Learn the Skills to Take Charge of your Mental Health

August 23, 2021 | Beth Levine


Medical students deal with high stress and long work hours. Here are some advice from a med student, also a mental health advocate, on how to build the skills to take charge of your own mental health and be a mental health ally for others.

women thinking in page.

When Teresa Chen, now 25 and medical student at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, was in junior high school, a close friend arbitrarily ended their relationship, which sent her into an emotional tailspin that did not let up for many years. She didn't grow up in an environment where mental health was discussed, so she didn't seek help.

The lack of mental health knowledge and support present in her life at the time made the experience more extensive, painful and lonely, she says. “I felt my problem wasn't significant enough to reach out. Other people's issues were bigger and I thought I should have just been able to get over this by myself," she says. Chen struggled with it for many years before finally seeking help when she was an undergraduate at her university. She continues to meet with a therapist just to make sure she gets ahead of any issues that may cause her stress in the future.

Youth talking to youth about mental health

To advocate mental health, she decided to join the nonprofit organization Jack.org, a national youth mental health organization supported by RBC Future Launch, and become a certified Jack Talk speaker to use her story and mental health education to equip other young people to look out for themselves and their peers. “At Jack.org, we really want to focus on revolutionizing the mental health landscape. One of the things that's unique about us is our peer-to-peer-led model. We focus a lot on building skills and developing the abilities to take charge of your own mental health. We support and teach advocacy skills," says Chen.

How to Take Care of your Mental Health

Studies have shown Canadian medical students are subject to high-pressure environments, with long clinical weeks and significant stressors. Compared with postsecondary graduates from the general population, medical students had significantly higher rates of psychological distress, suicidal ideation, and mood and anxiety disorders.

To keep your mental health in check, here're some advice from Chen:

Recognize that no problem is too small to reach out for help. “I've heard people say, 'I don't feel I have anything to be depressed about.' But that situation makes the experience even more concerning, right?" says Chen. "There may not necessarily be a reason why you might be going through a hard time, but the experience in itself counts for something as well. I wish I had believed sooner that I deserved the same opportunity for support that others had. It would have still been worthwhile to talk to someone about it because it was affecting my life."

Be proactive about finding mental health resources. “We sometimes have a very reactionary approach to mental health, where we kind of wait until things get bad before we do anything about them. The better situation to a problem is just not even having the problem to start with," says Chen. Investigate resources in your area. This doesn't just mean professional counselling but who might be the support people in your life? Who do you feel safe talking to peer-to-peer? Jack.org can be a place to start.

Even as a medical professional, you can't know everything. Many in the profession are concerned that they will appear weak if they ask for mental help. “A lot of our problems are very complex and there is only so much you can do on your own. There is a reason why we work together in teams in healthcare — it's because having more heads together on the same problem helps make sure that we do the best job we can. Instead of wondering if people are going to think worse of you in a situation, focus on finding the right environments to open up as opposed to not opening up at all," says Chen.

You may need to try different resources before you find the right fit. Not everybody who you get support from is going to necessarily be compatible with you. Don't be afraid or embarrassed to look for the right one that you click with. Chen said it actually took her three tries before she found a resource she felt comfortable with.

Make time for yourself. Medical school in Canada is different from other Canadian graduate or undergraduate programs in that there is little (or no) downtime. You go from one rotation to the next. It is easy to put your mental health issues on the back burner “until things let up a little." Except “things" never let up so you need to create that space in your life. You need to protect time for counselling, relaxing, socializing, creativity because no one is going to give you that space except you.

How to Be There for others

In addition to empowering young people to take charge of their own mental health, Jack.org also encourages them to look out for each other. Here're some tips from Chen on how you can become an ally and resource for your peers and loved ones:

First, identify that someone may be struggling. Pay attention during stressful times. May be it is match day or exam season or a difficult rotation. Not everyone will react the same to stressors, so keep an eye out to see if someone seems to be struggling. Check their normal. If someone appears to be acting differently than usual — not showing up to exams, behaving in a way not typical for them, withdrawing, acting out.

And to support someone in need, here're the 5 Golden rules to “Be There":

Say what you see. Stick to the facts, don't jump to conclusions, don't put a judgment on it. “Hey, I noticed you haven't been in class lately" gets to the point and opens the gateway for discussion.

Show you care. Put a positive intention behind it to create a better space for someone to open up about things and to orient the situation to be more supportive, and less potentially negative, says Chen, adding, “Things get better when they come from a place of love."

Hear them out. Learn to listen in a nonjudgmental way without prying or acting like you know all the answers. “Make sure that you get the full story from them and understand it from their point of view, instead of just yours," say Chen.

Know your role. You can be a friend, an ally, support, but know that you cannot “fix" them. You are not their therapist or doctor. “Maintain boundaries to make sure that you can do the best job of being there for someone while making sure that you can also maintain the rest of your life," says Chen.

Connect to help. Aid them in finding professional and community resources, and friends who can be relied on for practical solutions.

Normalize the Conversation

“Our education and our work are very demanding, and it will get more demanding as we take on more responsibility later on in our careers. Whatever you can do to make sure that you build the skills, habits and lifestyle to protect your mental health will set you up for success going forward. All of that will pay dividends back on your work as well as your well-being for the rest of your life," says Chen.

If you want to really help end the stigma around mental health issues, Chen adds, share your story, if you can. “I think when you share, it tells other people that they're not alone as well. It helps normalize the conversation."

Read related stories:

Chill Out Before You Burn Out: Stress-Relieving Tips for Medical Residents

How Mental Health Apps Can Help Youth: What You Need to Know

Supporting Youth Mental Well-Being: A Cross-Canada Commitment to Mental Health

This article originally appeared on the RBC Healthcare - Advice & Learning