What percentage of medical students do you think are depressed or suicidal? 5%? 10%? Go higher. Much higher. This week JAMA published a meta analysis and literature review out of Harvard revealing an overall prevalence of depression of 27% in medical students and a jaw dropping 11% prevalence of suicidality. Bad news kept coming with only about half of students who tested positive for depression seeking treatment.

Take a second and think about that. Imagine half of medical trainees testing positive for any other disease and opting to foresake any treatment. Is it any wonder that mental health disorders are undertreated and diagnosed in the general population when our own students don’t feel they seek out effective care?

The study by Rotenstein et al looked largely at self reporting data from trainees across the world. The technical term for self reports of mental health is ‘weaksauce’ with publications showing men, vets, professionals and pretty much everyone ever.

And the numbers on graduate trainees who are struggling with mental health issues are even worse. Over 50% of UC Berkeley STEM graduate students were depressed according to a 2015 study.

This is sickening and unacceptable. And the lack of outcry by faculty mentors is baffling. Since when did it become okay that we have 40% of our trainees as clinically depressed? If half my students had AIDS, you can be damn sure you’d be doing some serious training on treatment and prevention. This is an epidemic, folks.


Talk to your trainees. Now. This week. No, you aren’t a medical professional but you are a human in authority and this is your job. Talk about these studies…about this blog. Hell, write your own blog and have them read it. Ask them how they are doing. Figure out if their grades have slipped or there have been dramatic changes in their interpersonal relationships. Ask if they are depressed. Show them online tools to help them determine if they are depressed. If this conversation with your trainees makes them cry, makes them express suicidal ideas or leads to them saying they have no idea what do to or where to go to get help, walk them over to mental health services. And sit there and wait with them until they can see someone. And if there is no one who can see them, go to the emergency room. And then write or call your head of graduate studies and tell them what you did and why because if enough people call, maybe they will start taking these problems seriously.

I can tell you they are serious. My mentor killed himself. My father killed himself. And I’ve had too many other friends and family who are now dead because no one did this for them. Because when they broke out a small smile and said, ‘it’s fine, I’ve got it’ they actually fooled people. Don’t be daft. It’s not fine and they don’t have it.

Presumably, if the Harvard and UC Berkely numbers stand up for your university, about half the folks in your lab will be out for some period of time this week getting some professional mental health guidance. I have done this more times than I can count and never once did I feel I was invading anyone’s privacy. I never asked my university’s or chairman’s permission because I don’t need it and neither do you. If you’re violating some university policy by asking about depression, it’s a crappy policy and you should be somewhere else.

Yeah…and take that online depression screening test yourself, faculty, because this isn’t just trainees.


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