Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Dr Anna White
This is a blog (part 1 of 2) on my off-piste route into medicine and mental health. In this first instalment, I include my key points/ take home messages, whilst in my second, I describe my story behind them and how I got to where I am now. Enjoy!
1. There are always more than one route to a destination. Just because most people do 5-6 years straight after A Levels doesn’t necessarily mean that it's the best route, or that it makes you a better doctor or person for doing it that way.
2. Do what is right for you. If you want more time, take more time. There is no rush; we are going to be in this profession for the rest of our lives. If you want time to build your personal statement, trial other options, really decide what you want to do - that's totally fine. And if you can reflect on this in your personal statement/ interview and show how and why your longer route has consolidated your desire to study medicine and will contribute to you being a better doctor - all the better.
3. Always access support when you need it. There is still a lot of stigma in the medical profession about mental health conditions, and it's bullsh*t (we all know its bullsh*t!). The only way to tackle it is to keep fighting it, making the conversation around mental health normal, and never be embarrassed to be struggling & ask for help.
4. In a similar vein, if it IS too much for you: you are becoming unwell, the support you are seeking is not working for you, then there are still options. Anything from an interruption of study and having some time out during your degree to deciding that actually, the degree and job is not worth the impact its having on your mental health and that you are becoming unwell and you need to stop entirely - that’s absolutely fine too. Just because at age 14 you choose your GCSE options with the vague idea of being a doctor, doesn't mean that 5-10 years down the line you haven’t changed your mind. We grow, we change, we are constantly evolving - we don’t need to have all the answers that early on, so please never feel the need to continue as an obligation.
5. There are ALWAYS going to be people ‘cleverer than you/ better at their job/ better at managing their workload’ etc etc. Learn this one early, learn it quickly, and learn to not let it get to you. Do NOT compare yourself. Even though medicine is by nature very competitive, and you are essentially competing with all students across the UK for university places, Foundation Programme places and training posts further down the line - these rankings do NOT define you nor have any reflection on your validity or worth as a person.
6. The job is hard. Wonderful, but hard. I am coming to the end of Foundation Year 2 now and have had 20 of the most eventful months of my life. I can’t pretend it’s all been plain sailing. I am trying to be realistic rather than pessimistic, but in my (admittedly limited exposure so far, slightly complicated by COVID) - the highs are AMAZING, but there is a lot of hard work, long hours, endless admin, expensive exams, audits, portfolio building, thankless tasks and sleepless nights that go with it. When they say life-long learning, they bloody mean it. BUT, for me the joy lies in surgery - when we have a full day (or even part day) in theatre, and you do all your ward jobs and other bits and pieces around it, I leave the hospital shocked that I get paid for this. It is SO much fun, mind-bogglingly amazing and we are so privileged that we get to operate (or my bosses do, with me being an overly-excited puppy at their side, marvelling at the bowel/ gallbladder/ beautifully organised muscle fibres & capillary networks) - that I would it for free, on my days off, standing on tip-toes throughout. That's the joy that keeps me going on the busier, slightly-soul destroying, full-of-doubt on-calls. Find that joy, and don’t let it go.
7. In terms of practical advice for managing your mental health and staying vaguely sane in med school/ foundation training, my most useful tips are:
Get organised: it can seem like an overwhelming amount to learn and do. Make a plan - especially around revision/ exam time - timetable it out, it will seem more manageable and make sure you put in breaks and some time to relax.
Don’t neglect the things you enjoy - be it exercise, sports, reading, cinema etc. You want a life in which you do a medical degree/career, not for your medical degree/ job to consume your life. Work/ life balance is something to start implementing ASAP - the earlier you learn to manage your time, the better.
Meal prep. I know, lame, but trust me - especially when on a budget and cracking out long hours on placement/ in the library/ on the wards. And always have snacks on you. A mid-ward round Werther’s Original is my go-to these days, but more sensible options like protein bars, fruit, sandwiches also exist.
Join clubs, societies or literally any non-medical groups. Have hobbies and interests outside of medicine, make non-medic friends, keep other things going on in your life - it’s very easy to get sucked into it being the most important thing EVER, and yes you’ve worked hard to get there and it’s an intense degree/ career - but don’t lose that perspective.
Take time off. You’re in this for the long game, you don’t want to burn out.
8. What do you want your future to look like? Picture the day of your dreams - imagine it down to the last detail - wake up, breakfast, commute, ward round, meetings, procedures, everything. Picture it, imagine it, aim for it. This is something I was told recently, and have found it very helpful with career planning, overcoming self-doubt and not being scared to go after what you really want.
9. Find people that inspire you. Learn from them, spend time with them, figure out how and why they inspire you, and be that person for someone else. You never know who is looking up to you, or is inspired by you. Just as these people probably don’t know how much of an impact they have on you/ your career choices/ placements. There are some genuinely wonderful people around (not just in medicine!) - “life’s good’uns” I like to call them - that just make you happy to be around, and want to be like. Appreciate them when you meet them.
10. ENJOY YOURSELF, whatever you chose to do, and however you chose to do it. Don’t let your past nightmares prevent you from living your future dreams.