us in anyway or makes us weak. Even though we’re so used to being strong and capable of so much, we should also realize that we become better caregivers by taking care of ourselves first and foremost, and we should recognize that it’s okay to not be okay sometimes.