COPH doctoral student works to improve mental health of med students

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September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

Even before the challenges of COVID-19, the mental health of medical workers was being pushed to the brink.

Consider these sobering statistics:

  • Medical students are three times more likely than their counterparts in the general population to die from suicide, reports the American Medical Association’s Council on Medical Education.
  • A study from 2015 found that 23 percent of medical interns had thoughts of suicide.
  • Every year, 300-to-400 US physicians take their own lives. That’s roughly one physician suicide per day.

“On an individual level, medical students are extremely intelligent, driven and high-achieving individuals,” said Amelia (Amy) Phillips, director of wellbeing at the USF Morsani College of Medicine and a USF College of Public Health (COPH) DrPH student concentrating in advanced practice leadership in public health. “Unfortunately, these personality types are more likely to experience feelings of burnout, which can lead to other mental health challenges. The demands and rigors of medical school can also take a toll on a student’s mental health. Students spend long hours studying, sometimes without breaks for sleep and self-care, and this can become a problem. Additionally, the culture in medicine can make it difficult to ask for help. Stigma toward mental health help-seeking behaviors has certainly contributed to this silent epidemic facing our physicians and physician trainees.”

COPH DrPH student Amelia (Amy) Phillips, MPH, CPH. (Photo by Freddie Coleman, UCM/Health Communications)

As part of her Applied Practice Experience, Phillips, who received both her bachelor’s and her MPH from USF, is working with the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) National Working Group on Medical Student Wellbeing. 

“We are working to create national guidelines and recommendations for wellness curricula and evaluation strategies [for medical students] that schools can use,” said Phillips. “We recently led a national call with US medical schools on responding to mental health and wellness needs during COVID-19. I’m grateful to be a part of a group working to make big changes across the system. In addition, I had the chance to contribute to the AAMC’s new Medical Student Wellbeing page with a blog-style article on the benefits of gratitude, and how just a few minutes of daily practice can make a big difference in our ability to navigate through difficult times.” You can read the article here

This self-care reminder to students sits in Phillips’ office. (Photo courtesy of Phillips)

In her USF MCOM role, Phillips—who is also a COPH adjunct instructor—is involved in the Keck Mental Health Study. This is a national study looking at a variety of mental health challenges (for example, depression and anxiety) for which medical students are at risk. 

“We are in our second year of administering the longitudinal study, which will allow us to track mental health over time and get a better understanding of how students are doing throughout their training at USF and across the nation,” explained Phillips. 

In the meantime, what can be done to curb the tide of suicide and suicidal ideation among med students?

Phillips encourages self-care.

“I often remind students that they can’t pour from an empty cup,” she commented. “They must take care of themselves in order to care for others. I really try to emphasize the importance of time management and prioritizing tasks. When you have everything laid out on a schedule, self-care activities like exercise, meditation, social activities and other non-academic pursuits can become much more attainable.”

And as a society, there needs to be more discussion and less disgrace when it comes to mental health issues. 

“Silence only contributes to this hidden epidemic among our medical communities,” remarked Phillips, a 2020 recipient of an Emerging Scholars Award from the Health, Wellness and Society Research Network. “At USF, we started an annual ‘Stomp the Stigma’ event, led by our MCOM Wellness Council. It features a panel of current, professional health students who courageously share their personal journeys through living with a mental illness.”

USF MCOM “Stomp the Stigma” event held in February. (Photo courtesy of Phillips)

The next Stomp the Stigma event for MCOM students is scheduled for spring 2021.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health