I am a senior in high school and I want to become a doctor, but medical school seems… Tiresome and depressing. I feel like once I get there I’ll be so isolated and alone that I will give up. How does one handle that? It just seems so daunting to me. But medicine is my passion and I don’t want to give it up! -scienceofthes0ul
Well friend, you have judged medical school correctly…sort of. It absolutely can be tiresome and depressing, and it is at times (and residency moreso). But the cool thing is that when you’re tired and depressed, most of your friends are probably feeling the same thing.
That doesn’t sound very comforting, but it kind of is. You will be surrounded by people who are just as miserable as you are, and they can empathize with you and you can use each other to get through. It’s funny, I spent less time with my friends in med school than I did with friends in undergrad, but I was much closer to my med school friends, and I think it’s because of this miserable dynamic.
Take my best good friend, for example. We somehow managed to get every 3rd year rotation together, which was a godsend. She kept me sane, for real. And during our 4th year when we parted ways for much of the year, we still called each other almost daily to share crazy patient stories, catch up, and commiserate.
But just in case you’re not lucky enough to find a best good friend in med school, here are some tips to avoid isolation, depression, and burnout.
1. Find a small group of 2 or 3 trusted friends in your school who can support you and vice versa. No one understands med school unless they’ve been there. You need a group of people who get it.
2. Get an upperclassman mentor / big sib. Not only have they been there, but they’ve made it through. Usually they can offer you some helpful tips along the way. My school had a formal big sib program, and it was good for much more than just pharmacology notes.
3. Find a mentor or accountability partner, preferably someone outside of medicine. I met with a friend in a coffee shop almost weekly for 3 years. She reminded me that there was more to life than medicine. We went out for lunch after church. I watched her kids play tee-ball. I helped paint her house. Her family helped me move. Twice. She offered encouragement to me when I needed it in a way that my mutually burned out med school friends couldn’t.
4. Get involved in your community. This is not about building your CV, although it won’t hurt. This is about avoiding isolation. Tutor elementary school kids. Volunteer at a food bank. Give your time to a ministry in your church. Again, get out and interact with people outside of medicine for a while. You will develop friendships and stave off isolation.
5. Talk to your family regularly. I called my mom almost daily and my grandparents at least twice a week. Usually I didn’t have anything new to say, but they’d update me on their lives, which kept me grounded. And occasionally I could voice my frustrations with school.
6. Don’t always study at home (preaching to the choir on this one). I was amazed to find, during my Step 1 studying, what actually putting on pants and going out in public to study did for my morale. After 2 years of studying at home exclusively, I realized that I could be significantly less miserable if I studied in a park on a pretty day or at my church’s guest center.
7. Know what resources your school has to help you avoid burnout. Many schools offer free or cheap counseling either by professionals or peers. A guy in my class actually took a year off and traveled, a break which was spurred on by a particularly hard night when he contemplated taking a bath with a toaster.
8. Know the difference between isolation and being alone. I enjoy being alone, but even an introvert like me needs some time with other people. As a med student, you will need some time alone to rest, recharge, and chew on all the overwhelming things you’ve learned and experienced. Use your alone time for prayer, meditation, and reflection, not for dwelling on your isolation, worries, or frustrations with school.
9. Don’t be silent. If you’re having problems, tell someone. Keeping it all inside only makes the feeling of isolation worse. Take it from my experience: the momentary embarrassment of telling someone you don’t have your life together is worth the relief you get from getting help.
10. Accept the fact that medical school requires some sacrifice. Life will not be the same. You will be more isolated and you will have tough days. But also know that life doesn’t have to be terrible, and eventually you will get through those days.
11. Gunners be gunning. Avoid them.