A medical student who decided to be completely honest about her struggles with anxiety, depression and even a suicide attempt is sticking to her determination to become a physician. She’s found support from her mentor and fellow medical students and skepticism from some administrators at the medical school.
The young woman, using only her first name, Giselle, in an interview with NPR, said she chose to include her own mental health issues on her application to the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. One reason she chose that school was because it offered free unlimited counseling.
While she was advised to focus only on her accomplishments, Giselle chose to apply as the whole person she is. She recalls being depressed when she was as young as 10 years old. When her parents divorced and she moved from Colombia to Chicago, she was overwhelmed by culture shock. At 16, she made a suicide attempt with an overdose of pills.
After the suicide attempt, Giselle found counseling and antidepressant medication made a major improvement in her life. The results were so positive that she describes herself as "a poster child" for antidepressant medication.
When she decided to pursue a career in medicine, she knew it would be challenging and stressful. Still, she felt she could offer patients medical expertise, as well as empathy gained from her own challenges.
Even though she was accepted after being transparent about her mental health issues, Giselle found herself overwhelmed by the requirements of medical school. She became depressed during the first semester when she found herself away from friends and family and her usual therapist. During her second semester she had a panic attack. She did poorly on some of her tests, but got permission to retake them and did well.
Despite her honesty about the stresses and her meetings with the dean, Giselle was brought before a medical school committee that questioned her ability to deal with the stresses and her potential to handle the responsibilities of being a physician.
Giselle took a step that many people advised her not to take. She posted on Facebook her thoughts about her interactions with the university administration and how she didn’t feel less deserving of being in medical because of anxiety or other mental health issues. It was a risky step, but it was in line with her determination to be transparent.
In addition to support she already had from her mentor at medical school, Giselle’s Facebook postings drew a surprising amount of encouragement and understanding from other medical school students, some of whom shared their own struggles with anxiety and depression.
"I kind of just stumbled upon this role of being like, the person that speaks on behalf of the anxious and depressed," said Giselle.
As for revealing so much about her own mental health challenges and adjustments, Giselle thinks it will be an advantage with her patients.
"I think people respond to my honesty with their honesty," said Giselle.
Determined to be a doctor, she’s gotten approval to make adjustments that ease the stress, like doing her second year of medical school in two years.
Her mentor, Dr. Christopher Hildebrand said, "We need Giselles in medicine. We need people who are unafraid to have the insight to talk about not only their own struggles in life, but how that relates to others."
Aronczyk, Amanda, "A Med Student Decides to be Upfront about Her Mental Issues," All Things Considered, NPR, June 1, 2016.