Depression — the term itself evokes a feeling of doom and negativity. We often associate feelings such as the disappointment from a poor test score, the physical exhaustion from a stressful day, and even the unexpected blight of cloudy grey skies, with depression. In doing so, we have the effect of unintentionally minimizing the severity of such an illness. In reality, depression is more than just a transient feeling of melancholy or apathy. It is a chronic disease, just like diabetes and hypertension. Depression, an unrelenting vampire sucks energy and life out of a person. As a medical student who has lived with complicated major depressive disorder for quite some time now, I can attest to how difficult it is to be functional and productive with such a condition, especially in a rigorous environment like medical school. Waking up and getting out of bed every day is often one of the hardest tasks to accomplish, while accepting one’s circumstance, and giving oneself permission to be vulnerable and make mistakes, takes repeated practice. In the remainder of this piece, however, I aim not to harp on how much depression plagues my life, but instead to highlight the many positive ways it has actually helped me change my life for the better.
On those days that I suffer from psychomotor retardation — my mind and body slowing, slowing down, rendering me incapable of studying efficiently — in my stillness and lag, I find that I have a new heightened sensibility for introspection. In fact, that helpless feeling of being stuck, stagnant and unable to physically move offers me a way to dissociate from a constantly moving world noised with distractions and artifice. During these moments I am able to dig deep and reevaluate what and who matters to me. I am forced to get intimate with my inner self, allowing me to become more aware of who I am intrinsically. As a result, I emerge with a clearer vision of the future — I know what matters and what is just taking up unnecessary space. It is these quiet moments away from the dizzying, spinning blur of society and medical school that allow me to better deal with the bad days, because I am able to recognize that I am not defined by any particular time, space or moment: my life transcends all of that. I have become more astute and focused because depression has illuminated my goals and dreams.
Secondly, to say that I have more compassion for those living with mental illness is an understatement. Due to my own circumstances and on behalf of the many others who are silently suffering, I feel inspired to make a difference in the lives of those who are suffering from mental health conditions. In fact, my desire to become a physician is now marked with more fervor and enthusiasm than ever before, as I realize my capacity to advocate for my patients’ mental health concerns as much as I can for more tangible diseases. My distinct perspective also allows me to help fill a void of providers who are able to directly empathize with their patients through the shared lens of mental health. Now during days when I feel alone and empty, my passion for mental health advocacy helps me to physically attain the drive to get out of bed and get things done. My revised vision now encompasses more than just achieving a degree or working for a certain salary — I have become humbled by my diagnosis, and have found a genuine passion for medicine in the midst of battling my worsening depression and anxiety in medical school.
Surprisingly, depression has forced the fighter in me to reach out towards family and friends. As a result, I have strengthened my support system and feel that the bonds that I have created with my loved ones have become more cemented. In addition, being transparent with my medical school peers about my mental illness has actually been a positive experience for me, for it has been empowering to share my truth and to not conceal something that directly affects who I am. It seems unfortunate that in medical school, we have the tendency to always inflate and over-express our triumphs but bury our struggles and defeats with secrecy and shame. Yet, while the consensus among medical students is that putting up a front of invincibility is preferable to admitting weakness, I think it benefits us to be more open and genuine with one another. Sometimes, we all need to see each other as human beings and not as competitive test scores standing in each other’s way. In order to practice empathy for our future patients, we must also remember to maintain compassion for our peers while being otherwise engaged in medical school. At the end of the day, I have been able to more easily discern the good in others, including my fellow medical students, because I have been on the receiving end of their care, patience and kindness.
To end this essay on a brighter note, I would like to explain how my imagination has evolved remarkably due to my depression. The amount of creativity I possess as a result of my condition is without bounds. I am now able to express myself freely through art and literature. I have fallen in love with writing in the form of poetry and short essays, creating many original works in the process. It is exciting to know that I have acquired a new medium through which I can reach people. With my new calling, I have learned to nourish my inner Robert Frost during this long therapeutic journey to find peace and balance.
Depression may be a malicious disease but it doesn’t always have to be associated with pessimism. It is perfectly possible to look beyond this unfortunate circumstance and find inspiration, even in an oxymoronic sense. I seek not to lighten the seriousness of depression, but to lighten the burden imposed on those fighting it. To those who can relate, your journey is unique and may differ from mine, but remember that there is always a silver lining. A negatively charged electron inherently attracts a positive proton as the universe moves toward equilibrium. As such, it is the hardships and the sufferings we face as both medical students and human beings that bring out the best qualities in us and help mold the physician that we eventually become.
I am a medical student who happens to suffer from complicated major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. The statistics all say that medical students and physicians are more prone to mental illness, but not many of us come out and share our mental health issues candidly. This column emerged out of my need to voice for change. I see no shame in starting the conversation and opening up about my journey through medical school with mental illness. Through this column, I hope to reach out to my fellow students who are enduring similar struggles, demonstrating to them that they are not alone and that it is perfectly possible to be a successful physician even with mental illness. In addition, I would like to offer a unique perspective to those who cannot relate in order to create more understanding about each other within the medical field. The stigma surrounding mental illness in medicine may not have started with us, but it can certainly end with us if we collectively rise up, raise awareness and demand change. As a famous revolutionary once stated, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” I wish to follow in his footsteps.