Medical Students and the Depression Stigma

September 21, 2010

Medical students experience depression at a higher rate than the general public and attach high levels of stigma to the illness, says a new study.

Medical students experience depression at a higher rate than the general population and attach high levels of stigma to the mental illness, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study showed that 53.3% of medical students who reported high levels of depressive symptoms were worried that revealing their illness would be risky, and almost 62% said asking for help would mean the student’s coping skills were inadequate. Those with moderate to severe depression also agreed that revealing depression would mean others would find them unable to handle medical school responsibilities and that they would lose the respect of fellow students.

According to the study’s lead investigator, Thomas L. Schwenk, MD, of University of Michigan, results indicated that 14.3% of the students reported moderate to severe depression, which is higher than the 10 to 12% usually found in the general population.

“These results show that students who are depressed feel highly stigmatized by their fellow students and faculty members,” said Schwenk in a press release. "Medical students are under extraordinary demands. They feel they are making life and death decisions and that they can never be wrong. There is such tremendous pressure to be perfect that any sense of falling short makes them very anxious."

The findings, said Schwenk, are worrisome because they may indicate students will be less likely to get treated if they are suffering from depression. "There seems to be a significant level of intolerance of depression and by inference, mental illness in general. Students may be inappropriately equating depression with performance problems," he noted.

"We want to provide a medical education environment in which depression is treated like any other medical problem, worthy of treatment, detection and prevention. Most importantly, we want the medical students to be comfortable seeking help."

At University of Michigan and many other medical schools, students have access to confidential treatment and services related to depression, said Schwenk, adding that students need to be encouraged to take advantage of those resources.

Schwenk saids he plans to continue the research by continuing to follow the students studied as they progress through their training.

For more:

  • Psychology TodayA Medical Student's View of Depression
  • Physician Burnout and Depression during Medical Residency
  • Depression Symptoms Increase during Residency