Welcome to a special edition of the Xavier University School of Medicine (XUSOM) blog. This month, we are recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness of how mental health is essential to our overall well-being. Join us as we start the conversation by discussing the mental health problems that medical students are facing today, and the important ways to help overcome them.

Why medical students are at risk

There’s no denying that medical school is hard. With academic and personal pressures as major factors, medical students are faced with varying challenges that—if not addressed—could lead to serious consequences. And we can’t ignore the COVID-19 pandemic, which has added unprecedented obstacles to an already challenging situation. According to a 2018 study conducted by the National Library of Medicine published by the National Institutes of Health, “…medical students report higher levels of psychological distress than their same-age peers, despite having similar or healthier profiles than peers at the outset of medical school.”

Here are some of the risk factors faced by medical students today:

  • Adjusting to the medical school environment
  • Heavy academic workload
  • Financial concerns over educational debt
  • Relationship issues
  • Difficulty maintaining a work/life balance
  • Uncertainty about the future
  • Lack of personal downtime
  • Poor student support or guidance
  • Social isolation
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Maintaining high standards throughout the program
  • The overriding need to be successful

These stressors and challenges—among others—are leading to serious mental health conditions that include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Self-injury
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Bipolar disorder

How stress levels progress over the course of a medical school program

According to the National Library of Medicine study mentioned earlier, stress levels increase over the course of medical school. For example, the source of stress for first-year students is different than it would be in consecutive years. The study revealed how academic workloads and conflicts with work/life balance were top stressors across each year.

Here is a rundown of how students rated the degree to which various factors contributed to their stress, depending on the year of study:

  • First-year—Academic workload was highest in the first year, compared to financial difficulties, which were rated the lowest.
  • Second-year—Competition with peers was rated as the highest during the second year.
  • Third-year—Conflicts with work/life balance, personal medical conditions, and family demands were all ranked highest in the third-year.
  • Fourth-year—Exposure to human suffering was ranked highest in the fourth year.

Healthy ways to improve your mental health

Let’s first start by saying: “It’s okay to not be okay.” Medical students have an enormous amount of pressure on them, and some will suffer in silence at the risk of being judged or having the stigma placed upon them. If you are in medical school and feeling this way, you’re not alone. Here are some healthy ways to improve your mental well-being while shedding some of the stress:

  • Self-check-ins—Regular self-check-ins are important steps for reflecting on how you’re feeling and addressing anything that might be upsetting you. The goal here is not to ignore any issues but to work through them or seek help if needed.
  • Schedule some “me” time—Life can get busy and overwhelming with studying and other responsibilities. Make time to do things that bring you peace and joy. Whether that means meeting up with friends, going for a walk on the beach, or treating yourself to your favorite coffee or ice cream, taking a break from the books is a great way to nurture your mental health.
  • Stay connected to family—Being away from family feels isolating, especially when you’re stressed out and need to hear a comforting and familiar voice. Scheduling regular Zoom calls with family members is a great way to stay connected with those you love.
  • Check-in on friends and loved ones—Friends and family may be struggling with their own mental health. A simple phone call, text, or even FaceTime can make all the difference to helping them feel loved and encouraged.
  • Exercise—Letting off some steam in the gym works wonders for your mental and physical state of mind. After sweating out the stress, you’ll feel refreshed and ready to tackle the next challenge.

Insights and data reveal ways to improve wellness programs

The prevalence of mental health problems among medical students is greater than once thought, which has been compounded by the pandemic and other economic and cultural issues plaguing today’s society. Providing students with counseling and wellness programs in medical schools is critical to helping them maintain optimum mental health. The study mentioned earlier took a deeper dive into the challenges which students face in the preclinical years (first two years of medical school) compared to the clinical years (third and fourth years). The results were determined to be helpful in the development of longitudinal wellness programs that help meet the needs of medical students.

How Xavier helps students maintain their mental health and well-being

At Xavier University School of Medicine in Aruba, we take the mental health and wellness of our students seriously. We provide a spectrum of programs and activities to promote the social and emotional well-being of our students. Here is a snapshot of some of them:

  • 24/7 Counseling—Students have access to free counseling services 24 hours a day/seven days a week to help them whenever they need it.
  • Alumni Global Meet—Exclusive to XUSOM, this annual event gives students a unique opportunity to gain insight and knowledge into the residency application process. Learn more about Global Meet here.
  • Xavier Day—This fun-filled annual event is a great opportunity for students to spend some quality time outside of the classroom with their fellow students.

If you need someone to talk to or want more information on staying mentally healthy, we encourage you to take advantage of our free 24/7 counseling services on campus.

Other helpful resources:

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Institute of Mental Health

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

National Suicide Prevention Hotline—(800-273-TALK), or dial 988 (available in all states in July, 16, 2022).