Reading about the Chinese University medical student who took her life in March tore at Mel’s heart. “It could have easily been me,” the final year medical school student tells Young Post.
It might be difficult for people to imagine why medical students, with a well-paid and stable career ahead of them, would ever want to take their lives. But Mel (not her real name) says medics face a lot of pressure in their third year at university, which is when they begin clinical rotations.
“In the first two years of med school, you just memorise notes and regurgitate them for exams,” she says. “But when you start clinical rotation, it seems everything you have learned is useless. There was so much I needed to learn it felt impossible to know everything. I was in a swimming pool, and suddenly I found myself in the sea. I’d always been great at school, so that came as a huge confidence blow. I didn’t think I could become a doctor at all.”
Mel comes from a family with many medical professionals, and being a doctor had been her dream from a young age. Her insecurities led her to feel like she had let both herself and her family down. For nearly five months, she cried all the time. She appeared fine to her classmates during classes, which she was too afraid to skip, but on the inside she was becoming increasingly paranoid. Negative thoughts would intrude her mind. She would see her classmates jotting down notes, and panic because she didn’t understand what the professor was talking about. “It was a vicious cycle. I couldn’t sleep well, I couldn’t focus, so of course I couldn’t learn well,” she says.
Mel confided in her parents, who encouraged her to sing in a choir, something she loved doing. But instead of enjoying the sessions, she felt unhappy and anxious. She thought she was wasting time not studying and preferred to stay at home. Finally, on the condition that her school or friends would not find out, she agreed to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with depression.
She wasn’t surprised. The symptoms of depression include feeling low for more than two weeks, even when doing things you usually enjoy; feeling hopeless and worthless; insomnia and fatigue. Mel experienced all of that. So she began taking medicine, which helped her focus in class. After passing a particularly difficult exam, she felt well again.
But she was wrong. She relapsed the following year when she was taking the same difficult course. This time, it was much worse. Negative thoughts made her spiral down to an all-time low. She began to think that she didn’t even deserve to be a medical student, that she was wasting an opportunity that so many others wanted. “Waking up was the hardest. I didn’t have the energy to face another day. Sleep was the only time I was free from depressing thoughts,” she says. Taking medicine this time didn’t help, and she began to think life was pointless. “It seemed a perfectly logical, even good thing to do,” she says. “I am a Christian, but at the time God didn’t seem to be helping.”
Friends telling her she was smart and capable of handling her studies did not help, either. She felt misunderstood.
Almost every day after school, she would wander along busy roads, thinking what would happen if she stepped out. “I was so stupid! I thought that I was so rational. I was thinking, no, it wouldn’t be a good idea to kill myself this way, because the driver that hit me would get sued. I considered jumping off buildings, but I didn’t want the building price to go down because of me. It might sound funny now, but it’s scary how detailed and pragmatic I was,” she says.
She began to save medication, planning to take it all at once in a lethal dose. But just as she was mixing the powder in water, her parents came home early. Shocked, they took her to see a clinical psychiatrist. For four months, she underwent cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helped her take another look at the logic that she was useless because she was having trouble at school. “I really benefited from that, it finally made me see the irrationality of my thinking,” she said. “After several months of therapy, things started to click for me. I saw how foolish and selfish I was. I found a renewed sense of security from my faith, and realised that whatever happens in life is already written. So I just need to let go of what I can’t control. And everything picked up from there.”
She says having empathy is one of the most supportive things a friend can do. It means being non-judgmental not saying you understand their situation, but telling them you are trying to. Acknowledge their feelings and don’t judge them. “Humour is also great. I had a friend who always teased the teachers, and he made me laugh. It was a positive distraction and gave me a bit of hope.” she said. “If you don’t know what to say, sending motivational quotes could also be helpful.”
Some might say that Mel does not look like a person on antidepressants. “There’s a stigma, even in the medical field, that depressed people are less stable or capable, but that’s not true,” she says. “People don’t get blamed for having cancer, right? And depression is very much a physical disorder. Medication helps me be myself, like people with diabetes need insulin every day.”
Looking back, Mel is grateful for having had depression. She says she’s come out of it as a stronger, better version of herself, and can use her experience to encourage patients. She’s also taken younger medical students going through similar situations to see psychiatrists. “Society really needs more survivor stories like mine to break the stigmatisation that discourages people from seeking help. The medical profession should also be more accepting, and lead other sectors to be so as well,” she says.