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  • Writer's pictureRachel Chan

Using our heads....

Updated: Jun 1, 2021


Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to some prospective medical students. I answered a call from my old medical school seeking volunteers from the alumni to take part in their online interviews as interviewers. Due to the pandemic, the interviews were done over video link, and each candidate made their way around six different virtual rooms, with different question stations in each.


It was a concern to me that the challenges faced by the NHS over the past year might make recruitment difficult. It was heartening to see that doesn’t seem to be the case, and great to be able to listen to the candidates speak with passion and enthusiasm about a possible career in medicine. My co-interviewer was an equally impressive current final year medical student at the university and conducted the interviews with the professionalism and maturity of someone who had been in the profession much longer. Right now, I can’t remember ever being so impressive, and found the whole experience pretty humbling. I was also impressed at how the university had adapted their interviews during the pandemic, and how much they had prepared the prospective students for how the interviews would run.


What really caught my attention though, was the apparent change in attitude towards mental health among the candidates, compared to when I was interviewed, almost twenty years ago. It’s been my experience that although medics are in one of the highest risk groups for suffering from mental ill health, no doubt in part due to the intense demands of the job, any suffering of the mental health variety is often hidden from colleagues (but not from employers or the GMC of course), at all costs. It’s a competitive environment, and when I was at medical school, it seemed that any perceived ‘weaknesses' may count against you.


However, the interview candidates didn’t just speak about the potential challenges of working as a doctor, they actually said the words ‘mental health’ during their interview. They referred to it by name. This is something we never would have considered 20 years ago, mostly out of fear that suggesting we could be affected would count against us. So why did we act that way then and why the difference now? I can only hope and imagine that it’s a sign of the changing times and the world is finally realising that we’re all human, and mental health issues, in the same way as other illnesses, don’t care what your profession is. Anyone, even those ‘strong’ enough to take on such a career, or perhaps especially those people, can be affected. We all know the saying that in order to look after other people, we must first make sure we’re looking after ourselves. As medics though, it’s been my experience that we have the concept somewhat upside down, and actually looking after ourselves is ingrained in us to be at the bottom of our priority list. However, I do believe this is changing. As well as my experiences during the recent interviews, the advent of a new service a few years ago providing treatment for doctors with mental health problems was my first clue that change might be afoot. Although I’m still not yet ready to go back to work, without that service, I’m not sure where I’d be.


One thing I do know, is that if we’re more outwardly aware of the importance of caring for our own mental health and wellbeing, and if we’re breaking the stigma by using its name, we’ve got a fighting chance of guarding against burnout and future mental health problems. The sooner we can identify mental health problems and deal with them, the better. The idea that the tide may be changing, and the next generation may actually have the importance of good mental health for everybody at the forefront of their minds, is exciting. If that narrative is changing from a healthcare professional perspective, it can only serve to promote changing attitudes in the wider population, and that benefits everyone.


For now, thanks to the next generation of doctors, I’m optimistic.

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