Medical Student Says Her Mental Health Issues Will Make Her A Better Doctor : Shots - Health News When Giselle decided to apply to medical school, people told her to hide the fact that she has struggled with anxiety, depression and a suicide attempt. She thinks it will help her be a better doctor.
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A Med Student Decides To Be Upfront About Her Mental Issues

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A Med Student Decides To Be Upfront About Her Mental Issues

A Med Student Decides To Be Upfront About Her Mental Issues

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In many situations, admitting you have a mental illness is seen as risky, even taboo. So people will shy away from talking about it. Amanda Aronczyk of member station WNYC introduces us to a 26-year-old who is upfront about her mental health In a place where people usually aren't so candid - medical school.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: Giselle stared at her med school application. Usually these are brag sheets - a list of awards and accolades. She wondered, should she mention her history of depression?

GISELLE: A lot of people are like, you don't say that at all, especially some older doctors. Like, you do not say that. You talk about all your achievements. Do not mention that you have any kind of weakness, especially not a mental health one. And that is the wisdom out there.

ARONCZYK: She debated what to do, then she decided to ignore those older doctors. She wrote about her depression and her suicide attempt.

GISELLE: Which was - yeah, was ballsy according to my (laughter) advisor, and I needed to know my audience (laughter). And so - but I put it anyway.

ARONCZYK: But she was still a little unsure about going public on NPR. So we're not using her full name out of concern for her future career. Giselle is smaller than her voice. She's just 4-foot-10. She has long, dark, wavy hair. And when she was 8, her family moved from the coast of Colombia to Chicago in the wintry month of March after her parents split up.

GISELLE: I remember having those first really intense suicidal thoughts when I was, like, 10. I was a child. So for me, like, being a little gloomy had always been a part of me.

ARONCZYK: How come you don't seem gloomy at all? Is it...

GISELLE: Oh, I get that a lot (laughter)

ARONCZYK: Do you?

GISELLE: Which does trip some people up, actually, because they're like, like, you can't really be depressed. I'm like, I really am (laughter).

ARONCZYK: She started having extreme mood swings. She was defiant, screaming and fighting with her mother. And when she was 16, she tried to kill herself. How did you try?

GISELLE: Pills - yeah - lots of pills.

ARONCZYK: It was after that suicide attempt that she began therapy, and a few years later, she started taking an SSRI - an antidepressant. And it worked.

GISELLE: Oh, it worked extremely well. I was, like, poster child for SSRIs (laughter). I was, like, my life is awesome.

ARONCZYK: She put this entire story in her med school application, and Giselle got in. On the day we met, she was wearing a T-shirt that said, be the doctor your mom wanted you to marry. In the fall of 2014, she started at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

CHRISTOPHER HILDEBRAND: Giselle is amazingly transparent.

ARONCZYK: This is her assigned mentor, Dr. Christopher Hildebrand. He said Giselle didn't show up and say, here are all the amazing things I've done. Instead, she said, here's how I'm struggling.

HILDEBRAND: She allowed me into her life right away.

ARONCZYK: For you, does the talking about the mental health stuff make you uncomfortable?

HILDEBRAND: Oh, I think initially I was a little - I mean, it was a different spin. I mean, students don't come in early and kind of spill everything.

ARONCZYK: Giselle assumed that if she was upfront with the administration, they would understand. But med school is known for its intensity. There is an astounding pace and volume of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING TONE)

GISELLE: Hi Amanda. This is says Giselle.

ARONCZYK: I asked Giselle to record herself every day leading up to a major test. So here is a typical exam week compressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING TONE)

GISELLE: What is different about this week? We switched to paper-ware in my house. There's no time for washing dishes, so it's just a lot of paper plates and cups and spoons everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING TONE)

GISELLE: I did have a cup of coffee this morning and a 5-hour Energy - 50 milligrams of black tea, and so that will last - almost 500 milligrams of caffeine, so that doesn't help.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING TONE)

GISELLE: I am so tired.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING TONE)

GISELLE: So yeah, this is exam week.

ARONCZYK: During those first few weeks of school, she didn't have a reliable therapist yet, and she felt completely overwhelmed. She failed an exam, and then she panicked in a test in her second semester.

Did you have the thought, maybe I'm not cut out for med school?

GISELLE: Oh, of course. I think everyone has that thought - absolutely.

ARONCZYK: Giselle was called to committee. Think jury of your elders. This is how the assistant dean for students, Dr. Gwen McIntosh, explains the reason why this happens.

GWEN MCINTOSH: When we see that student isn't following our standard academic path or meeting our performance metrics, then we need to have and develop a different plan.

ARONCZYK: The point of med school is to graduate students who will become competent doctors. The school considers failing an exam a big deal. When Giselle walked into committee, this is what she saw.

GISELLE: Chair with a box of tissues and then a room full of people that are standing around in, like, a semicircle with you in the center.

ARONCZYK: A box of tissues.

GISELLE: A box of tissues. That was not subtle.

ARONCZYK: The head of the committee questioned Giselle.

GISELLE: Asking me if he really thought I was kind of cut out for this, if I had a handle on my issues. He kept referring to them as, like, issues. It was, like, just a jamming session on me.

ARONCZYK: She redid the tests, and she did really well.

GISELLE: I walked away from that, and I was just so furious. Like, I felt so hurt because I, like, worked so hard. I mean, like, look; I did great on these tests. And now you've, like, honestly made me feel like I'm not really cut out for this.

ARONCZYK: Anxiety and stress are less concrete problems for failing an exam than, say, having your appendix burst. Medical schools struggle to find that balance. What is normal stress, and when is it too much? Do you think that she ever uses her sort of mental health struggles as an excuse for not getting work done?

HILDEBRAND: No, no.

ARONCZYK: This is Dr. Hildebrand again, Giselle's mentor.

HILDEBRAND: We need Giselles in medicine. We need people who are unafraid to have the insight to talk about not only their own struggles in life but how that relates to others.

ARONCZYK: This school is trying hard to make sure that people like Giselle succeed. Students have unlimited access to therapist and tutors. Giselle uses all the services. She's also determined to be outspoken about mental health issues.

GISELLE: It used to be that you bite your tongue, and you deal with it. Like, that's what it is. And...

ARONCZYK: You don't seem to be good at that.

GISELLE: I'm not very good at that.

ARONCZYK: After she went before committee, she posted about her experience on Facebook.

GISELLE: And it says, dealing with academic administration is an awful part of med school. It's a Medieval-like process of judgment and punishment to ask for help or find yourself struggling with all the exams.

ARONCZYK: It was pretty harsh. The school questioned whether posting about her complaints was a good idea. But Giselle says that it meant other students came to her with their own struggles.

GISELLE: All of a sudden my inbox is full of these people that have been kind of hiding, and I kind of just stumbled upon this role of being, like, the person that speaks on behalf of the anxious and depressed, you know?

ARONCZYK: Being so outspoken has not made things easier for Giselle or for her school, but together they agreed to reduce her workload because both sides continue to want the same thing - to graduate the best possible doctor. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Aronczyk in New York.

SHAPIRO: That story comes to us from the "Only Human" podcast at member station WNYC.

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