In this honest reflection, final year medical student, Leah, shares the mental health struggles she experienced during her first few years at medical school.
She also tells us about her brave – yet terrifying – decision to take a year out to recuperate, how she overcame recurring imposter syndrome thoughts, and her return to medical school as a stronger, happier, more confident version of herself.
How it started
Let’s start by rewinding to October 2020. I’m in my room, where I was most of the time, because it was my safe space.
The UK is in the midst of another lockdown and I haven’t seen my loved ones since March. I’m feeling isolated in my accommodation, anxious about my future and completely incapable.
My self-worth has plummeted as a result of the hours upon hours I spend inside my own head, and to top it all off, I’ve just sat a medical school exam in my room after not seeing a lecture theatre or hospital ward for eight months.
Not only was I battling my pre-COVID struggles of being diagnosed with anxiety and depression, but both of these conditions had been amplified by the pandemic and isolation from my support system.
"You passed, and well done to you, but how do you think you can do better? How can you improve before your next exam?"
These were the words of my lecturer, that still ring in my ears today.
I passed! Despite it all – the tears, the dark thoughts, the isolation and the struggles – I’d still passed…but it wasn’t enough? I needed to be even better? I did the best I could, but it didn’t feel enough.
This event is what I describe as the catalyst, as it led to some of the darkest moments of my life in the months that followed.
Imposter syndrome thoughts
In January 2021, I had my first clinical placement. Due to COVID, it would be the first long stint of placement I’d had in medical school. It was eight whole weeks.
At this point, my imposter syndrome thoughts started to creep in.
- I’m over halfway through third year now, so I must be good enough to be here…
- Good enough. I’ve never felt good enough. I will never be good enough.
- People want me to be better. They said I must be better.
When I think back to the months prior to me taking time out, I can still feel the cloud-like sensation that haunted me for so long. How can one feel so numb, yet so heavy at the same time?
Suddenly, the usual nerves and butterflies as I ate breakfast turned into not sleeping due to dreading the next day, not eating because of the constant anxiety sickness, and spending my days feeling utterly numb, heavy and worthless.
A few wise words
"Take the year out!"
My sweet, kind Nana knew exactly what I needed. She was in full support of me and could see the tiredness in my eyes from fighting every day to prove myself to the universe, of forcing myself to power through.
When I think of this memory, I feel gratitude for the love I felt from my Nana in that time who, despite my fears and protests, was the one giving me a virtual huge and the courage to do what I needed to do.
A brave decision
Making the decision to take a year out of medical school is terrifying.
My first thoughts were: "What if I don’t want to go back? What if my mental illness is centred around medical school, and if I permanently remove it, all will be well?"
Overcoming my struggles
For the first month or so, I went back to basics – eating and sleeping.
I then began to tackle my inner thoughts. I had spent three full years at medical school subconsciously putting myself down. It was always "I’m the dumbest medical student" or "I’m never going to know this like they do" – and my personal favourite: "I got in on an access programme so I’ll never be as good as my peers."
Living with that constant taunting of myself had altered my perception of who I was, and I had begun to hate myself. I saw myself as worthless, and that had to change.
So, I wrote a list of everything I could think of that I’d achieved – and not just at medical school.
It spanned from receiving all of my medical school offers to getting my own cat and a patient telling me I had a soothing aura. It included everything that made me feel good about myself, and when the negative thoughts reared their ugly heads, I’d read my list and disprove them with the facts written on my paper.
I was also having therapy and taking antidepressants. I moved in with my now-fiancé and began talking about my journey on social media, in the hope that if anyone else felt like me, they would feel less alone.
Where I am now
Fast-forward to present day – what am I up to?
I’m less than a year away from graduating as a junior doctor, I’m COO of an award-winning not-for-profit called Future Frontline, and I’m also an award-winning mental health advocate and content creator, sharing my story on podcasts, webinars and at events.
But, most importantly, I’m back to being Leah. I still get anxious days, I still have down moments, and a I cry fairly regularly. I still worry about not being good enough from time to time. But it’s all for a moment, and doesn’t become a constant in my life.
My constant in life is laughing with my friend Bethany. It’s reminiscing with my fiancé Josh, and playing with our cat. It’s listening to jazz in the library and holding the hands of my patient as I support them through a tough time.
So, while the year out was tough, and at points painful, it got me the best reward ever – it got me to myself. Not as unworthy or stupid, but as strong, kind and empathetic.
Studying for a medical or dental degree is physically and mentally demanding, and imposter syndrome is not uncommon amongst students.
To learn more on this topic, and what you can do to overcome it, check out this this article on unmasking imposter syndrome by practising dentist and positive psychologist Mahrukh Khwaja – AKA Mind Ninja.