An Innovative Solution to Medical Student Burnout


Record numbers of college and graduate students are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, but are schools capable of keeping up with demand, and are they equipped to take on the unique needs of medical students?

According to a 2016 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study about a quarter of medical students report signs of depression. During their graduate studies, internship, and residency training, medical students are uniquely vulnerable to both everyday stressors and severe pressures associated with the high-demand nature of training and rigorous academic schedules. The highly competitive nature of medical school can make it an incredibly arduous experience that can take a toll on medical students’ mental health, affecting their cognitive function, daily life, and patient care.

Untreated, the depression and anxiety experienced during medical school subsequently can lead to medical school burnout. Medical school burnout is generally recognized as a condition of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that leaves the student incapable of meeting the constant demands and unrelenting pressures they face.

The consequences of burnout and psychological distress for medical school students cannot be overstated, as medical students are more than three times more likely to die by suicide than similarly aged people in the general population.

The Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois Chicago is meeting this challenge head on. Opened in March 2020, the Resiliency Center provides a safe and supportive healing environment for medical and graduate students. The Resiliency Center represents a novel concept and approach to providing mental health support to medical students, through digital/technology based treatments and in-person counseling designed to promote healing and integrative wellness.

“We know what we’ve established is something special, that fills a void and meets a critical need, strengthening students’ ability to empower themselves, create meaningful change in their lives and to allow them to experience increased vitality,” says Dr. Jenna Duffecy, the Resiliency Clinic Director.

“We envisioned the center as stigma-free, state-of-the-art facility, offering comprehensive care and advanced technology in a modernized environment. Anyone seeking support from us should expect a sense of safety, caring, and trust,” says Dr. Duffecy.

Shifting the narrative

First and foremost, we must dispel generational notions that all medical students are super resilient; capable of handling any overwhelming pressures of balancing medical school and daily life without support; and since they are medical students they couldn’t possibly have issues with a stigma being attached to seeking mental health support. Medical students are no different than their collegiate counterparts, or the general public. Anyone is susceptible to depression and anxiety, and associating a stigma to mental health support.

For those struggling with mental health, it’s important to realize you’re not alone in your pain. Seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness. This strikes right to the heart of destigmatizing mental health. No one should feel ashamed of their condition; on the contrary seeking help is a sign of strength.

“It’s necessary for us to open up about acknowledging and seeking treatment for mental health, it gives the discussion of mental health a sense of “normalcy” and not a taboo subject,” says Dr. Duffecy.

Innovative Mental Health Treatment & Services

Innovation lies at the heart of the Resiliency Center’s novel treatment and approach. Many of the treatments and services are grounded in feedback from students, which focus on resiliency and wellness versus psychopathology, and tailor services to manage the stressors all medical students’ experience thus further normalizing treatment-seeking. Students can have various means of getting treatment, whether in person or through technology-based treatments, such as internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy and artificial intelligence approaches. The variety of treatments offers students more schedule flexibility and finding time to seek treatment, thus removing a major barrier to getting support. Resiliency Center services available include:

Psychotherapy: Resiliency clinic practitioners will provide up to six sessions of talk therapy lasting between 45 and 60 minutes each. Appointments can be scheduled in advance or on an as-needed basis with the patient’s assigned provider, which will be determined after the intake evaluation. Patients will be triaged to either supportive psychotherapy with social or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with a psychologist.

Supportive psychotherapy: Supportive psychotherapy aims to relieve symptoms of psychological distress (e.g., stress/overwhelm, low mood, difficulty adjusting to new situations) and increase self-efficacy through interventions such as reflective listening, empathic validation, and development of adaptive coping skills (e.g., relaxation, deep breathing).  Supportive psychotherapy often integrates techniques from multiple therapeutic modalities and is best suited for individuals experiencing difficulties with stress management, burnout, grief and loss, and life transitions. 

CBT: Cognitive behavioral therapy is a short-term, goal-oriented form of psychotherapy that has extensive research support for an assortment of mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. The general premise of CBT is that thoughts, emotions, and behaviors all influence one another in a bidirectional fashion, such that intervening on any one of these will in turn influence the others. The patient and therapist collaborate closely in service of setting concrete goals and developing a treatment plan aimed at achieving them. CBT targets dysfunctional thinking patterns and maladaptive behaviors through interventions including psychoeducation, self-monitoring, and skills training (e.g., challenging one’s thoughts, entering previously-avoided situations).  Between-session assignments will also be assigned to facilitate learning and generalization.

Medication management: Also known as pharmacotherapy, medication management focuses on using safe and effective medications (e.g., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) to alleviate symptoms of conditions including major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Pharmacotherapy can be used as a standalone intervention or in combination with forms of psychotherapy, depending on the results of the initial intake evaluation as well as patient preferences.

We hope that by giving students a variety of ways to seek mental health support, from face to face care to teletherapy options, they will be more likely to get help that they may need.

For more information about the Resiliency Center and its services click here.