Crazy Socks for Student Docs

I was between operating theatres and juggling a couple of emergency cases today. I was invited to speak to a group of Medical Students about #crazysocks4docs and #mentalhealth for docs. In the flurry of the moment-to-moment medical madness I had to formulate a few thoughts to share. The elevator only gave me enough time for 3 points.So if you are one of the 50 or so medical students in the Auditorium this afternoon, I’m sorry for my 5 minute long babbling. This was what I really wanted to say if I had been more coherent:

Hi, I’m not here to sell socks. I’m here to start an honest conversation. About 4 weeks ago, Dr Andrew Bryant, a senior gastroenterologist committed suicide. Early this year, Dr Chloe Abbott and 2 other junior doctors in New South Wales ended their own lives. Suicide and mental illness is a subject that is very real and very close to you as a future medical practitioner. I only have 3 things I’d like to share.

1.You signed up for a tough job.

You’ve had to do a lot to get to where you are, and you’re still going to have to do a lot to get through. If you think medical school exams are tough, wait till you get to specialist exams. Your days are going to be long. Your resilience is going to be tested. You will be seeing bullying and harassment first hand or you may even experience it first hand. You will be put under enormous pressure and you will be pushed. Your patients, your bosses, the nurses, administration and the community expect a lot from you. You will miss many significant days, birthdays, anniversaries, and family reunions because of your work. If you have an underlying mental health condition, your job will exacerbate it. If you don’t have one, you will most certainly experience it at some stage during your career in medicine. You will see mental illness first hand during your psychiatry rotation, and you will have to learn to also see it in your colleagues. This is the reality of the current climate of Health Care today. It’s a harsh environment to be a medical practitioner. But it’s absolutely worth it.

2.There is formal support available.

Your medical school, University, Hospital, Specialty Colleges and State Health Departments all have formal support services available from staff clinics to confidential phone in and counseling services. Be aware that these services are there to help and support you. Access them because they’re there to help you play your best game. Find a GP whom you trust. Build a therapeutic relationship with a professional. But sometimes those formal systems are not enough. This leads me to the next point.

3.Strengthen your informal support system

This is the impetus for #crazysocks4docs. We want to talk openly about the difficult subjects. We want to reshape the culture of medicine. We doctors don’t treat each other well enough. We inherently compete and compare ourselves against another instead of collaborating. We eat our own. We belittle those who struggle. When you’re going through dark seasons, and trust me you will, it may not be easy for you to talk to an anonymous counselor. You need to talk to people you know who understand what you’re going through. This means being human to each other. This means learning to build your support network within medicine and outside of medicine. Adopt some non-traditional support systems such as social media. One of the best things I ever did was to join twitter where I engaged with a lot of great doctors who have become my virtual mentor and friends.

Reshaping the culture of medicine demands us to be honest, humble and vulnerable. Talk to someone. Engage your circle. Have lots of coffee together. The idea behind #crazysocks4docs is to remove the stigma of the distressed doctor. We need to change the language and culture of medicine to allow us to be more human and compassionate to each other. I hope the environment you practice in will be much kinder to you than the medical environment I grew up in.

I know the reality of social media trends. People will forget this within the week. This is not about fund-raising or policy-making. This is about idea-sharing. I hope you can begin an open conversation about being human in our Health Care System. Perhaps your conversations might just stop someone, or yourself, from suicide. Look after each other.