Combating Medical Student Mental Health Distress

The pressures of medical school can have a major impact on students’ mental health and wellness. The high-demand nature of training, rigorous academic schedule and other demands can take a toll on medical students’ mental health. 

Medical school presents a period of psychological distress for physicians-in-training who experience significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to the general population. Despite having seemingly easier access to care, medical students are less likely than the general population to receive appropriate treatment and report significant barriers to mental health treatment. Untreated depression presents a health concern for trainees, as it has been associated with increased burnout, poor quality patient care, and a decline in the physician workforce. 

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

The UICDR’s Dr. Jenna Duffecy has spearheaded an innovative Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT) program aimed at preventing and reversing stress and burnout for medical students.  

 “The intervention is based on effective, evidence based cognitive behavioral tools but it has been tailored specifically to address issues common to medical students such as burnout, test anxiety and imposter syndrome. To my knowledge, no other tailored intervention exists for this unique population,” says Dr. Duffecy. 

iCBT programs may reduce barriers to treatment for medical students. These programs can offer increased flexibility and privacy for users relative to traditional face-to-face treatments, as they can be accessed any time of day or night, from wherever the user feels comfortable accessing the internet. Over the years, iCBT has repeatedly demonstrated efficacy for treating a wide range of mental health concerns. 

This program is based on interventions for treating major depressive disorder but has been modified to focus specifically on issues related to being a medical student including well-being, stress management and coping skills. 

“We hope that by giving students a variety of ways to seek mental health support, from face to face care to online options like this, they will be more likely to get help that they may need. For many, going to a therapist’s office may not fit their interests or their schedules but they could still benefit from learning new approaches to stress management. This is something they can use whenever they might need it,” says Dr. Duffecy.