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Med, Parties and Antipsychotics?

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A first-hand account of what it is like to have a serious mental health condition while studying medicine*

* This article has been contributed by a current medical student, on condition of anonymity

Studying medicine is a roller coaster ride. We have all experienced the amazing highs and lows of studying something that you love, and we have all had to come to terms with the sheer enormity of it all.

My story in medicine is rather similar to most, trying to balance my workload as well as maintaining some semblance of a life outside of the medicine.

Where it differs in one small way is that I have a serious mental health condition that sees me taking meds each night, and participating in regular monthly appointments with my psychiatrist.

For me, my mental health condition and medicine are intricately entwined. In fact, it was the excitement and stress of starting medicine that precipitated my first manic episode, and the subsequent less fun major depressive episode.

Unfortunately, this meant I had to defer first year, as trying to find the right drug is not the easiest task.

I can attest to that, having been tried on about six different meds (with some lovely extra-pyramidal side effects – akithesia is not fun) along the way before finding the right one! But hey, we all have to kiss some frogs don’t we?

All up, my journey to health took a good two years, with some hospitalisations, lots and lots of psychiatrist visits, tears (not just mine) and some amazing friends, the family and medical school along for the ride!

However, I’m not writing this to talk about my journey to wellness, but rather about what it is like to have a mental health condition and to be studying medicine.

I hope that perhaps someone who may be at the beginning of their own mental health journey might see that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

I also hope that my well peers will take something out of this, maybe as future treating doctors, or maybe thinking again about that discussion on advising people with serious mental health conditions against breeding together (yep, this really happened).

So what does my mental illness mean for me and studying medicine?

Well, not a huge amount really. I just happen to have a mental health condition and be a medical student. It took me a long time to see this but now it is clearer to me. I don’t define myself by my other chronic health condition (asthma), so why should I treat my bipolar any different?

I am on a mood stabiliser that works for me, so I am really not that much different from the usual student.

I may have to be a little bit more careful with my sleep patterns and watching out for triggers, but that’s pretty much it. I still go to all the parties, work and basically be a normal person.

I have been really lucky in medicine to have some great friends. Some know about my condition and some do not, but they all like me for who I am.

I really wish I were brave enough to be more open about my bipolar. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental health is still very strong and kicking, even in medicine.

I was studying in a PBL room once and hadn’t realised that my medication had fallen out of my bag and onto the floor. A fellow student soon found it. Fortunately for me, they didn’t assume that the medication was mine. Less fortunate was the subsequent discussion as to who might be the crazy person in our cohort. This was not my finest moment; I went along with the conversation rather than admitting that the medication was indeed mine.

I hope that in the future I will feel comfortable enough to speak honestly in such a circumstance.

I have shared my experiences in the hope that we can promote positive changes in this area.

It saddens me that I have peers that are struggling who are too scared to reach out for help because of a fear of AHPRA (Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency) and mandatory reporting.

How can we as a profession even attempt to help our patients deal with the stigma of mental health when so many of our own are suffering in silence?

I wish I lived in a world where I could put my name to this article without fear that it could affect my future career.

Let’s create a world where people can be open and honest, rather than ashamed, of what is essentially just a medical condition.

I look around me and see some brilliant and passionate people in my course. I strongly feel that together we can play a part in making this a reality.