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Student Life

Why medical students’ mental health is a taboo subject

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 24 February 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h722
  1. Anna Sayburn, freelance journalist
  1. 1London

Why stigma and misconceptions persist

Mental health problems such as eating disorders, anxiety, and depression are common and affect many medical students. However, while medical schools have a duty to provide support for students with these illnesses, a combination of stigma, fear, and misunderstanding often prevents students from coming forward to ask for help. We take a look at current attitudes towards mental health at medical school and some of the misconceptions that stop students from asking for help.


Although as many as one in four adults in the United Kingdom experiences mental ill health during any given year, mental illness has always carried a stigma that physical illness does not.1 In part, this comes from the invisible nature of the illness, which is less apparent to the observer than a broken leg or a respiratory infection.

Also, a degree of fear is attached to some types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia. With more common illnesses such as depression or anxiety, there is a tendency to blame people for being unable to manage everyday stresses. These attitudes seem to be changing, albeit slowly. An ongoing survey by the charity Time to Change, which began in 1994, shows that attitudes to people with mental illness have become more favourable and understanding of mental illness has improved. For example, 92% of people in the 2013 survey said they believed that “virtually anyone can become mentally ill.”2

You might think that students choosing to study medicine would be less likely to attach stigma to mental illness than the general population. However, some people think that the stigma is even stronger among medical students.

Amy Boyle, a second year medical student at Queen’s University Belfast who had an episode of depression in her first year, said: “We’re supposed to treat the …

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